Recognizing the cultural challenges and opportunities of the new millennium, the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) offers four distinct but interconnected areas of service to institutions and communities across North Carolina, the nation, and the world. As a university-based enterprise, NLI's first priority is to generate new knowledge through research of outdoor environments. This, in turn, supports evidence-based design assistance to create new models on the ground, which then provide new research opportunities. Cumulative research results (by NLI and others) combined with documented international best practice provides material for NLI professional development events and programs, and dissemination through on-line and print media. Audiences include:
- Landscape architects, designers, and contractors
- Parks and recreation professionals
- Early childhood professionals
- Educators in nonformal and formal settings
- After-school program coordinators
For more than a decade, NLI has focused at the community level to improve children’s health and development through design education and technical assistance for the implementation of cost-effective, naturalized outdoor learning environments (OLEs) in childcare centers, public schools, public parks, zoos, botanical gardens, and other nonformal education sites in North Carolina and across the country. Support for NLI projects and programs has come from private foundations, public agencies, private industry, and national agencies including the National Science Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Institute for Museum and Library Science, National Wildlife Federation, US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation of North Carolina, The John Rex Endowment, and many other entities.