Improved Outdoor Learning Spaces Boost Health

School is back in session, and DHEC has been helping to support healthy habits and create active learning environments for students.

Misty Pearson with DHEC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity is working with the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) at N.C. State University on a program called Preventing Obesity by Design, or “POD” for short, that creates outdoor learning environments that conform to nature, inspiring activity and better health.
“The purpose of POD is to address the obesity epidemic in young children attending child care,” explains Pearson. “We want to transform child care outdoor learning environments into engaging, interactive spaces that encourage children to play.”

Research behind the POD concept finds that designing the outdoor learning space a certain way encourages children to move through the space actively without adult intervention.
“After participating in training with NLI, S.C. childcare professionals have a deepened understanding of the benefits of naturalizing and designing these environments to improve physical activity, nutrition, and learning outcomes for young children,” Pearson explained.

A POD pilot project has led to redesigning the McLeod Child Development Center in Florence County, S.C. From the beginning, the center embraced the pilot concepts and implemented many of the outdoor learning components in its design plan.

“The first additions included raised planting beds for the children to plant vegetables and a performance stage,” Pearson said. “The children began using the stage right away.”

Among the notable changes made on the center’s playground was the addition of a concrete primary path and sod. This primary path acts as the plan’s anchor.  Immediately, the children began running, riding tricycles and walking hand-in-hand around the path. They were becoming more active due to the design changes on the grounds.

McLeoplayground

The outdoor learning environment at McLeod Child Development Center in Florence, S.C. was renovated based on the POD concept.

This projectis showing how innovation can promote better health among our state’s children. Pearson says the initial pilot project in Florence County has shown that the redesigned outdoor learning environments can encourage additional activity among the center’s children. Efforts are now expanding into Spartanburg County for another project, which involves Clemson University’s Department of Landscape Architecture.

“With the university’s involvement,” Pearson says, “we can begin to build South Carolina’s in-state capacity to design outdoor learning environments and create our own sustainable process for the future.”

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