Nature in Our Backyard

Who We Are

The Associated Students’ SDSU Children’s Center provides a full-day education program for 258 children from 6 months to 5 years of age. Half the families enrolled are SDSU students; one-third of the families are faculty or staff and the remaining families are from the nearby community. Families from a wide range of ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds find a home here.

The Children’s Center features a relaxed and loving atmosphere in which children are free to explore, learn and create through play. Our philosophy reflects the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education, which emphasizes the principles of respect, responsibility and community through exploration and discovery in a supportive and enriching environment. The primary style of learning is hands-on, active not passive. The way the environment is set up is crucial to this teaching style as the children learn as much from the materials in their room and outdoor spaces as they do from teachers.

The Center is housed in a state-of-the-art facility built six years ago by Associated Students, with the support of SDSU. The building — and our philosophy — serve as models for childcare operators from around the world. Unfortunately, the original plan to create natural, outdoor, backyard-style environments was abandoned due to construction costs.

"What we do best here is give children a voice to express their ideas and thoughts and provide responsive ears to hear what they are saying. In this, we are able to support what the children are trying to understand about how the world works." — Lee Ann Chavez, Supervising Teacher

"I strongly believe that my son’s experience at the Children’s Center contributed to the development of his inquiring nature and his genuine concern for his neighbor." — Ruth Morales, parent

The Need for Nature

This project will restore the presence of the natural world into the everyday experience of children who attend childcare in a large, urban environment. Researchers suggest these children are most at risk for "nature-deficit disorder" because of the long hours spent daily in a childcare facility.

Our current practices expose the children to as many natural experiences as possible and the response is always highly positive. But there is only so much exposure to nature a child can receive in areas made of asphalt, chain link fencing and wood chips — common features on playgrounds. Such features facilitate the growing disconnect of children from nature and this disconnect is hurting children.

Studies reveal that children who spend time in nature benefit:

  • Intellectually — higher test scores, stronger ability to make independent decisions, increased focus
  • Physically — reduced symptoms of ADD/ADHD, more physically fit
  • Emotionally — reduced stress, reduced aggression, stimulated imagination
  • Socially — promotes self-esteem and egalitarian play between boys and girls
  • Eco-consciously — understanding the need to protect environment

The renovation is designed to maximize physical movement and exercise opportunities to promote healthy, age-appropriate physical activity.

With our dedication and volunteers already in place, we look forward to increasing exposure of our children and their families to nature, to exercise and to serving as a role model for our community.

"We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole." — Richard Louv, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder"

Building the Backyard

San Diego’s natural canyons inspire the conceptual vision behind the "Nature In Our Backyard" project. The project will create a woodland setting for the Children’s Center where trees crowd the perimeter of the outdoor space and a sensory experience with nature is always within a child’s reach.

Children will explore a natural hillside, roll up and down grass hills, find natural sand areas, walk through willow tunnels, touch and smell native flora and learn from the insects and creatures attracted to such flora. When it rains, they’ll find a natural rock bed that flows with water. They can run, bike and climb safely and then eat their hand-grown fruit and vegetables.

Memory Park

Cost: $282,000

As the largest open space, Memory Park is used daily by the preschool children who need larger spaces for their gross motor development. Younger children occasionally come to Memory Park for special trips. Memory Park also serves as the community gathering space for Center-wide events.

Key features include:

  • Natural creek bed
  • Child-controlled stop-and-go lights
  • Figure-eight bicycle path with two grassy areas—one flat and one raised
  • Climbing rock play structure with sand and water features
  • Natural willow hut, vine tunnel, "bird’s nest" play structure
  • Raised vegetable garden in a maze form with compost bin and potting area

East Side

Cost: $240,000

The east side of the Center is comprised of three cottages: The Infant Cottage, which serves the youngest children, ages 6 months to 18 months; The Toddler Cottage, which serves children 18 months to 2-and-a-half; and Preschool East, which serves children ages 3 to 5.

Key features for each cottage include:

  • Natural creek bed
  • Age-appropriate play structures
  • Low-water, native, hardy plants
  • Shaded art easel zone
  • Sand/water node
  • Circular path for gross motor development (bikes, running, etc.)

West Side

Cost: $245,000

The West side is comprised of two cottages: The Transition Cottage, for toddlers ages 2 to 3; and Preschool West, for children ages 3 to 5. The West side has a hillside on the property that is not currently used.

Key features on the west side include:

  • Access to the hillside/western property slope via a winding trail system with additional trees planted and low shrubs. Allows for exploratory hikes, adventure and discovery
  • Grasspave with central lawn
  • Shaded art easel zone
  • Low-water, native, hardy plants
  • Age-appropriate play structures
  • Sand/water node
  • Circular path for gross motor development (bikes, running, etc.)

Total Project Cost: $767,000

Our Ripple Effect: Research and Teaching


Consistent with our educational setting on the campus of San Diego State University, this project is designed to inspire and stimulate critical thinking about nature, the environment and physical movement. Our vision incorporates systematic evaluation of the benefits to children and their families.

SDSU researchers from disciplines such as psychology, sociology and exercise/nutrition sciences are developing research programs that will not only document our progress, but also increase the understanding of the ways in which nature can benefit children.

Most research on children and nature has been conducted on school-age children but less is known about the relationship between children under 5 and their interactions with nature. Basic research conducted at our site will contribute to knowledge about children and nature at this critical age in children’s brain development.


The Children’s Center will evaluate its staff’s knowledge about the importance of a healthy, natural environment for children, at the beginning and then the end of the staff members’ tenure. Our goal is to show we have successfully taught these future childcare providers and future schoolteachers the importance of connecting children and nature.

Similarly, we will evaluate families’ knowledge at the beginning and end of their enrollment at the Children’s Center, striving also to increase knowledge and influence healthy lifestyles.

"Knowledge gained from this research will be used to inform the design of similar environments in other settings, and will also be used to inform the design of science and environmental education that can capitalize on first-hand experience with nature in urban places." — Dr. Sara Unsworth, Assistant Professor of Psychology, SDSU Developmental Psychologist

"The experience a student teacher gains at the Center is foundational to their future teaching style. If we set the best practice model for them, they will have that model as their foundation to future teaching experiences." — Lee Ann Chavez, Supervising Teacher

Learning Discovering Creating
Nature in Our Backyard