Landscape Architecture Students Collaborate with Rainbolt College of Education to Propose New Nature-Based Playground

Dr. Sarah Little’s Landscape Architecture studio is currently collaborating with students from the Rainbolt College of Education on the design of a nature-based playground for the new University of Oklahoma Institute of Childhood Development. The final review of the project will take place Monday, February 28th in the Gould Hall Buskhul Gallery. A gallery-style presentation will take place from 3:00 – 4:30 PM. A formal presentation will take place from 4:30 – 6:00 PM.  

The Institute of Childhood Development (ICD) first opened in 1935; in the 1980s the ICD became a part of the Early Childhood Education program within the Rainbolt College of Education. The ICD has two major goals: to provide a developmentally appropriate environment for early childhood students to observe and interact with young children and to provide young children with the very best educational opportunities during early childhood.  

The ICD is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and is an Oklahoma 3 Star Program, the highest quality ranking available. The Institute has served generations of families in the Norman community. The ICD aims to provide quality early childhood education as well as mentor preservice teachers in their junior year at the university.  

This fall, the ICD will be moving into a permanent space that will allow for a much bigger natural outdoor classroom environment that incorporates child development, reflects best practices, and mirrors current early childhood theory and research in education. The new indoor spaces will include an observation booth for families and for research. There will also be space to teach early childhood education courses, allowing for many more possibilities than their current facility.  

The ICD has always had a nature-based playground, as it aligns with their mission to provide a space where children can explore and interact with the natural environment. The Landscape Architecture and Rainbolt College of Education students have collaborated in order to provide a new and improved nature-based playground for the new ICD facility.  

For six weeks, four teams worked on the design of the playground. These teams consisted of one Landscape Architecture student and five Education students. Dr. Sarah Little says, “Landscape Architects are charged with the mission of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public. With this mandate in mind, students enrolled in Studio IV will explore the connections between the design of the built environment and human health and well-being. The [playground project] introduces this connection by elucidating how outdoor environments facilitate healthy child development.” 

The Education students involved in the project have ensured that the outdoor space will provide a purposeful learning environment that ensures children’s safety while also providing the opportunity to take risks and encourage children’s natural curiosity for the outside world.  

The Dean of the Rainbolt College of Education, Dr. Stacy Reeder, says, “We are excited by the opportunity for our early childhood education students to collaborate with architecture students, bringing together their respective expertise, to design a playground for the OU Institute of Child Development. Each group, considering elements of wind, shade and sun, child development and theory, will develop a natural playscape with an actual playground and students in mind.”

Reeder continued, “This project allows the students to not only learn from one another and negotiate a collaborative development space, but also to apply what they are learning to a real world problem.”

According to Rebecca Waggoner, the Director of the Institute of Childhood Development, “Outdoor learning is the most valuable format of learning used at the ICD. Our new beautifully constructed natural playground will give many new generations of children the opportunity to cultivate a love and appreciation for the outdoor world while helping young learners develop in a more holistic and integrated way.” 

Providing a natural educational space is incredibly beneficial for early childhood development. Dr. Kwon, an associate professor in the Rainbolt College of Education and the principal investigator for Happy Child Project, explains, “Outdoor environments offer unique […] learning opportunities that are not available indoors. Space is more open, less confined, and the greater the space, the more expansive the movement possibilities. Indoors is a space where adults are more likely to be in control, but outdoors is perceived as a child’s domain. The outdoors can literally free up the body and the mind of children. It offers a rich and multi-sensory experience and an opportunity to challenge their thinking and encourage them to be willing to take risks and try out new ideas. This is particularly important in an era when children are mostly confined indoors watching videos and playing computer games and during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Collaborations like this one show the value of working across disciplines. The Education and Landscape Architecture students have been able to learn from each other to produce a more impressive, well-rounded final product. As Dr. Little explains, “While I am familiar with theories of child development, I am no expert. Partnering with Dr. Kyong Ah Kwon and Profs. Becca Waggoner and Whitney Lawrence has been a wonderful experience for my students. They are learning directly from early childhood education experts. My hope is that the Rainbolt College of Education students will learn design principles that they can incorporate into their professional outdoor environments or at the very least, understand the value that Landscape Architects bring to projects.”