Texas Tech University

Researchers Working to Decrease Childhood Obesity Rates

George Watson

June 13, 2018

(VIDEO) Charles Klein and Kristi Gaines are part of a consortium that is helping redesign childcare center play spaces to optimize physical and educational opportunities.

Childhood obesity is a constant battle in the U.S. According to the latest data, the obesity rate among youth aged 2 to 19 is 18.5 percent. For children between 2 and 5, it is 13.9 percent.

Much has been done over the last few years to try to combat childhood obesity, from improvements in and funding for a healthier diet, to programs designed to get kids off the couch and away from video games and back into an environment that encourages physical activity.

Charles Klein and Kristi Gaines
Charles Klein and Kristi Gaines

But for children to truly develop in all phases of life, simply running around outside or swinging from a plastic jungle gym isn't enough. In today's world, the play atmosphere for children needs to possess both physical and educational aspects, and researchers at Texas Tech University are playing a key role in developing the best practices and facilities for that to happen.

Charles Klein, an associate professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture in the College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources, and Kristi Gaines, an associate professor in the Department of Design in the College of Human Sciences and associate dean of the Graduate School, head a group of researchers known as OLE! Lubbock, which examines the relationship between the design of outdoor play spaces and how it leads to healthier, active lifestyles.

The initiative is supported by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), who provided the initial funding for the project and continues to provide financial support.

OLE, or Outdoor Learning Environments, takes its principles from the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), founded in 2000 at North Carolina State University and adopted by the DSHS, which reached out to Texas Tech to help develop the 12 best-practice indicators that help reduce obesity rates by how well a play area is designed.

“In other words, the way we design an outdoor play space can lead to healthier, active lifestyles,” Klein said. “It focuses on incremental implementation, growing your outdoor environment like you grow your kids. It promotes sweat equity and having parental involvement. The outdoor environment is not something to be scared of.”

Playground designs

Klein and Gaines have worked closely with the DSHS to develop three pilot design workshops, the first of which was in conjunction with the Covenant Child Development Center located just south of Covenant Medical Center, to create an OLE that encourages physical activity, food awareness and healthier lifestyles in children. Now, they are hoping to expand that pilot program beyond the South Plains.

Recently, OLE! Lubbock received a $149,982 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Cooperative State Research Educational Extension Service, allowing OLE! Lubbock to conduct more workshops with childcare centers around the region.

“The reason we chose childcare centers is that it's an early intervention opportunity,” Klein said. “There are almost 3,000 licensed childcare centers in Texas, and 30 percent of children aged 3 to 5 are either obese or overweight in Texas.”

Designing the play space

The design of an OLE is calculated and thoroughly researched, based on the best practices developed by the NLI, and not just throwing something on a wall to see if it sticks.

“The evidence-based approach follows best practice design indicators that emphasize a variety of play settings encouraging large and small motor activities, fruit and vegetable gardening, and design features that encourage a child's curiosity and imagination,” Gaines said.

Among those best practices are:

  • A curvy, winding, circular, paved pathway where kids can ride their tricycles/bicycles
  • A transitional space where classrooms can open to the outdoors to link both learning environments
  • A large, open lawn area where kids can play games and maximize physical activity
  • A sand play area that encourages creative play and social interaction
  • A water play area that can be manipulated with movable stones, containers to scoop and pour water and more
  • Plenty of trees and shrubs that allow for educational opportunities through examination
  • Edible landscapes that promote growing fruits and vegetables to underscore the importance of the origin of food
  • Multiple play settings and numerous wheeled toys

In general terms, most play spaces currently aren't optimized for maximum effect in terms of promoting healthy lifestyles.

“Most current outdoor play areas have plastic, manufactured equipment as the central focus,” Gaines said. “Research shows that using a natural learning environment design strategy increases physical activity, food awareness and healthier lifestyles in children.”

The new funding also will allow Gaines, Klein and other researchers at Texas Tech involved in OLE! Texas to travel to North Carolina to learn the behavioral mapping techniques developed by the NLI and transfer those techniques to use in OLE.


“It's unique in that it doesn't focus so much on the children, but focuses on the environment and where activity is taking place, either sedentary, moderate or vigorous activity, so that we can compare before and after the learning environments have been established,” Klein said.

According to Klein, childcare centers are required to have at least 50 square feet of outdoor space for every child enrolled. A rating system for childcare centers has recently begun incorporating elements of the OLE, and more elements result in more stars. Kids in childcare centers also are required to be outside for at least 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the afternoon.

One of the more unique childcare facilities Klein and Gaines came across was in San Antonio and the Will Smith Zoo School. A renovated building adjacent to the San Antonio Zoo, the school, which is associated with OLE! Texas, focuses on outdoor interaction and learning, and they asked the Lubbock team to review their plans and make changes to incorporate the OLE! guidelines.

At the Will Smith Zoo School, children spend at least 50 percent of each day outdoors where they explore the zoo and participate in animal interactions as well as learn to appreciate all the outdoors has to offer. They are encouraged to play with rocks, dirt, water, sand, twigs and leaves.

But a childcare play space also could be as simple as one he heard about at a small childcare center where they installed a chicken coop, and every morning the children would learn about where eggs came from and food safety by collecting the eggs.

The goal of the OLE, however, is not to replace preschools.

“We aren't trying to teach them to read or how to count, but they will count when they are outside doing things, and they may read instructions,” Klein said. “It's about understanding their bodies, being active and being social, because a lot of this is navigating and seeing how kids help each other.”

Encouraging activity

Klein remembers riding his bicycle past the Covenant Child Development Center one day as the children were outside playing, and one of the kids came up to the fence as he rode by.

“We don't have any shoes on!” Klein said the child proclaimed loudly and proudly.

At that point, Klein said it became his goal to give that same opportunity to kids in childcare centers all around Lubbock, and from that OLE! Texas has grown.

“We have received enthusiastic responses from the administration, teachers and parents,” Gaines said of the work done with Covenant. “Phase 1 was recently completed and has received a lot of positive feedback.”

Growing OLE! Lubbock has involved several research trips to North Carolina to study the NLI's work, attending a workshop where the NLI was working with six to seven childcare centers at a time. It also involves furthering the research agenda through learning the behavior mapping techniques and how they are making children more active, thus healthier.


“We talk a lot about parents being reluctant to have their kids go outside, but it's ironic that we just had the flu outbreak, and keeping kids cooped up inside just helps spread that, no matter how clean you try to make things,” Klein said.

OLE! Lubbock recently conducted a workshop for a childcare center with Amarillo College, and in May will conduct one for the Texas Tech Early Head Start Program within the College of Human Sciences. Gaines added the group has worked on developing sites in Austin and Houston.

And the increase in physical activity also could lead to better mental acuity.

“There are studies that show the more time kids spend outside, the better they can concentrate,” Klein said. “I guess they just need to blow off steam or whatever. Kids who grew up on farms have less asthma and are less prone to infection than kids who are secluded. There is a whole lot of research about the natural environment and horticultural therapy and the benefits of communing with nature, if you will, and how it benefits our psyche.”