Education Strategy 2: Outdoor Learning Environments

EDUCATION – Schools, where children spend a significant amount of their time, have a tremendous opportunity to reconnect children with nature. Contact with nature has proven educational and developmental benefits. Historically, schools have planned field trips and arranged for school outreach programs, and schoolyards are often the nearest green spaces in neighborhood. Increasingly across Ohio, schools are being used as Community Learning Centers, making their facilities accessible to the community beyond the school day, seven days a week. This makes them even more valuable as “nearby nature” locations. With 55% of children under the age of six in child care centers, pre-schools and child care centers also play an important role in the effort to reconnect children with nature:

Strategy #2: Encourage outdoor learning environments such as schoolyard habitats and natural play areas at or near schools, pre-schools and child care facilities wherever possible. 

Ohio is the most progressive state in the country when it comes to green schools. There are 956 registered LEED Certified Schools in the United States, with 255 of them (25%)in Ohio. Texas comes in a distant second with 59. However, naturalizing areas on school grounds has been largely overlooked until recently. Likewise, the U. S. Green Building Council does not address this in its current LEED for Schools standards, but it is under review as addressed in the Transportation and Urban Planning section of this report.

Vegetative roofs make it possible for all newly constructed school buildings to have natural areas that may be used for school gardens and play areas when proper safety measures are in place. And, throughout the state, individual schools are creating school gardens and other natural areas using whatever space they have. This is often being done with volunteer help and in collaboration with non-profit organizations.

Still, many existing schools, especially those in urban areas, have no space available. In those situations, it may be possible to enter into joint use agreements with nearby parks, recreation centers, community gardens or other appropriate organizations. Ohio’s Safe Routes to School Program can be of assistance in assuring that students can safely access those locations.

Relative to pre-schools and child care centers, facilities range from private homes, traditional schools, churches and office buildings. Many of the Ohio’s Child Care Resource and Referral Agency’s (OCCRA) member agencies like Action for Children and 4C for Children have offered programs encouraging directors and teachers to assess available natural spaces and have provided training for both unstructured and structured activities in nature. Preschools and child care centers can utilize many of the same strategies identified for K-12 schools. Currently, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services is making revisions to the child care licensing requirements. These requirements are the basis for monitoring the state’s child care facilities, which currently have over 455,000 spaces for children. Writing teams have been formed to develop new requirements and are discussing the role of nature play and learning, given the confines of many child care facilities.