Playground Renovations Tackle Toddler Obesity


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Preschool children today are playing less vigorously when outside, which is a problem an acclaimed initiative at N.C. State University has identified as a contributing factor to childhood obesity and is working to reverse.

The N.C. State Natural Learning Initiative created Preventing Obesity by Design to redesign and transform playgrounds at select preschools into natural outdoor areas where students can vigorously play, learn and develop an appreciation for nature. The goal is to get children engaged, moving and excited about playing outside, explains NLI Director Robin Moore.

Four child-care centers in Wake County have been identified to participate in this program and will receive design plans and a $3,000 grant from NLI to use for renovating outdoor play areas. NLI tailored the designs each center's resources and needs.

"We have a pretty well-developed, evidence-based approach," Moore says. "The intention is to provide an environment that is much more stimulating to children so you will find elevated levels of play: chasing, hiding, seeking, running around."

These improved outdoor learning environments will include winding pathways, grassy knolls, elements for water and nature play, and edible gardens that students can help cultivate. Shrubbery, plants and trees are also vital components.

"The goal is to make outdoor learning environments more attractive, more meaningful - and cheaper - so children will want to spend more time there," Moore says.

Sedentary preschoolers

One in three North Carolina children are overweight or obese, according to the North Carolina Child Health Assessment and Monitoring Program. Children who attend extended preschool or child care programs spend most or all of their day in care, making preschools an effective place to address this epidemic among young children.

Preschoolers are sedentary for more than 80 percent of their time in preschool settings, according to a study by Professor Russell Pate, who works with the University of South Carolina's Department of Exercise Science. Pate observed more than 400 children in 24 preschools. Only 3 percent of preschoolers' activity was documented as moderate to vigorous, even while outside.

This compared starkly to the perception of adults and parents, who estimated that their preschool-aged children are physically active for three to four hours a day, according to a recent study in Canada by Jennifer D. Irwin, a professor in the School of Health Studies at the University of Western Ontario. Parents who significantly overestimate how much exercise their child gets during school hours are less inclined to encourage their child to be physically active while at home.

Emphasis on nature

By incorporating natural elements into traditional play areas, preschoolers may spend more time outside. They can be nudged through the designed space and taught to play in ways beneficial for their health and development. By simply introducing a couple of hills into a play area, a preschooler will play longer and harder.

"To them, that hill is a mountain. They will kick the ball down it and run up it. It's much more stimulating than a flat piece of land," says Nilda Cosco, director of programs at NLI.

Fruit and vegetable gardens teach preschoolers about nature and where food comes from. Children will help plant, cultivate, harvest and actually eat the fruits and vegetables that grow in these gardens.

Johnson Pond Learning Center has started its renovation, which will focus on creating pathways around the play area. This center's design was a collaborative effort among teachers, parents, NLI experts and even the students who drew pictures of what they would like to see on their new playground.

"While we will not be installing hot tubs or space ships, we think the kids will be very excited with the new concepts and natural elements of the playground," says Laurie Morrison, director of Johnson Pond Learning Center. "The pathways will get the kids moving outside, flowing from point A to point B without dead ends or empty spaces."

Cosco says teachers should view the outdoors as an extension of a classroom where science, math, biology and language can be explored and taught.

"That doesn't mean to bring tables and pens, but to use what is right there," Cosco explains. "The birds' songs, the trees, the pebbles - use them as resources for teaching about the natural world."

Other benefits

Healthy weight is not the only component addressed through these designs. Natural environments also foster cooperation and support attention functioning. Moore says evidence shows that attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms are reduced when children spend time in natural environments.

"Nature is different every day throughout the seasons, while manufactured equipment stays the same," he says. "The attention span of preschoolers is quite short so children in these naturalized spaces have more options that attract their interest and keep them outside [and] entertained for longer periods of time."

Children are not the only ones to benefit from these changes. Designers at NLI aim to make outdoor learning environments not only more comfortable for children by using trees for shade, but also for teachers and supervisors. "If teachers don't like being out there, nothing else is going to happen," Moore says.

Corinne Jurney is an editorial intern at Carolina Parent and junior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in public policy and journalism.

In Your Own Backyard

Many of the outdoor learning environment improvements that are part of Preventing Obesity by Design, which was created by N.C. State University's Natural Learning Initiative, are not difficult to obtain or install.

"Most of the things we're talking about are relatively low-cost for the amount of play value they have, which is a different approach to traditional play areas, which can be incredibly expensive," says Robin Moore, director of NLI.

The affordability of these playground renovations means families can also revamp their backyards into an environment that fosters rigorous activity and learning.

Try the following suggestions to develop your backyard into an engaging outside learning environment with the help of your preschooler.

- Plant bulbs, shrubs and trees together in the outline of a shape to create a structured, natural play area. Take your child to a nursery to help pick out sunflowers, bushes, willow trees or bulbs to use.

- Plant and harvest a vegetable garden together. Show your child how to dig holes and water plants. Once the outdoor fun is over, move into the kitchen where kids can help you prepare food and share a healthful snack.

- Create mosaics together to use for winding walkways with appealing colors and textures. Your children will learn about colors and patterns and develop motor skills. You can also use stepping-stones, stumps or bricks for pathways that weave through the yard and lead to other areas.

- Offer different textures to explore with sand areas and water boxes. Include a variety of containers and objects such as seashells and funnels. Wooden planks and toy cars make a fun addition to a traditional sand box.

- Incorporate a place where "loose objects" such as sticks, stones, logs, pumpkins, seed pods, acorns and other natural toys can be moved around and played with. For more intricate loose parts, check out kodokids.com

- Build a fort out of logs, sticks, vines and ropes. Use tree stumps for furniture.

- Corinne Jurney

Preventing Obesity by Design Participating Preschools

A Safe Place Child Enrichment Center Inc.
1216 Cross Link Rd., Raleigh
asafeplacechildcare.com

Heather Park Child Development Center
932 Heather Park Dr., Garner
heatherpark.com

Johnson Pond Learning Center
6523 Johnson Pond Rd., Fuquay-Varina
johnsonpondlc.com

Raleigh Nursery School Inc.
1035 Halifax St., Raleigh
raleighnurseryschool.org

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