Plastic- and rubber-dominated playgrounds in Colorado Springs have added winding pathways with tall grasses, gardens, “mud kitchens” and other ways for kids to explore the outdoors.
It’s part of a program to expand health and learning opportunities for children by helping them connect with the natural world.
Kelly Hurtado, early childhood program director at the Alliance for Kids, a hub for El Paso County’s Early Childhood Council, said outdoor learning environments can transform the way children play.
“It can boost energy; it increases movement,” Hurtado outlined. “It can actually boost the immune system. It helps inspire a different type of play that encourages creativity.”
The National Wildlife Federation’s Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) program partnered with Hurtado’s group to distribute nine micro-grants of $500.
Led by landscape designers and early childhood experts, ECHO works with community child-care programs to add pollinator gardens, boulders, logs, native plants and other natural elements to outdoor play areas.
Liz Houston, ECHO partnerships manager for the Federation, said a key goal of the ECHO program is to reach communities of color and lower-income neighborhoods that have historically not had access to healthy and safe green spaces.
She argued all kids should be able to dig in the dirt, build forts, follow butterflies and watch plants grow.
“We all just come alive outside,” Houston asserted. “With exploration, it’s that ever-changing, always dynamic, always interesting, always beautiful environment that brings out kids’ curiosity, their creativity.”
Houston added she hopes lessons learned in El Paso County can be shared in neighborhoods across the country.
Since its inception in 2017, ECHO has reached more than 10,000 children and trained more than 2,300 early-childhood professionals to expand natural play options in their communities.