This fall, instead of crayons and colored paper, 160 Seattle preschoolers got a novel — but necessary — school supply: A full-body rain suit.
The students all attend Tiny Trees Preschool, which opened this year with 11 classes spread across four city parks. The rain suits are issued to each student for free.
Tiny Trees is the latest in a wave of outdoor preschools in Seattle — many have no indoor space and use forests, parks or farms as their classrooms.
“Nature is this incredible untapped resource for early childhood education. It’s very low cost and very effective,” says Christy Merrick, director of Natural Start Alliance, a national group that tracks and supports more than 200 outdoor preschool programs.
The trend toward outdoor education is national, but it’s taken root in Seattle unlike anywhere else, Merrick says. Her group plans to hold its national conference in Seattle next year, so other programs from around the country can get a firsthand look at the various schools and how they work here.
She says there are many reasons why play-based outdoor education programs are flourishing, including the increasing awareness of the benefits of playtime for young learners.
“I think some parents are rebelling against the standardization, against all the testing that’s pushing down to those younger ages,” says Merrick.
“They see nature-based schools as literally a breath of fresh air. It’s defining success a little bit differently, where the whole child is at the heart of the program.”
Kit Harrington and Sarah Heller started Seattle’s first completely outdoor preschool, Fiddleheads Forest School, in 2013 at the Washington Park Arboretum. “We got the forecast calling for an inch of rain on our first day. We had this sense of having no idea whether it was going to work at all,” Harrington says, but since the opening three years ago they’ve seen interest in the program increase every year. They’ve added teachers and class sessions to try to meet demand.
Most important, they’ve seen children flourish in the outdoors. “You can lie on the ground at any space in the classroom and discover something that’s totally new. I think that’s exactly it: It’s so accessible for kids,” Harrington says.
Harrington says there’s so much about outdoor-based school that’s not possible or practical in an indoor facility. For example, she sees the rhythm of children’s learning match seasonal weather patterns: In fall, new students in a new space are often a bit more reserved, so the outdoor classroom is smaller and more intimate.
“The classroom slowly expands as the children are ready for new challenges and ready to explore,” says Harrington. Fortunately, that corresponds with winter, when colder temperatures mean the children need to move more to stay warm. They take long nature walks and learn about migration and hibernation. They build their own bear dens and learn to identify the first flower buds. As the weather warms up, the children are “primed for extended exploration and in-depth learning,” she says.
Andrew Jay, CEO of Tiny Trees, says that outdoor learning is focused on allowing children to explore and engage with nature.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Andrew Jay, CEO of Seattle's Tiny Trees Preschool, is eager to make outdoor ed accessible to lower-income families.
“Play and adventure and wonder are a big part of our classroom,” he says. “We are not a STEM or engineering preschool. We’re trying to create well-rounded, socially and emotionally developed children.”
And he’s passionate about bringing outdoor education to diverse populations, regardless of income. Tuition at Tiny Trees is 10 percent lower than that of indoor schools in Seattle; they offer a discounted tuition that’s 30 percent less than that. The programs are intentionally located close to schools where a majority of students receive free or reduced-price lunches.
“The ultimate vision is to bring affordable preschool to scale. In Washington state, 60 percent of preschool-aged children are not enrolled in a preschool program,” Jay says. With low-cost, high-quality preschools like Tiny Trees, he believes that could change — and the academic achievement gap between low- and higher-income students could be reduced.
He says that outdoor schools work particularly well in Seattle, where real-estate prices are driving preschool tuition costs up. In the outdoor school model, money saved on a building lease is put toward greater teacher training and education.
All three outdoor preschool advocates say the movement is at a critical point: Demand is high and the programs are in the spotlight, but there isn’t much research on the programs, and they need some laws and policies to be updated. Preschool permitting laws, for example, were written with indoor spaces in mind.
But they’re all hopeful that in the future, more and more young learners will spend significant time outdoors.
“When I watch how kids encounter the natural world and develop a sense of connection with it in a deep and meaningful way, I think that helps them to be resilient, to be independent and to encounter the world as an opportunity for learning,” says Harrington, “no matter what.”