Learning in nature: Washington becomes first in the country to license outdoor preschools

Oct 3, 2019 by

Outdoor preschools are becoming more popular nationwide, encouraging kids to spend more time in nature. Washington just became the first state in the country to officially license them.

It had just stopped raining, and 4-year-old Jane Theumer was still wearing her yellow waterproof jacket and matching duck boots.

“I feel like my cheeks are cold,” she said to her preschool teacher, Hannah Kinney, as her class embarked on their daily hike through West Seattle’s forestlike Camp Long.

But once on the trail, Jane’s thoughts turned to other things, as she stopped to inspect a clump of white mushrooms on the side of the path and later checked on an orange slug her classmates were crowded around.

It was the second week of the new school year at Tiny Trees Preschool, one of the state’s outdoor early education programs — where instead of gathering on a colorful rug inside, kids sit on tree stumps and go hiking through the woods. The preschool takes place entirely outdoors from September to June, rain or shine.

“There’s a beauty in being able to see kids run outdoors and look at slugs and take care of plants and animals,” said Kinney, who used to teach at indoor schools in Michigan. “You do see students that need that space to move their bodies and feel like they have that choice and ownership of their learning.”

Kinney teaches two outdoor preschool classes at Tiny Trees — a four-hour class in the morning and a three-hour class in the afternoon — and her students, mostly 3- and 4-year-olds, are thinking about their relationship with nature more, she said. They’re checking in with their feelings and emotions more. They’re more creative with the space they have, she said. And yet they’re still practicing and learning all the same things traditional preschoolers do.

Because the idea of outdoor early education is catching on nationwide, Washington launched a pilot program in 2017 to develop official requirements that all licensed outdoor preschools must follow.

Until recently, no outdoor preschools in the United States were licensed, which meant they couldn’t offer full-day programs, an important factor for many working families. Unlicensed outdoor preschools also can’t offer state financial assistance to families.

But over the past two years, the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families has worked on creating new guidelines specifically for outdoor learning, which has slightly different regulations than indoor schools. One new standard requires each classroom to have one teacher for every six kids, so most classes have two or three staff members. Other guidelines detail how to implement naptime, or what to do when it rains.

“We do have a canopy that we put over the sign-in and class area,” Kinney said. “Otherwise, they play in the rain. They’re provided with good rain gear … And if the weather gets to a point where it’s unsafe, we do have options to go inside.”

At Camp Long, the Tiny Trees class can escape to an on-site lodge if the weather gets too hot or cold, she said. Other classrooms have community centers or covered picnic areas.

Source: Learning in nature: Washington becomes first in the country to license outdoor preschools | The Seattle Times

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Florence

    Hi, interesting.This article is resonating with what I am processing in Africa.we do not have match artificial environment but we try to create some, denying the children the nature touch of things.please show me how the environment is designed and how it looks like.

  2. Avatar
    Autumn Sousanis

    Outdoor school does not need to include books, plastic magnet toys and definitely not Lego. And it shouldn’t. We get so tangled up in our preformed idea that we can’t see clearly or envision how to let kids play and learn in nature, from nature? We have to add Legos?! And a game called ‘Put out the fire with Legos’??
    My children attended a mostly outdoor Waldorf based preschool in Mi. They were dressed for the weather, they climbed trees, played in the dirt, cooked over a fire pit, learned real fire safety, they finger knit their own scarves, dug in the garden, ate from the garden, made bread every morning, had imaginative made up story telling hour, used bits of cloth and yarn and freshly found small wooden sticks to make the figures for the story time, napped in hammocks, No plastic toys. On occasion the kids would walk to a nearby wooded area, and if a child needed to use a bathroom, they were taught how to do that in nature, hygienically, not escorted to a porta potty. My kids learned real life skills, in preschool.
    Legos outdoors for goodness sake. Have we lost the ability to THINK?!

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