Virtual views to help overtaxed teachers see the future in nature-based play spaces.
By Timothy A. Schuler
When Muntazar Monsur and his wife emigrated to the United States from Bangladesh in 2011, they enrolled their then 18-month-old daughter in childcare for the first time. They were both starting PhD programs at North Carolina State University, and the childcare center their daughter attended was an early demonstration site of the Natural Learning Initiative, established in 2000 at NC State to demonstrate the importance of nature in children’s development and play. “She went to that childcare center for three years, and I was one of the parents who saw how the daily life of my daughter changed,” says Monsur, now an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Texas Tech University.
Since then, Monsur’s work has focused on improving the environments in which millions of children younger than five years spend the better parts of their days. His latest project is creating high-resolution, interactive virtual tours of exemplary natural play areas to help childcare providers see what’s possible.
“It’s so challenging to take childcare people to demonstration sites. They’re so overwhelmed,” Monsur says. This was true before the pandemic, but now providers are stretched thinner than ever. According to the Center for American Progress, the childcare industry lost 88,000 jobs between 2020 and 2022, with only three out of four prepandemic positions currently filled.
The strain this burden puts on an already fraying system is among the biggest barriers to building more healthful outdoor spaces for kids, Monsur says. But another is a lack of references. “It’s difficult to [explain] what the change would look like,” he says.
To give providers easy access to tangible ideas about how to inexpensively and incrementally improve their outdoor environments, Monsur, who directs an extended reality lab at Texas Tech, piloted a method of documenting health-oriented play spaces through virtual reality technology. Using a Matterport Pro2 3D camera—often used for virtual walk-throughs of houses and apartments—Monsur built navigable, digital simulacra of each play area. Using either a virtual reality headset or a simple web browser, users can view the space as a plan or 3D model or explore it “on foot” à la Google Street View. (Because sunlight interferes with the Matterport camera’s infrared capture, Monsur had to record sites strictly before dawn or after dusk.) The technology allows other media, such as video, to be embedded into the tour.
Nancy Striniste, a former early childhood educator turned landscape designer, whose firm, EarlySpace, focuses on building natural playscapes, says Monsur’s virtual tours are immensely valuable as a visual aid. “It’s so important to have visuals and let people see what these spaces can look like,” she says. At the same time, she says, it’s unrealistic to continue to put the onus on providers to lead environmental improvements. “These overworked, underpaid childcare workers have a lot on their plates already, and to take on implementing a nature play space is a lot. That’s why you see so [much] plastic equipment—because those are quick and easy. So I think it fits into the whole question of there being national support for childcare.”