Outdoor Learning Environments & the importance of play

Data shows that the path to poverty starts at an early age and one contributing factor is that many children who are low-income do not have access to the same resources as their more advantaged peers. Now, more than ever, research indicates that the earliest years of life often sets the stage for lifelong physical and mental health and academic success. Children thrive when they are cared for by responsive and sensitive adults; participate in regular, stimulating early learning experiences; and enjoy healthy food and active play.

Time spent playing in naturalized outdoor learning environments has been linked to a variety of positive health and wellness outcomes. It has been shown to support gross motor development, reduce rates of myopia, and increase physical activity. reduces children’s levels of stress and aggression, increases concentration, and lessens the symptoms associated with ADHD. Additionally play is associated with improved performance on science tests and development of an environmental ethic.

The bottom line- play improves the lives of all children.

OLE (Outdoor Learning Environments)! Texas is a new statewide intervention for increasing childhood physical activity and food awareness by improving childcare centers’ outdoor environments. Success By 6 is leading a coalition of local stakeholders to implement this model in our community. Launched in 2016, OLE! Texas is supported by the Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention Section, Texas Department of State Health Services, and implemented through a statewide project leadership team with support from the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) and Texas Parks and Wildlife. Project components include training Texas landscape and design professionals about outdoor learning environment best practices, training landscape and early childhood education professionals on Preventing Obesity by Design methods and materials, providing professional development for childcare providers, and parent education for families with young children to grow their understanding of the importance of nature-based learning and play to a child’s optimal development.

The Regulatory Framework for Outdoor Learning Environments in Texas Childcare Facilities was developed as a guide used to teach designers the process of communicating and collaborating with childcare centers so that this outdoor learning environments can meet OLE! licensing standards supported by DFPS.

Austin is one of three cities to be implementing this model along with Lubbock and Houston. OLE! Austin’s leadership team consists of members from:

  • LBJ Wildflower Center
  • UT School of Public Health
  • City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department
  • Austin Community College Child Care and Development Department
  • GoAustin VamosAustin, and
  • Child Inc. Head start
  • CINCA (Children in Nature Collaborative of Austin)
  • TBG Partners
  • Cassell Landscape

 OLE! Austin leadership team held a Lunch & Learn held with community leaders to gain buy-in on this OLE! project in Austin from local designers and landscape architects to begin forming our OLE! POD Coalition. OLE! is supported by partners embracing a city-wide effort to increase children’s access to nature through the “Cities Connecting Children to Nature” grant of City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department and the newly endorsed “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights

OLE! Demonstration Site in Progress

Last spring, the OLE! Austin Leadership team voted on Austin Community College Children’s Lab School as the demo site for the 1st pilot site here in Austin. The ACC Children’s Lab School is a full-day, year-round early childhood program and serves children six months through five years of age in four classrooms. If you’re interested in getting involved and supporting OLE! with your time, talent, and treasure through volunteer opportunities with our giving societies, please contact




Partners already committed to supporting OLE! Texas:

  • Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
  • Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service
  • Texas Tech University
  • University of Texas School of Public Health
  • Texas Association for the Education of Young Children
  • Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center – The University of Texas at Austin
  • Natural Learning Initiative in North Carolina
  • Texas Department of Agriculture
  • Texas Workforce Commission
  • Healthy Living Matters- Harris County Public Health
  • United Way for Greater Austin
  • Texas Nursery & Landscape Association
  • Texas Department of State Health Services

For more information about future design training opportunities:

For more information about future professional development opportunities and center participation in OLE!:

For more information about how to get involved or volunteer :

For more information about the NLI/OLE! design model, resources/research on how outdoor learning improves child health, and professional development opportunities go to: NC State College of Design – Natural Learning Initiatives