Washington State Allows Outdoor Early Learning Schools

Learning in Nature preschools and childcare centers can now be licensed

Nov 14, 2019
Special Collections: PLAY LIKE A KID

Children learn by playing and there is no better playground than the great outdoors. Afterall, what child can resist climbing, splashing, collecting rocks or leaves, or doing anything in dirt.

Learning in nature is not a new concept and outdoor preschools have been popular in Europe for years. As children spend more time looking at screens, and less time outside, getting outside in nature is becoming more important for their education and well-being.

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

Research backs this up. A 2018 study in Frontiers in Psychology showed that learning in nature has been tied to high levels of engagement and enjoyment. Teachers had to redirect lessons much less frequently and students were far more attentive during outdoor lessons.

The study said that earlier studies done in Massachusetts public schools found that students who study in schools with greenery in or around them have a better academic achievement. Other research in Washington DC showed higher standardized test scores in schools with more tree cover.

That's why the Washington state legislature passed a law in 2017, SB 5357, establishing a pilot program to license outdoor early learning and childcare centers. Washington is the first state in the US to adopt this.

Before this, licensing wasn't available for outdoor schools and that meant that the schools could not have full-day programs or offer state financial aid for parents.

The Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families has worked for two years to come up with requirements and standards were established for the outdoor preschool pilot programs. These include having one teacher for every six students and important things like what to do in case of inclement weather according to The Seattle Times.

In September 2019, there were two programs that met all the requirements to be in the pilot, Squaxin Island Child Development Center in Shelton, Mason County, and Kaleidoscope Preschool and Child Care Center in Eastsound, San Juan County.

Tiny Trees Preschool in Seattle that meets in West Seattle’s forest like Camp Long is working on joining the pilot. The preschool operates outdoors from September to June, rai n or shine and in Seattle, it rains a lot.

“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.” There is an indoor lodge located at Camp Long.

There have been concerns that the children who go to outdoor early learning schools may not be prepared for kindergarten. This isn't an issue at Tiny Trees where the lessons aren't that different from traditional indoor bricks and mortar schools.

In fact, in one area of the "classroom" there's a lab set-up with magnifying glasses so kids can really examine the insects, leaves, flowers and other species of the camp, there's a reading area, a place for imagination play that is filled with blocks and typical preschool learning toys.

“I don’t feel like we’re missing out on anything,” Kinney said. “And some kids just need a different environment.”

Children have years to sit in indoor classrooms, these outdoor schools offer them an opportunity to learn from nature's best learning space, the great outdoors. Even if there are no outdoor schools near you, indoor preschools can take advantage of this amazing concept to bring nature into their lives by taking field trips to nature preserves, parks and forests.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.
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