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Halifax County Smart Start students play their way toward improved health

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Many of the youngest residents of Halifax County have been getting new and improved outdoor learning environments at their early childhood education sites since 2015. Now the Halifax-Warren Smart Start wants to expand that opportunity to children in Warren County. 

“The difference it has made is to make them more aware of how important it is to increase healthy habits and increase children’s physical activity,” said Vicki Collier, program coordinator of Halifax-Warren Smart Start.

The importance of outdoor learning environments

Outdoor learning environments (or playgrounds) are an essential part of early childhood development. And not all playgrounds are equal. 

Naturalized environments — those that incorporate green space and native plants — have specific benefits for young learners.

Research from the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), a project of North Carolina State University’s College of Design, finds that outdoor play improves physical activity, nutrition, and eyesight, in addition to reducing the risk of asthma and other allergies. 

Students at the Hodgestown Lifetime Learning Center in Roanoke Rapids run around their outdoor learning environment, which includes centers for building with blocks, gardening, playing with water, and learning about science. Katie Dukes/EdNC.

And the benefits aren’t limited to physical health. 

Playing in naturalized outdoor learning environments also improves social relations and self-discipline, reduces stress, increases cooperation, and has positive effects on overall behavior. 

Students at Smiles R’ Us Big Kids in Hollister work together on a project of their own imaginations in their outdoor learning environment. Katie Dukes/EdNC.

Funding outdoor learning opportunities

In 2015, the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust awarded the Halifax-Warren SmartStart a three-year, $334,871 grant to “increase access to natural outdoor learning spaces for low income children from birth to five in Halifax County.” 

That was followed by a second three-year grant of $715,654 in 2018 for continuation of this “nutrition and physical activity program delivered through childcare centers in Halifax County,” with the goal of reducing childhood obesity. It included funding for participation in Go NAPSACC (Nutrition and Physical Activity Self-Assessment for Childcare) and consultation and design services from the NLI. 

“We named the project Healthy Habits, Healthy Kids because we’re working to instill the healthy habits in the children,” said Sarah Bridgers, program director of Halifax-Warren Smart Start, “but we saw the more we educated [teachers] how to instill these habits in children, it kinda filtered down through the staff and they caught on.”

Bridgers said the healthy habits also filtered through students to their families.

“Their families caught on and they looked forward to coming to the centers and picking up fresh fruits and vegetables,” Bridgers said. “That let us know [students] were taking what they learned into the home, and that’s something we really wanted to see happen.”

Now that every Smart Start site — including centers and home-based child care — has benefitted from the grants for this outdoor learning initiative, the leaders of Halifax-Warren Smart Start want to see children in Warren County benefit from better access to naturalized learning environments, too.

“What we’ve funded with Smart Start dollars this year for Warren County is training, Go NAPSACC, technical assistance from Vicki, and some gardening stuff, but no big renovations,” said Magda Baligh, executive director of Halifax-Warren Smart Start.

Baligh said they started improving some of Warren County’s outdoor learning environments with a small grant from the Triangle North Healthcare Foundation.

“But that was over 10 years ago,” Baligh said, “so there’s some catching up to do.”

You can see before-and-after images of the renovated Halifax County outdoor learning environments here, including the four that EdNC visited in September 2023: Clara Hearne Early Childhood Center, Hodgestown Lifetime Learning Center, Smiles R’ Us Big Kids, and Weldon Day Care Center.

Katie Dukes

Katie Dukes is a policy analyst at EdNC.