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Outdoor Preschools Are Coming To Seattle, Rain Or Shine

Students at the Fiddleheads, an outdoor school at the Washington Park Arboretum.
Fiddleheads Family Nature School
Students at the Fiddleheads, an outdoor school at the Washington Park Arboretum.

Seattle is beginning to experiment with an unorthodox concept – outdoor preschool.

All day, all year round. Three- and 4-year-old kids would learn outside and in parks. It's more than recess – it's an outdoor classroom.

“All the things you can do in an indoor setting you can do in an outdoor setting,” said Andrew Jay, one of the founders of Tiny Trees, an outdoor preschool. Tiny Trees is preparing to open six preschools by September 2016. It hopes to have 20 preschools by 2020.

But where would the children nap? On mats under park shelters.

And where would they use the bathroom? Park restrooms! Staff would clean those that don't pass muster.

“If it’s really raining – those days in fall when it really pours – we might go under a picnic shelter,” Jay said.

Outdoor school isn’t a new concept. There are forest kindergartens in Germany, England and Scandinavia. There’s an outdoor preschool on Vashon Island and another at the Washington Park Arboretum.

The preschool at the Arboretum is called Fiddleheads, and it’s run by a University of Washington team. Their leader teachers, Kit Harrington and Sarah Heller, shared their experiences and offered inspiration to Jay as he developed his own program. In an email, they described their experience teaching outdoor preschool:

“Over the past 20 months we’ve encountered bald eagles mating, young owlets fledging, praying mantids hunting, and all manner of life and death in the natural world,” they said. “Last year we even had coyotes greeting our students in the morning!

“We know that these experiences are changing the way our students engage with their world on an elemental level, and are inspired by the growing community of families around us committed to preserving the natural world and the awe-inspiring educational opportunities it offers for generations to come.”

Advocates say outdoor school is a response to a world increasingly reliant on screens for entertainment. In that world, parents are nervous about allowing their children to wander into the woods or even their own neighborhoods.

They say that outdoor school will allow children to learn through play.

“Usually when I see a preschool class outside, they’re lined up holding onto a big rope with one teacher leading, and one teacher behind,” Jay said. “The crowd control seems like a lot of work for everyone. But you’re outside all day long, and latching kids to a rope isn’t exactly an option.”

Jay also points to the price – roughly $7,000 a year. That’s far less than most preschools in Seattle, which start around $12,000 and often cost up to $20,000 for full-time care. That’s because they won’t need licensed buildings.

The children will be issued waterproof suits. The teachers, all licensed, will be tasked with keeping the kids moving so they don’t get cold.

“You’re giving a generation of young people not just an education but a rich, vibrant nature education and a connection to the natural world that comes with so many health benefits,” Jay said.

Listen to Andrew Jay’s “fast pitch” for Tiny Trees: