Reimagining Colorado’s Playgrounds: Natural Designs to Enhance Learning

Aug 22, 2017 | Early Childhood Resources, Innovation

By: Adrienne Sedlak

The Early Childhood Health Outdoors Initiative will create natural outdoor environments in early childhood spaces.

The playground as we know it is about to change. Child care centers Step by Step of Northglenn and Wild Plum Learning Center (Long’s Peak Building) of Longmont have been chosen as the first Demonstration Sites for the Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) Initiative.

Selected from a competitive pool of more than 60 statewide applicants, these two child care centers will work to renovate their existing playgrounds into naturalized outdoor learning environments, showcasing innovative design features that support young children’s physical activity, exploration, curiosity, and healthy eating. The selected sites will receive a grant of $10,000, free training, ongoing technical assistance, and will serve as role models for early childhood professionals and programs across the state by opening their doors with on-site trainings.

The ECHO initiative is much more than just “sprucing up” playgrounds. It is based on a decade of research from the North Carolina State University’s Natural Learning Initiative, where a team of landscape architects, planners, and education specialists have been evaluating best practices for young children’s play areas since 2007 through the Preventing Obesity by Design Program.

Brian Kurzel, the Rocky Mountain Regional Director at the National Wildlife Federation, said “With the selection of these first two ECHO Demonstration Sites, the National Wildlife Federation and our partners, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative, are building a framework that will eventually provide healthy, affordable, and natural outdoor spaces for all children in Colorado. The young children at Step by Step and Wild Plum will build healthier habits and a greater connection to the outdoors, but on a grander scale, these sites launch a statewide initiative that will assure Colorado remains a great steward to our children and our environment.”

With over 4,300 licensed child care facilities in Colorado serving over 200,000 children, this initiative has enormous potential to positively impact children and families across the state.

Starting with these first two Demonstration Sites, the ECHO Initiative will build a foundation to ensure high-quality outdoor learning environments are a normal part of all early childhood programs statewide. Over five years, efforts will directly affect about 515 sites, over 2,000 early childhood professionals, and ultimately improve the lives of more than 16,000 children.

The ECHO Initiative is generously funded by the Colorado Health Foundation and the Gates Family Foundation. To learn more, please visit