KEYS 4 HealthyKids Natural Learning Environments

KEYS for Healthy Kids is a partnership of community stakeholders that implements healthy eating and active living policy and environmental change to support healthier communities for children
and families. One way that KEYS works to promote healthy habits and behaviors is by helping childcare centers create Natural Learning Environments. These environments are spaces that
provide enriching outdoor learning opportunities that contribute to healthy development. These natural learning opportunities often include gardening. Research shows that children are more
likely to eat fruits and vegetables when they have planted and cared for them. Ultimately, outdoor play in well-designed spaces helps children develop good nutrition and physical activity habits that can last a lifetime.

Creating natural learning environments in childcare centers grew out of children’s need for consistent and early nature exposure. In our technology-fueled environment, children spend more time indoors playing video games, watching television, and on computers and less time being physically active with their peers outside. Children are at their most vulnerable from birth-5 years old; this is also the time in which children are rapidly developing their cognitive, social and emotional skills. For these reasons, KEYS focuses on the places where many children, especially those with working parents, spend the majority of their time—within the childcare setting.

The Natural Learning Environment initiative is a part of the quality improvement project, Key 2 a Healthy Start, in which childcare centers work on changing policies and environments to meet best practices for nutrition and physical activity. With The Greater Kanawha Valley Foundation’s support, KEYS 4 HealthyKids provided technical assistance to 13 natural learning environments (3 playgrounds and 10 gardens) at childcare centers located throughout the Greater Kanawha Valley. Here are some snapshots of the program’s benefits:


Employee Daycare in Charleston, WV Natural environments support physical, emotional, social, and cognitive development.

Community Building

Increasing Team Capacity: Teams are able to work together on bigger projects by learning steps to take their projects from inception to completion.

Community partners build their own natural learning environments with assistance from KEYS 4 HealthyKids. The community consists of parents, local businesses, and other community
members. By working together on this project, community members may continue to engage in other community projects.

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