Playground Renovations Tackle Toddler Obesity


Published:

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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New Horizons Fellowship
820 E. Williams St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Sponsor: The International Brotherhood of Magicians
Contact Name: Roger Way
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River Jam at the U.S. National Whitewater Center brings together live musical performances throughout the year to a one-of-a-kind outdoor venue, right in the middle of the world’s largest...

Cost: $6

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
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Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Contact Name: Jenny Hill
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Forget tourist-filled museums, make your own memories with a photo scavenger hunt tour in Raleigh! On a Let’s Roam scavenger hunt, you and your team will work together to wander throughout...

Cost: $11

Where:
500 S Salisbury St
raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
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Farmers markets are essential to the livelihood of farmers and food producers and are exempt from the Governor's Stay at Home Order (page 6). Farmers markets offer an efficient way for residents to...

Cost: free

Where:
Holly Springs Cultural Center
300 W. Ballentine St.
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Farmers Market Coordinator
Telephone: 919-567-4010
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  Meet at the Waterwise Garden (first parking lot on right) Join our bird enthusiast, Vernon, for an easy walk while looking and listening for our feathered friends. Discover...

Cost: FREE

Where:
Lake Crabtree County Park
1400 Aviation Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Lake Crabtree County Park
Telephone: 919-460-3355
Contact Name: Carol Cunningham
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PARENTS JOIN OUR DHHS APPROVEDCPR/AED & First Aid Certification ClassesFoster parents are required to be CPR & First Aid certified. Parents, bring your child to class with you. Children 10 years...

Cost: 50-80

Where:
Holly Springs, NC
1001 Silverstone Way
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Save A Life Now Training Center LLC
Telephone: 919-215-6942
Contact Name: Valentina Cordoba
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PARENTS JOIN OUR DHHS APPROVEDCPR/AED & First Aid Certification ClassesFoster parents are required to be CPR & First Aid certified. Must register in advance. Space is limited. Parents, bring your...

Cost: 50-80

Where:
Holly Springs, NC
1001 Silverstone Way
Holly Springs, NC  27540
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Sponsor: Save A Life Now Training Center LLC
Telephone: 919-215-6942
Contact Name: Valentina Cordoba
Website »

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Calling all Black tech leaders and visionaries! Are you looking to spur future collaborations, discover new business and career opportunities, and invest in this community? Join us for T.H.E. State...

Cost: Varies

Where:
Durham Convention Center
301 W Morgan St
Durham, NC  27701
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Contact Name: Tarryn Henry
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Amongst the ancient oak trees is the heart of Raleigh. We'll help you see the forest for the trees and all its magic splendor. Tourist, local, or new to town, this is a lively small group activity...

Cost: $11

Where:
Downtown
500 S Salisbury St
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: Let's Roam
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: Kelly
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Kindermusik is a research-based early childhood curriculum that includes 45-minute classroom lessons with materials and resources that encourages parental involvement . Research has linked...

Cost: $70/month

Where:
Hope Community Building
2080 E Williams St
Hope Community Building, Fuquay Varina Room
Apex/Holly Springs, NC  27539
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Telephone: 191-990-25432
Contact Name: Leigh Hamm
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Live online classes for kids - FREE! Kids and families can join our online classes from home while school is out. Our special guests teach kids about art, medicine, music, cooking, science and...

Cost: Free

Where:
Online at your Home
265 Cambridge Ave #60923
Palo Alto, NC  94306
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Sponsor: ActivityHero
Telephone: 800-437-6125
Contact Name: Mabelle
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Want to do more to help out your community park? Do you like history, the environment, agriculture, and/or the arts? Consider volunteering at Yates Mill! Join us anytime during the program time to...

Cost: FREE. Registration is not required.

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Road
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
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Sign up for a Raleigh scavenger hunt and put on your best Nick Cage impression as you seek out the national treasures hidden in Raleigh. Via an app, be guided through the cultural, historical,...

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
Downtown Raleigh
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Sponsor: LetsRoam!
Telephone: 833-202-7626
Contact Name: LetsRoam!
Website »

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The 16th Annual (Virtual) Beaver Queen Pageant, Beavers in the Stream! The Beaver Queen Pageant is the Triangle’s own special mix of folly, pageantry, and humor. Contestants take on beaver...

Cost: free

Where:
Online
, NC


Sponsor: Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
Telephone: 919-423-1502
Contact Name: Rachel Cohn
Website »

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We invite all Triangle youth between the ages of 8 thru 17 with a sincere interest in the Performance Art of Magic to join Magic Youth Raleigh! This youth program teaches magic history and theory,...

Cost: $35 per Student

Where:
New Horizons Fellowship
820 E. Williams St.
Apex, NC  27502
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Sponsor: The International Brotherhood of Magicians
Contact Name: Roger Way
Website »

More information

The Beaver Queen Pageant is the Triangle’s own special mix of folly, pageantry, and humor. Contestants take on beaver personalities and compete for the title of Beaver Queen with their fashion,...

Cost: free

Where:
Online
, NC


Sponsor: Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association
Telephone: 919-698-9729
Contact Name: Rachel Cohn
Website »

More information

River Jam at the U.S. National Whitewater Center brings together live musical performances throughout the year to a one-of-a-kind outdoor venue, right in the middle of the world’s largest...

Cost: $6

Where:
USNWC
5000 Whitewater Center Pkwy
Charlotte, NC  28214
View map »


Sponsor: USNWC
Telephone: 704-391-3900
Contact Name: Jenny Hill
Website »

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