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Outdoor Learning: I’m not just an author – I’m our biggest customer!

By Megan Carolan, Director of Policy Research

Last week, we released a new brief on Outdoor Learning, building from the learnings of our recent Childhood, Unplugged event in Denver. I was delighted to co-author this brief, along with Mary MacKenzie, our UK-based senior fellow and staff “Mary Poppins,” who brings a wealth of knowledge from her years of working with early childhood programs across the pond.

I myself am not an expert on outdoor learning but I do have a secret weapon in my approach: I’m the parent of a toddler.

And not just the parent of a toddler. The parent of a high-energy, rough-and-tumble toddler. A parent who works a 9-to-5, who lives in an apartment in a city where some neighborhoods qualify as “play deserts,” and who juggles caregiving with a partner and a tapestry of family members and friends in our network.

We live the challenges of accessing outdoor play every day.

We chose to structure this paper a little differently than some of our others because we wanted it to be accessible to a wide variety of stakeholders. After a brief walk through of what the research tells us is the importance of outdoor learning, we go through a series of “troubleshooting” case studies, posing a common challenge we hear to outdoor learning and addressing it from the perspective of program, parents, policymakers, and communities.


To understand how to make positive change for kids, we need to understand what is getting in the way at a structural and individual level – and acknowledge that often, the two are the same.

How can a family make sure their child has a space to play when they have no backyard, and their neighborhood has no playgrounds in walking distance?

How can programs for children find the time when teachers are feeling so many academic pressures, to ensure kids have the time for unstructured play that we know is essential?

How can we make the table on this conversation a little larger and bring in community groups, libraries, even local business – entities that have resources just waiting to contribute but don’t see themselves as part of this conversation yet?

Call it design-thinking, or call it just plain common sense – but any systems-level look at early childhood has to center the lived experience of children, families, and professionals working on the ground to ensure that grand plans actually make a difference instead of just sitting in a report on the shelf. It’s an angle we bring to all of our projects, and an angle as a parent that I too often see lacking in the way professionals work with families.

Are you working on novel solutions to stubborn challenges around outdoor play and learning? We would love to hear about creative solutions, challenges you are facing, and interest in partnering to catalyze this area for children! Drop us a line or leave a comment!

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