Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.

year in review

Early childhood discipline, child care deserts and funding challenges in the spotlight during 2017

Malanna Newell is a toddler teacher at the Mile High Early Learning center in Denver's Westwood neighborhood. She started as a teaching assistant before taking Mile High's Child Development Associate training last fall.

Amid national debate on the disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions given out to young boys and children of color, Colorado lawmakers and educators grappled with the best approach to discipline in 2017.

The year kicked off with a bill in the legislature to curb suspensions for early elementary and preschool students — a shift that would have put Colorado on the forefront of school discipline reform, some observers said. Although the bill had a broad array of backers, a Republican-controlled Senate committee killed the proposal after last-minute opposition from a group of rural school district leaders. Some of those leaders said suspensions weren’t a “rural problem,” but a Chalkbeat analysis found otherwise.  

Despite the defeat, advocates of the bill expect a renewed push for the measure during the 2018 legislative session.

In the meantime, Colorado’s two largest school districts — Denver and Jeffco — spearheaded changes to reduce the number of suspension handed out to young children. In June, Denver’s school board instituted a policy limiting the suspension of preschool through third grade students, though some educators worried they weren’t being given enough support to handle kids who misbehave.

In Jeffco, after Chalkbeat wrote about the district’s high rate of early elementary suspensions, administrators commissioned a report on the issue with recommendations to increase the use of restorative justice practices and other alternatives to suspension.  

Also in 2017, local early childhood leaders launched or expanded efforts to address key problems in the field — including teacher recruitment and retention and kids’ sometimes rocky transition to kindergarten.

At the same time, some early childhood advocates were forced to reckon with the perennial lack of funding that plagues the industry and constricts families’ choices. One of Denver’s most well-known child care providers, Clayton Early Learning, closed one of its two facilities last summer — a move observers said spotlights the high cost of quality child care.

But there were also bright spots in the funding landscape — some growing out of local efforts in Colorado’s rural towns and resort communities. A preschool in Holyoke found a way to give staff members generous raises and a growing number of cities and towns are getting new dollars for early childhood programs through sales or property taxes.

In Denver, several efforts — using a combination of public and private funds — aim to improve child care options in the city’s Elyria-Swansea neighborhood, which is designated a “child care desert.”

At the state level, officials promoted recently-created financial incentives for child care centers with top quality ratings, though some providers say earning those ratings is too much work.

Looking ahead to 2018, early childhood advocates hope to renew a tax credit that helps child care providers make ends meet. Plus, winners of a new early childhood innovation competition will get financial help to scale up their ideas.

Giving Quest

Advocates push to extend tax credit to encourage donations to cash-strapped child care providers

PHOTO: Porter-Leath

A wide-ranging coalition that includes early childhood, education and business groups is galvanizing support for a bill to extend a state tax credit that incentivizes donations to Colorado child care providers.

Advocates say the Child Care Contribution Tax Credit, which will be up for reauthorization during the 2018 legislative session, represents a key tool for supporting an expensive but perpetually underfunded sector.

“It’s the child care provider’s lifeline to additional funding,” said Gloria Higgins, president of the business group Executives Partnering to Invest in Children, or EPIC.

It’s a public-private partnership of sorts — with the state rewarding private citizens and businesses with lower tax bills when they support early childhood education.

During fiscal year 2016, Colorado taxpayers made about $52 million in donations that qualified for the tax credit, according to data from the Colorado Department of Revenue. Donations can cover costs such as child care scholarships, teacher salaries and building improvements.

“If parents had to pay $50 million more for child care, I don’t know what they would do,” Higgins said.

The tax credit, which first took effect in 1999 and has been reauthorized once, allows donors to claim an income tax credit worth up to 50 percent of their contribution. In other words, a donation of $200 to a qualifying child care provider would yield a state tax credit of $100 for the donor.

Donations to a variety of organizations — including child care centers, programs offering before- and after-school care, residential treatment centers and homeless youth shelters — are eligible for the credit.

The tax credit was suspended for a couple years during the Great Recession because slow-growing state revenue triggered a special provision in the law. The credit was restored in phases starting in 2013 and will expire in 2019 if it’s not reauthorized.

Given the state’s historically bipartisan support for the tax credit, advocates are hoping for a smooth passage.

“The reason why some people like tax credits … really comes from the fact that you’re just declining revenue,” said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. “You’re not necessarily building new government programs.”

And for taxpayers who make the donations, the philosophy is about “letting people keep more of money they’ve earned,” he said.

Currently, there is no organized opposition to renewing the tax credit for another 10 years.

Still, advocates know there are many demands for state dollars.

“We, in early childhood, are truly competing … with potholes or K-12 education,” Higgins said. “We just want to hold onto what we have.”

Colorado is one of only a handful of states that offer tax credits to individuals or businesses that donate to child care providers or related programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon, Mississippi, Louisiana and Pennsylvania all have some version of a contribution credit, though generally the parameters are more restrictive than in Colorado.

Tami Havener, who leads a nonprofit that offers full-day preschool and a host of other early childhood services in Steamboat Springs, believes the tax credit encourages supporters to donate more than they otherwise would.

“I think it definitely makes a difference in them deciding how much they can give,” she said. “It allows them to be more generous.”

The Family Development Center where Havener is executive director raises about $110,000 a year — in amounts ranging from $25 to $30,000. The money helps pay for need-based scholarships, teacher training and extra staff so that student-teacher ratios stay low.

The preschool enrolls 80 students, about one-third of whom come from low-income families.

Havener said she’s gotten more savvy in recent years about advertising and explaining the credit to donors because she realized that some didn’t understand the financial benefits.

Now, in addition to helping specific child care providers, some groups envision the credit as a way to get communities to collaborate on larger child care initiatives. The idea is to use the credit as a rallying point for donors interested in pooling their resources for big projects — say, building a child care facility in a neighborhood without one.

“This is no silver bullet by any stretch,” Jaeger said. “It’s a tool in the toolbox.”