Bright Ideas

University of Cincinnati’s Arlitt Center Awarded $1.6 Million NSF Grant to Advance Preschool Learning in Outdoor PlayScapes

Dawn Fuller, University of Cincinnati

Photo by Lisa Ventre, University of Cincinnati

Photo by Lisa Ventre, University of Cincinnati

The University of Cincinnati’s Arlitt Center for Education, Research, and Sustainability was awarded a three-year, $1,635,115 grant (DRL#114674) from the National Science Foundation to build professional support for teachers and to continue research into early childhood learning in designed outdoor play and learning environments called PlayScapes. 
The grant, believed to be the largest of its kind awarded to the Arlitt Center, builds on the success of early childhood science learning through UC’s PlayScape partnership with the Cincinnati Nature Center.
The new NSF funding for these outdoor learning labs for preschoolers will support four initiatives:
  • The design, implementation and evaluation of four web-based professional development programs for preschool teachers.
  • Research into how teacher development was successful in teaching STEM content to young children.
  • Additional research into how children’s play in outdoor nature settings increased their understanding and engagement with science and nature.
  • The development and design of mini-PlayScapes to be built at three partner sites: The Cincinnati Nature Center, the Head Start-funded Cincinnati Union Bethel early childhood education program and the Head Start-funded Child Focus, Inc. early childhood program in Clermont County.
“We’ll also be researching if learning is affected by how often during the week that the children visit the PlayScapes,” adds Victoria Carr, associate professor of education and director of the Arlitt Center for Education, Research, and Sustainability. “We’ll examine how well the new partner sites use the design principles for the mini-PlayScapes that will be built at those sites. 
“We’ll be conducting professional development, researching what the teachers learn, and then applying that learning to successful learning in children,” says Carr.
The Cincinnati Nature Center celebrated the opening of its 1.6 acre Marge & Charles Schott Nature PlayScape in August 2011. The 10,000 square-foot UC PlayScape was dedicated in August 2012. The $401,000 UC PlayScape is believed to be the nation’s first architecturally designed outdoor play and learning environment installed on a college campus.
Carr says previous UC research has shown how the current Cincinnati outdoor PlayScapes impact science learning in children, including their sense of mapping, their understanding of where their food comes from and what is needed for plants to grow. 
“We’ve discovered a significant difference after exposure to PlayScapes on the attributes and the depth of information that children can provide about living things,” says Carr.
The UC PlayScape was initially conceived from a grant awarded to the Cincinnati Nature Center from the Harriett Williams Downey Fund at Greater Cincinnati Foundation. The grant supported the planning for two PlayScapes in Greater Cincinnati. Grants from P&G and Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency provided additional support to the partnership as well as funding from private donations.
UC’s PlayScape is open to the public and has the following features:
  • A tree house to elevate children into the tree canopy and give them a clear view where they play.
  • An open lawn for running, rolling and sledding.
  • A controlled water feature for children to drink and use for play and learning.
  • A log fort for children to play, hide and look out over the landscape.
  • A sensory garden for children to plant, grow and harvest vegetables and herbs.
  • A “bird blind,” which is a discreet observation area where children can watch birds in action.
  • Gathering decks for children to play, draw, do dramatic work or projects, or rest.
  • An observation post for education researchers to examine how this natural setting enhances learning for young children.
  • A perimeter fence, providing a safe and secure environment for children to explore within the PlayScape.
The NSF project is funded through the foundation’s Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program, which previously awarded UC’s Arlitt Center a $330,124 grant in 2011.

About the Arlitt Center for Education, Research, and Sustainability

The center – which also houses a demonstration preschool for teachers to observe young children as they’re learning –  is dedicated to research and teaching best practices related to human development, sustainability and environments for children, youth and families. 
Providing more than 87 years of educational excellence for children 3 to 5 years old, the center is supported by Head Start and is one of the oldest and most diverse preschool programs in the United States. It was the first Cincinnati preschool staffed by teachers who were specifically trained in early childhood education. The center has a blended Head Start and tuition program, serving children of varying cultures, abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds. UC’s Arlitt Center is housed in the School of Education in UC’s College of Education, Criminal Justice, and Human Services (CECH).


playscapes, outdoor learning environments, grant, Nature Preschools, research