When Nature Nurtures

One in six children suffer from obesity, according to the Center for Disease Control.

This figure is not shocking as Dr. Nilda Cosco, Ph.D., of the Natural Learning Initiative, explains children spend an average of 35 hours per week in daycare. A clear culprit for this pandemic has emerged. Parents have little, if any, control over the health, exercise and nutrition of their children. The CDC also stated that while more than 12 million children regularly spend time in childcare arrangements outside the home, not all states use licensing regulations ensuring childcare facilities encourage healthful eating and physical activity. When the system that parents trust to care and nurture their children fails, the only thing left to do is change the nature of the system.

The Course of Change

In the fall of 2016, the landscape architecture program at Texas Tech partnered with the Texas Department for Public Health and Safety and the Natural Learning Initiative. To bring change to the system, they will plan, design and construct the first childcare center designed exclusively to prevent childhood obesity, promote natural learning, and stimulate self-innovation in Lubbock, Texas.

Associate Professor and Interim Department Chair of the Texas Tech Landscape Architecture program, Charles Klein, Ph.D., described this partnership as taking root during the hectic period near the end of the semester. That special time when students are hanging on every word from their professors in hopes an eager attitude will be awarded an A at the end of the term; and professors are frantically juggling grades while trying to meet the needs of every student’s nervous email. It was then Klein received a call from the TDPHS.

“It was late in the semester and that’s always hectic, but I listened,” Klein said. “ I guess I’m one of the few that actually just listened and became involved.”

Klein said the first meeting they had was a conference call while he was still teaching abroad in Spain.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, I think we can handle that.’ The next thing I know, I’m not just helping with it, I’m in charge of it,” Klein said.

Preventing Obesity by Design is a product of The Natural Learning Initiative, NLI, based out of North Carolina State University. The program has gained national attention as they seek to create healthy biospheres and outdoor spaces that strive to promote healthy human development in childcare centers across the nation. TDPHS caught wind of this opportunity to incorporate a preventative approach to promoting the health and wellbeing of children and decided to take action.

“This whole idea is going to be a statewide part of the daycare accreditation system,” Klein says. “The first project is here in Lubbock.”

Meet the Team

Klein along with the help of two graduate students in the department, Afsana Sharmin and Amanda Gunter, have been tasked with designing and presenting the plans for construction of the first redesigned daycare site using the NLI’s model. The Covenant Hospital Childcare Center in Lubbock will be the first, of hopefully many, to incorporate this design.

“They were very excited that Tech has cross-disciplinary folks like exercise and sports science, nutrition and environmental design, all ranges and scopes of research,” Klein said, “This project really fit in well, and Texas Tech was willing to take on the project.”

Sharmin, a graduate student from Taka, Bangladesh, who is assisting with this project, thoughtfully explained that in dense cities, such as her home, it is often very difficult for children to go outside because there is not enough space. She said this lack of room for outdoor activities has led to a sharp rise in children substituting this time to play video games and spend time on computers.

“The first thing is to be aware of the use of technology that is restricting your child to be indoors,” Sharmin said. “We are losing our connection with nature, gradually. Being outdoors and being interactive with nature contributes not only with physical development of the child, but also the psychological development of the child.”

We are losing our connection with nature, gradually.
Afsana Sharmin

While NLI is using their research models to prevent childhood obesity through the creation of environments that encourage children to be active, the approach serves two-fold. Not only will the new Covenant Childcare Center in Lubbock promote activity, it will also serve to help children learn about nature and the environment.

Amanda Gunter, a graduate student also assisting with this project, said most children do not understand where their food comes from. The age threshold of children who benefit from childcare services exist in a pivotal stage where exposure to nature and cognitive learning would develop pre-interest in cooking, nature and biology.

“It stems from small things,” Gunter said. “Kids are more likely to experiment or figure out something that they’re not going to pick up in a classroom or just by being told. When kids are engaged with nature, they are more active and learn more about the environment.”

The Vision

While the Texas Tech landscape architecture program will be submitting the final designs for the redesigned childcare center, which currently sits on the corner of Joliet and 22nd Street in Lubbock, determining the elements to be included has been a poly-partisan effort.

“We incorporated everything,” Klein said. “We have several looping pathways. A fruits and vegetables area will help kids learn about healthy choices and a variety of activities will keep kids moving and engaged.”

Through a series of workshops and community events held in Lubbock, staff from the TDPHS, Child Protective Services, NLI and employees from the current childcare center teamed up to plan the new childcare center.

“We had an open-to-the-community discussion about why it’s important to have environments for children that aren’t just boring equipment with gravel and grass,” Gunter explained. “It’s more than that.”

Klein said he meticulously puts emphasis on not just the instruments children have to engage with, but also the pathway in which they are organically inclined to follow on the playground.

“If you have a pathway that goes from here to there, students go from here to there; even if there are different stations and activities along the way. Going outside is good, but we want them to have more activity than just being in one place at one time.”

Klein, who is jointly heading this project with guidance from NLI, is excited to turn this project into a statewide mission as more and more Texas childcare centers may adopt this design.

“We hope to turn it into a funded, applied research project,” Klein said. “Texas is so big that there may be four or five regional centers, hopefully.”

The project with the Covenant Childcare Center is the first of its kind in Texas. Klein said, as a pilot project, he hopes this kind of thinking will continue long into the future with both childcare centers across Texas and the nation adopting the methods set forth by Texas Tech and NLI.