Outdoor Ed: The Power of Ecological Design in Early Childhood Centers

How incorporating design that mimics experiences in nature can increase opportunities for learning and play.

The fundamental realization of the need for ecologically-integrated early childhood centers lies in the fact that children are receiving fewer and fewer opportunities to interact with flora and fauna, particularly in the early development stages of their lives. Children do not simply grow, they evolve, and their experiences with nature help shape their identities.
Using ecology to form the basis of design for both indoor and outdoor spaces in early childhood education centers can empower children to become active participants in their own development, to cultivate critical skills that only emerge from experiences of vulnerability and resilience – experiences that are, in part, associated with exposure to nature.

The Outdoors: A Natural Space for Play

Outdoor play is a declining trend in the United States and therefore decreasing our young population’s exposure to ecology. A recent study showed that on average, American children ages 8 to 12 spent almost five hours each day on screens. Childhood obesity has moved up the ranks to become a top concern among medical professionals. These factors have been identified as inhibitors to the amount of physical activity children achieve through play.

Many educators are looking to provide more engaging and interactive environments outdoors as a counter to this growing trend. Adding natural play elements that increase ecosystem diversity is one way to make playscapes more attractive to children and parents alike. Here’s where natural playscapes come in.


A natural playscape is loosely defined as a safe and accessible play area constructed using natural materials, avoiding plastics, metals, concrete, lumber and without signage instructing children how to play. Research has shown children will play longer in playscapes designed to mimic natural systems as compared to play structures fabricated with man-made materials. While additional knowledge and expertise are required to construct and prepare natural play elements, these playscapes can be designed with the same safety and accessibility achieved in fabricated play equipment. Natural play elements not only entertain but also teach children about the ecology of their surrounding region from which the materials were gathered.

Design elements of natural playscapes are meant to engage children in ecological learning. Common examples of such elements include rolling hills, log benches, large boulders, sand/dirt and native and adaptive plantings. These elements combine to create areas for discovery such as catching the wind, interaction with rainwater and climbing. Likewise, ecological design can easily incorporate native and adaptive plantings in most playscapes. Depending on the intended outcome of a particular playscape, designers can choose plantings to teach children about different colors or to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, both of which can be a way for young students to learn about ecological cycles.


Depending on a project’s geographic region, the following plant species may be used to attract butterflies and hummingbirds:

  • Cardinal Flower – Lobelia cardinalis
  • Butterfly Bush – Buddleia Americana
  • Blazing Star- Liatris spicata
  • Purple Coneflower – Echinacea purperea
  • Butterfly Milkweed – Asclepia tuberose
  • Black Eye Susan – Rudbeckia hirta

From a practical perspective, native and adaptive plantings require less watering and chemicals to flourish than traditional and non-native landscape plantings, which can, in turn, create a safer environment for children. Within the first few years of planting, native and adaptive plantings typically do require more maintenance than simple turf and shrubs, but after this initial establishment period, the native and adaptive plantings require only yearly pruning and minimal watering during drought periods.

The necessary tasks for maintenance are different than that of mowing turf – the maintenance of native and adaptive plants requires weekly to monthly weeding instead of weekly mowing. Landscape architects and horticulturalists are trained to identify and locate appropriate plants for children’s play areas, and with careful integration, outdoor environments can become engaging and creative landscapes for child development.

Bringing the Outside Inside

Opportunities to incorporate ecology are not limited to the outdoors. Early childhood centers serve as a great opportunity to explore ways to bring the outdoors in. Three widely accepted and utilized methods for indoor ecology include:

  1. Improved ventilation and natural daylighting.
  2. Visual and physical pathways to the outdoors.
  3. Imitation of biology in the design of child-focused elements.

All of these methods may go hand-in-hand with sustainable design choices, which often seek to develop closed-loop cycles for water, materials and carbon within the smaller ecosystem of a single building and surrounding grounds.

Healthy air and daylight are two key resources that bring ecological benefits to indoor spaces. A growing body of evidence demonstrates a direct link between a school’s physical condition, especially its lighting and indoor air quality, and student performance and engagement. Current best practices in K-12 design are to provide maximum ventilation rates and follow prescriptive rules for maximizing natural daylighting. As an example, we can design a space to allows teachers to control daylight in their classrooms; another incorporates operable windows, which allow children to interact with sunlight and ventilation, fostering hands-on teaching/learning experiences that might include manipulation of a cool wind gust or warm light reflection.

Indoor/outdoor connections are typically accomplished through doors and windows. Spaces programmed for early learning require access to at least one exterior wall; however, the best practice takes that a step further by including access to an exterior door. This outdoor connection fosters learning with minimal interruption by the building envelope. In addition to providing access to light and air, window and door openings allow views beyond the classroom, which in turn encourage an imaginative landscape.

Providing a covered area directly adjacent to an exterior door offers play opportunities during inclement weather while also helping to blur the line between indoor and outdoor spaces. Where doors have functional requirements that limit variations, windows are available in a variety of styles that can help to incorporate a diverse perspective in the child’s realm. Windows can be installed at different heights and incorporate viewing platforms; they can also be a wide range of sizes and shapes with a variety of translucency and color options. Introducing a variation of windows can help to mimic and reinforce a child’s experience with nature.

Ecology and the Future of Educating Children

For early learning environments, embracing nature as the basis for design can be especially rewarding. The best spaces are designed to incorporate elements that function to create experiences that mimic those found in the natural environment. Incorporating an array of physical elements increases opportunities for learning and play. Whether indoors or out, there is a strong relationship between the variety of structures available in a child’s landscape and the resultant variety of play observed.

A study of research-based early childhood centers invites with it a fresh opportunity to identify and pursue best practices in ecological building design both indoors and out. To understand the ecological connection to child development, designers need to continually stay on top of new products and features that can provide more opportunities for children to connect to the natural environment and help give educators the best possible platform to assist in the healthy development of our youngest generation.

Cobb, Edith. The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood. Putnam, CT: Spring Publications, Inc, 2004. Print.

Fjortoft, Ingunn. “The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children: The Impact of Outdoor Play Activities in Pre-Primary School Children.” Early Childhood Education Journal. 29.2 (2001): Print.

Kellert, Stephen R., Judith Heerwagen, and Martin Mador.. Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley, 2008. Print.

Kelting, Scott D., and Michael Montoya. “Green Building Policy, School Performance, and Educational Leaders’ Perspectives in USA.” Sixth International Conference on Construction in the 21st Century Proceedings (CITC-VI): Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 5-7 July 2011. Web. 11 April 2012

Mendell, Mark J., and Garvin A. Heath. “Do Indoor Environments in Schools Influence Student Performance? A Review of the Literature.” Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, 24 Nov. 2004. Web. 11 April 2012.

Shonkoff, Jack P., and Deborah Phillips. From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2000. Print.

Wilson, Ruth A. “Starting Early: Environmental Education during the Early Childhood Years.” (1996). ERIC Digest. Web. 11 April 2012.

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