When Alana Lee picks greens at the Childcare Network center on Western Boulevard, she proudly rattles off facts about the collards and kale.
“I remember when it was a seed,” Alana, 5, recently told her mother, DeAnna Ortiz, when the two headed to the hilly backyard where the greens grow in raised beds.
At a trip to the farmers market, the child once made sure Ortiz knew that tomatoes grow on vines, not trees. When Ortiz thought about donating an old kiddie pool Alana had outgrown, her daughter quickly informed her it would make an ideal planter.
Ortiz loves her daughter’s enthusiasm for growing fruits and vegetables, an interest she credits to the child care center where Alana is enrolled.
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“She can appreciate all of these beautiful things that are happening,” she said.
The center is one of eight in Wake County that are part of Preventing Obesity by Design, a program run by the Natural Learning Initiative at N.C. State University. The program works in partnership with Wake County SmartStart.
The idea is to use well-designed outdoor learning environments to encourage students’ curiosity about the natural world, allow them a place to grow socially and give them a place to learn healthy behaviors, from exercise to eating well, that help curb obesity.
“If you want people growing up with healthy habits, you need to start very young,” said Robin Moore, director of the initiative.
On Thursday, 80 volunteers from Keller Williams Realty fanned out to the eight Wake sites that care for 800 children to enhance their outdoor areas by creating gardens, developing play areas and planting trees.
Moore said the design matters to the success of the program, which operates in 60 of North Carolina’s 4,700 licensed child care centers.
“You’re not going to get a lot of out of the outdoors if it isn’t comfortable for both children and teachers,” he said.
The sites often feature winding paths, natural areas where children can learn about bugs or plants and stages for imaginative play.
Moore said the program’s researchers have tracked health promotion benefits, including increased time outdoors during all seasons for all age groups, increased levels of physical activity and a decrease in altercations between children at the participating sites.
The group also has seen children’s willingness to eat fruits and vegetables increase when they have access to gardens. Moore said researchers hope to implement a randomized control trial that will provide evidence about the how the gardens are affecting children.
Wanda Davis, director of the Childcare Network center on Western Boulevard for the past five years, said participating in the program has been beneficial for the children there. She can see it in their behavior and their enthusiasm for the outdoor spaces, she said.
This year, the staff aims to cut the number of cans of fruits and vegetables they use from 2,000 to 1,000 and fill out their menu with fresh options.
“We’re just a community of people growing and learning together,” Davis said.