NLI Hosts DCDEE Regional Meetings

A statewide kickoff webinar introducing the two-year project, Supporting Naturalized Outdoor Play and Learning Environments in North Carolina Child Care Facilities, was followed by regional meetings. From April through May 2024, NLI partnered with the Department of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) to host four, one-day regional events: South Central in Pinehurst, East in Greenville, North Central in Raleigh, and West in Asheville.

The meetings brought together licensing consultants, investigations consultants, environmental assessors, and DCDEE leadership. The aim was to increase awareness of the health and wellness benefits of nature-based outdoor play and learning environments in NC early childhood facilities and to share progress on the ground. Each meeting featured an inspiring natural learning environment with a guided tour to strengthen the case for nature engagement.

At each meeting, participants were welcomed by the NLI and DCDEE teams and the site host, before presentations and discussion.

Nilda Cosco, PhD, NLI Director of Programs and NLI Cofounder, reminded participants of the first statewide project to create a supportive network in 2011, now relaunched as “Supporting Naturalized Outdoor Play and Learning Environments in North Carolina Child Care Facilities.” Nilda introduced NLI as a research professional development design assistance and communications unit at the College of Design, NCSU, celebrating 25 years of progress in 2025. She discussed the concept of “One Health,” underscoring the benefits of outdoor time and the impact of interaction with nature on healthy child development – the primary aim of the new project.

Robin Moore, NLI Cofounder, emphasized biophilic design and environmental diversity for increasing target health impacts: time outdoors, physical activity, gardening, and healthy eating, and social-emotional learning, and introduced NLI best practices and evaluation tools. He discussed the need to engage the green industry, landscape design professionals, and other potential partners in system change to scale up progress and support high-quality naturalized environments for young children.

Julieta Sherk, Department of Horticultural Science, NCSU, demonstrated how her landscape design students engage with childcare centers to install cost-effective improvements to their outdoor play and learning environments. As a proof of concept, the Desing/Build Studio completed installations in two local centers.

Linda Hestenes, PhD (Department of Human Development and Family Studies, UNC-G) discussed different types of nature-based early childhood programs, presented highlights from a recent national survey, and shared findings from interviews conducted with established providers across the state.

A post-lunch natural learning environment tour offered inspiration and mental and physical refreshment before a debrief and review of NLI’s best practice measurement tools, including POEMS (Preschool Outdoor Environment Measurement Scale) and COLEQT (Childcare Outdoor Learning Quality Tool). Each meeting concluded with an open discussion among participants who shared valuable stories and insights from day-to-day experiences in the field.

By the end of the regional meetings, there was no doubt that early childhood professionals in the State of North Carolina understand the need for children to be in contact with nature and are enthusiastically making progress to support high-quality outdoor environments within the parameters of current regulations.


South Central – Sandhills Community College, Pinehurst, NC

Eastern – Pitt County Arboretum, Greenville, NC

North Central – Department of Horticulture Science, NC State University, Raleigh, NC

Western – Eliada Homes, Asheville, NC