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Six early-childhood education centers in Colorado Springs have been selected to receive $5,000 seed grants to create outdoor learning environments from a two-year-old program of The National Wildlife Federation.

They are among 58 for-profit and nonprofit applicants from across Colorado. Local winners are: Ascension Children’s Learning Center; Mesa KinderCare Learning Center; Mountain Shadows KinderCare; Vickers KinderCare Learning Center; Village Seven Creative Play Centers; and HEALground at Meadows Park Community Center.

In addition to the money, the selected sites receive hands-on assistance to design and develop naturalized outdoor learning environments to enhance childhood development.

The support is something Lynne Casebeer, co-owner and director of Sidewalk’s End Montessori School, which was a 2018 Early Childhood Health Outdoors (ECHO) grant recipient, said was both surprising and appreciated. “It’s been a cool, lengthy process but was very valuable and educational for us.”

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Meetings with landscape designers, workshops and a seminar at the Denver Botanic Gardens with sessions on plants, design and nature-based playgrounds took place before the school even received funds.

“This was important,” Casebeer said. “It made us think about what we want to do with the space and how to get to an environment of ‘Yes.’ That is, you don’t want to tell kids what they can’t do, but how they can interact with nature.”

The program also encourages recipients to work with their communities to achieve their design goals.

“There’s an element of getting community buy-in,” Casebeer said. “It’s not only our parents on board, but a Girl Scout troop with Sidewalk’s End alumnae is also involved.”

Brian Kates, parks operation administrator for the Meadows Park Community Center who is spearheading the ECHO project at HEALgrounds, said the project will support key neighborhood needs.

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Those include “a safe, supervised active play location; an affordable, neutral, conveniently located public space, and a place to receive organic food straight from a garden.”

The grant, along with money from the City of Colorado Springs Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department and a Community Development Block Grant, will be used to “promote healthy eating and active living,” an acronym for HEAL, according to Kates.

Plans for the HEALgrounds environment call for residents to learn “how to grow similar foods at their place of residence,” he said.

Casebeer encourages this year’s recipients to brainstorm to consider all of the possibilities, before meeting with ECHO representatives.

Sidewalk’s End is working on developing a Peace Pole Plaza with a butterfly garden. A mud kitchen and Maker’s Space will also be incorporated into the plan.

“We want kids to get their hands dirty and engage with the world around them,” said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director. “We’ll work hand-in-hand with selected sites to ensure the growth and development of these spaces for years to come.”

With the inclusion of this year’s seed grant recipients, ECHO has worked collaboratively with early childhood and parks and recreation professionals to provide 7,242 children with daily access to interactive natural play spaces at 143 sites since the program’s inception in 2017.

“The education the Wildlife Federation offered us was really great and allows us to make a better environment for our kids,” Casebeer said.

According to its website, The National Wildlife Federation is America’s largest conservation organization.

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