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

By Elise Takahama for The Seattle Times

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.

Read more here.

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