Date of Award

May 2020

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Planning, Design, and the Built Environment

Committee Member

Mary G. Padua

Committee Member

Matthew Powers

Committee Member

Barry A. Garst

Committee Member

Sandra Linder


Current research points out that a safe, healthy, and supportive built environment is one factor that supports lifelong health (Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, 2017). Additionally, an individual’s early childhood experiences deeply affect his/her brain development, learning capabilities, and health throughout his/her lifespan (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2010). However, 21st century designs of children’s playgrounds are facing challenges in terms of their positive impact on children’s physical fitness, health, as well their cognitive development and well-being (Frost & Wortham). Attention Restoration Theory (ART) (1989) and related studies suggest that the nature or natural elements in a built environment can provide a restorative experience that helps people recover from mental fatigue and stress and improve their overall health (Berto, Baroni, Zainaghi, & Bettella, 2010; Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989; Kaplan, 1993; Kaplan, 2001; Kuo, 2011; Mårtensson et al., 2009; van den Berg, Hartig, & Staats, 2007). Although a child’s restoration experience in childcare centers is critical for healthy development, few studies have linked children’s health and their restorative experience in a designed nature-based outdoor play environment.

This cross-disciplinary research intends to fill this research gap, focusing especially on preschool children (four to five-year-old age group), and investigate the inter-relationships of children’s health, nature-based outdoor play environments at childcare centers, and the children’s restorative experience. A larger goal is to contribute to children’s healthy development and overall well-being in South Carolina’s outdoor play environments at licensed childcare centers and beyond.

This study proposes a comparative case study approach. Primary data and empirical evidence of the physical environment, children - nature interaction, children’s use of outdoor play environment and restorative experience were collected through assessment of the physical environment’s spatial forms, field observations, interviews, and perceived restorative experience survey. The data analysis and synthesis reveal that nature-based outdoor play environment may provide higher level of children-nature interaction and indicate the significant role of outdoor play environment and natural elements on children’s restorative experience. This research helps expand on Attention Restoration Theory (1989) and contributes to our understanding of the significance of nature-based outdoor designed environments on children’s overall health and well-being.



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