Nature play and learning every day!

Creating environments for healthy human development and a healthy biosphere for generations to come.

what we do


PROJECTS are typically concentrated, short duration efforts that focus on specific design issues or involve a single aspect of a program (e.g., design assistance, evaluation, professional development or policy initiative).


PROGRAMS integrate design assistance, evaluation, professional development, and policy initiatives, with the aim of achieving higher levels of sustained quality. These activities are often tied to a multi-year project, which may also include strategic planning and coordination, research, site visits, site analysis, community presentations, stakeholder meetings, design workshops, design reviews, training, and post-occupancy evaluation.


RESOURCES are created, often in collaboration with NLI’s interdisciplinary partners, to support technical assistance, professional development, and generally to promote the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of all children. Please use and share.

Professional Development

PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT and training includes theory, principles, and techniques that guide the design of play and learning environments with an emphasis on the design and management of natural environments to support healthy child development. The roles of play professionals, educators, and cultural animators are particularly emphasized in landscape design.

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What NLI Does

Increasing numbers of children are growing up with insufficient contact with the natural world. To counteract this trend, the Natural Learning Initiative offers evidence-based design assistance, professional development, and information resources to advance experience of the natural environment in the daily lives of all children.

Recognizing the new 21st Century cultural challenges and opportunities for creative community engagement, 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 resources for NLI professional development events and programs, and information dissemination through on-line and print media. Audiences include:

  • Landscape architects and designers
  • Landscape contractors
  • Park and recreation professionals
  • Horticulturists
  • Early childhood educators
  • Formal and nonformal educators
  • Special education professionals
  • After-school program coordinators

For almost two decades, NLI has focused on design of community level built environments as a strategy to improve children’s health and development through design education and technical assistance. The focus is 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.

Major Funding has been provided by