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.

All over the map

What do children need to know when they start kindergarten? You might be surprised

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

How many letters should kids recognize when they enter kindergarten? Should they be able to cut with scissors? How long should they be able to sit still?

Such basic questions seem like they should come with clear-cut answers, but parents and teachers — and even Colorado state standards — differ widely in their expectations for entering kindergarteners

Early childhood leaders in Larimer County discovered just how much variation exists after they surveyed 800 local parents, preschool teachers and kindergarten teachers in 2015.

“The answers were all over the map,” said Bev Thurber, executive director of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County. “A lot of times it was way above what research says is developmentally appropriate.”

Such findings spotlight the lack of consensus about what it means to be ready for kindergarten. The survey found parents and preschool teachers generally had higher expectations for youngsters than kindergarten teachers or state standards, suggesting that some parents and preschool teachers may be focusing too much energy on teaching academic skills to young children.

“Our concern is not only do you have this variability, but also this pressure on the academic side … when that’s really not the most important thing, especially at this young age,” said Thurber.

To help parents sort it all out, Thurber and a team of early childhood teachers and advocates created a new eight-page parent guide called “Ready Set Kindergarten.” Available in English and Spanish, the whimsically illustrated booklet gives parents tips for building academic and social-emotional skills — things like simple counting, recognizing the letters in a child’s name, naming feelings and taking turns. It also includes a month-by-month schedule for the pre-kindergarten year highlighting logistical details like registration windows and meet-the-teacher opportunities.

All three Larimer County school districts, — Poudre, Thompson and Estes Park — have agreed to use the guide, which is being distributed through preschools, elementary schools, doctors’ offices and libraries.

But some experts say too much emphasis on getting children ready for kindergarten relieves schools of their obligation to serve students regardless of their background or experience.

“It’s critical for schools to take responsibility for being ready for children – not the other way around,” said Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at the City University of New York.

Cleary reviewed the guide and worried that it would create unneeded stress for families and set up teachers to have unrealistic expectations for kids.

Thurber said many teachers and parents already have unrealistic expectations for entering kindergarteners, according to survey results. The guide scales those back, she said, and offers a more reasonable list of activities that are based on state standards and Colorado’s early learning and development guidelines.

“This is what experts have said is developmentally appropriate,” Thurber said.

“I completely buy in that schools have to meet kids where they are at,” she said. ”However, within that, there is a certain anxiety among families when you have all these differing expectations.”

Karen Rattenborg, executive director of the Colorado State University Early Childhood Center and an assistant professor at the university, saw the disparity in expectations when she analyzed the survey data.

Take letters, for example. State standards say kids should recognize at least 10 letters when they start kindergarten, specifically the letters in their name. Survey results showed most parents and preschool teachers believed entering kindergarteners should recognize more than 20 letters. Kindergarten teachers opted for a lower 11-20 range.

The same dynamic held true for counting — about half of parents and preschool teachers thought kids should be able to count higher than 20 while state standards say 10 is enough.

In some cases, both preschool and kindergarten teachers placed a high value on tasks that state standards and other common benchmarks don’t mention. Both groups rated cutting with scissors as the second most important fine motor skill for entering kindergarteners, but state standards and the state’s early learning guidelines are silent about scissors.

“It’s things like that where we had these a-ha moments,” said Rattenborg.

In some cases, there was agreement. For instance, the vast majority of both preschool and kindergarten teachers said the ability to communicate needs and wants was the top communication skill kindergarteners need.

Rattenborg said the diversity of views made one thing clear.

“We realized having a common guide throughout Larimer County would be helpful for virtually everyone involved,” she said.

Diane Umbreit, a kindergarten teacher at Kruse Elementary School in Fort Collins and a member of the committee that conceived the guide, agreed.

Over the years, she’s seen plenty of confusion and anxiety among parents. Some push their kids hard to acquire new skills before kindergarten. Some want to do learning activities with their children, but aren’t sure where to start.

Others, she said, are “shocked that their child needs to know the letters in his name.”

Umbreit said of the new kindergarten guide, “Hopefully, it evens the playing field.”

Enter to win

Denver organization to launch national prize for early childhood innovation

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

A Denver-based investment group will soon launch a national contest meant to help scale up great ideas in the early childhood field — specifically efforts focused on children birth to 3 years old.

Gary Community Investments announced its Early Childhood Innovation Prize on Wednesday morning at a conference in San Francisco. It’s sort of like the television show “Shark Tank,” but without the TV cameras, celebrity judges and nail-biting live pitch.

The contest will divvy up $1 million in prize money to at least three winners, one at the beginning stages of concept development, one at a mid-level stage and one at an advanced stage. Gary officials say there could be more than one winner in each category.

The contest will officially launch Oct. 25, with submissions due Feb. 15 and winners announced in May. (Gary Community Investments, through the Piton Foundation, is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Officials at Gary Community Investments, founded by oilman Sam Gary, say the contest will help the organization focus on finding solutions that address trouble spots in the early childhood arena.

The birth-to-3 zone is one such spot. While it’s an especially critical time for children because of the amount of brain development that occurs during that time, it’s often overshadowed by efforts targeting 4- or 5-year-olds.

Steffanie Clothier, Gary’s child development investment director, said leaders there decided on a monetary challenge after talking with a number of other organizations that offer prizes for innovative ideas or projects.

One foundation they consulted described lackluster responses to routine grant programs, but lots of enthusiasm for contests with financial stakes, she said.

“There’s some galvanizing opportunity to a prize,” she said.

But Gary’s new prize isn’t solely about giving away money to create or expand promising programs. It will also include an online networking platform meant to connect applicants with mentors, partners or investors.

“We’re trying to figure out how to make it not just about the winners,” Clothier said.

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