New State Outdoor Learning Regulations Enacted in Texas
March 27, 2015
We have a new policy leader in early childhood environmental education: The Texas Workforce Commission.
That’s right. The Texas Workforce Commission has just approved precedent-setting regulations that provide financial incentives for childcare centers with natural outdoor play and learning settings.
First, a bit of background on the regulation of childcare centers. All states have minimum standards that childcare centers must meet in order to be open for business, and 35 states and municipalities also have Quality Rating Improvement Systems (QRIS) to reward programs that exceed the minimum standards. States are also often purchasers of childcare services, so in this case, the Texas Workforce Commission administers the Texas QRIS system, called Texas Rising Star, and it reimburses childcare centers at a progressively higher rate if they achieve a 2, 3, or 4 star rating. Centers participating in the program serve over 100,000 children each day.
The policy improvements were made at the request of National Wildlife Federation, with technical guidance and support from Dr. Nilda Cosco of the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.
The first change that we were able to make is a paradigm shift that will make it easier to make the case for time outdoors in nature. What formerly was known as the "outdoor environment" is now designated an "outdoor learning environment." With ever-increasing focus on school readiness and literacy in early childhood education, this designation helps make it clear that the outdoors is also a learning environment, and not just a place for kids to run around and blow off steam.
The following center characteristics are singled out and rewarded with additional points:
- "Outdoor environment and activities are linked to and reinforce indoor learning"
- " The outdoor environment provides children with the opportunity to care for living things and appreciate nature/beauty such as: Non-toxic trees, shrubs, or vines; topographic variations (such as mounds, terraces, slopes); a variety of ground surfaces (mulch, grass, pebbles); smooth rocks, wood or logs; non-poisonous flowering plants or garden plants and vegetables; birdfeeders, bird baths and birdhouses.
- "Outdoor environment and natural and manufactured equipment/materials, provides partial shade, motivates children to be physically active and engage in active play such as balancing, climbing, crawling, moving, pushing/pulling, riding, walking, and running."
- "Natural outdoor environment supports social emotional development including but not limited to areas that invite social gatherings, tummy time, dramatic play, group games, music and movement, and spaces for quiet and calm activities. Key elements may include: Natural additions such as boulders, tree stumps, sand area and benches, design elements such as stages, platforms, wind chimes, canopies, teepees, gazebos"
I have just completed a review of the existing 35 state and municipal QRIS for a forthcoming Natural Start Alliance report on early childhood education policy, and these regulations in Texas are the first to address the quality of the outdoor learning environment with any detail.
Now that we have some good policy in place, it should be easier to get other states to act, and in the meantime, 100,000 Texas children will benefit from daily opportunities to learn about nature.