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Outdoor preschools: A new education trend is trading walls and desks for trees and creeks

Posted at 8:54 AM, Oct 31, 2019
and last updated 2019-11-05 18:33:13-05

SHELTON, Wash. — Trudging through the forest on a brisk, drizzly day, a group of preschoolers dressed in neon yellow outerwear set out to learn, despite being caught in the rain.

“We've got to make sure our sleeves are tucked in; our shirts are tucked into our gear so that we stay nice and dry,” Sabrina Green explains.

Tucked between two creeks and an old growth cedar forest in Shelton, Washington, is the Squaxin Island Child Development Center.

Scientists agree that spending time outdoors is good for you. In recent years, preschools have started education programs that take place all outside, all the time. It’s a trend spreading across the country.

Here, in what is known as their "saplings and cedars classroom," teachers focus on social and emotional development, self-regulation and good old-fashioned tree climbing.

Even when the weather becomes so challenging that you can’t use traditional books or tools in the classroom, the teachers just adjust their curriculum for the environment.

“Academically there's really nothing different,” says outdoor lead preschool teacher Madison Ball. “Where the teachers inside are drawing on paper, we're drawing with sticks in the mud. Where the teachers inside are playing with slime that they made out of glue, we're playing with clay that we harvested from the creek.”

According to the Natural Start Alliance , more than 400 nature preschools and forest kindergarten programs are now operating in nearly every state.

But this past September Squaxin became one of just two schools in Washington state — and the nation — now licensed for full-day outdoor preschool.

Green, Squaxin’s operations manager, says being outside is transformative.

“You're not stuck in a loud room that's four walls and 19 children and three staff teachers,” Green says. “It's just that automatic connection. and you know your heart settled, your brain settled.”

For 5-year-old Rosalani, it’s simple.

“I like to get wet,” she says.

But she’s also learned some important lessons.

“Umm, be careful of snakes,” she says.

Good advice.

For state regulators, outdoor safety was the most important consideration when it came to licensing.

Aliza Yair helped draft the licensing requirements for full-day outdoor preschools as a program specialist with the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.

“Knowing your climate and making sure that you have what you need to keep children safe," Yair says. “You know, there's that saying: no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”

Squaxin’s first class of 13 outdoor preschoolers graduated last year and have transitioned to brick-and-mortar kindergarten this year. Educators like Ball say they have high hopes for how they will fare.

“Their ability to focus, their ability to self-regulate, their ability to engage and to work with groups has actually become much stronger despite the fact that they're now in four walls as opposed to being out in the woods," she says.