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Outdoor Schools Open Up New Adventures in Learning

A new program is testing whether the outdoor school idea could make early childhood education more accessible and affordable.

March 19, 2017

When 3-year-old Charlie McGlynn-Wright was born, her parents felt pressured to immediately start looking for a preschool. 

Their search confirmed what other parents had warned — many Seattle preschools have years-long waitlists and tuition bills that rival the cost of attending college.

Charlie’s father Teddy McGlynn-Wright works for the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative. That makes him all too aware that a lack of affordable, high-quality preschools means minority children from low-income families end up falling behind.

Across the nation, about 44 percent of children from low-income families attend center-based preschool, compared to almost 70 percent of children from high-income families.

Children who receive a high-quality early childhood education are more likely to get better-paying jobs, live healthier lives and avoid incarceration.

McGlynn-Wright and his friend Andrew Jay were talking about Seattle’s lack of affordable, accessible preschools when it struck them that a big reason is the soaring cost of building space in places like Seattle.

“Where you’ve got really high property values, it’s hard to compete when you are a school or nonprofit,” McGlynn-Wright says. “But if we cut out the building, that cuts out easily 30 to 40 percent of the cost of running a preschool.”

And so the idea for Tiny Trees was born. For the cost of opening one brick-and-mortar classroom serving 20 students a day, they’re opening 11 classes that serve about 150 students. The pilot program began this school year in public parks around Seattle.

“The children who are attending Tiny Trees every day for five days a week will be spending the majority of their waking days outdoors immersed in nature,” says Andrew Jay, CEO of Tiny Trees. “There’s no better way to give children an intimate connection to the environment of the Northwest.”

Tuition is set on a sliding scale, with the city subsidizing part of the cost, based on a student’s family income. More than half the students at Tiny Trees rely on this kind of financial help.

And every child receives a full-body rain suit.

Charlie was one of the first to be enrolled. For McGlynn-Wright, helping his daughter develop confidence to navigate the outdoors is just as important as other preschool lessons.

“There are a lot of black and brown folks who look like me, who look like her, who don’t feel welcome in outdoor spaces,” MyGlynn-Wright says. “I wanted to make sure that from a really early age, she got the sense of ‘I belong here and that this place belongs to me.’”  

And he wants all of her classmates, regardless of their race, to develop a lifelong bond with the natural world.

That connection to the environment was a big reason Erin Kenny founded Cedarsong Nature School, the nation’s first forest kindergarten, in 2006 on Vashon Island, a short ferry ride from Seattle.
“Learning outdoors is one of the best ways to create a positive and intimate bond with the natural world,” Kenny says.

The outdoor preschool idea has been around for decades in Germany, Norway and Denmark. These alternative educational programs weren’t necessarily designed first and foremost with affordability in mind, but instead as a response to the trend of children spending too little time playing outdoors.

More than half of U.S. preschoolers don’t go outside to play even once a day, according to a Seattle Children’s Hospital Research study. When children aren’t outside, Kenny says, their connection to nature withers.

Young children today recognize hundreds of corporate logos, but few can identify more than a handful of plants and animals in their own backyard. Kenny’s students are different.

They can identify a raven by its call. They know that hazelnut leaves are edible. By age 4, they can explain how soil is made. They’ve figured out that it’s better to climb trees barefoot than in slippery-soled shoes.

“They are learning all kinds of valuable principles about gravity, and texture, and shapes and colors and all the things you might expect to see in a preschool curriculum,” Kenny says. “They are just doing it outdoors and at their own pace.”

Now a decade after Cedarsong opened, the outdoor school idea has spread. Similar schools have sprouted up across the nation. There are more than two dozen in the greater Seattle metropolitan area alone.

But the larger educational system hasn’t evolved as quickly. In many states, including Washington, regulations make it impossible for a school without a building to be licensed.

“Licensing is one of the biggest obstacles for people looking to start new programs,” says Kit Harrington, founder of Fiddleheads Forest School, an outdoor preschool nestled among the towering cedar trees of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

Since Fiddleheads Forest School opened in 2013, it’s had to move to a lottery system because of high demand, but like Cedarsong, it’s not licensed. It can’t comply with the state regulations, like keeping the area free of insects and other rodents or mounting fire extinguishers on classroom walls and limiting climbing structures that are no more than 6 inches off the ground.  

Harrington says Fiddleheads plans to participate in formal research to help build a case for the academic rigor of outdoor schools.

Jay of Tiny Trees says his preschools are working with the state’s Department of Early Learning to draft new rules for the coming state legislative session that would adapt current health and safety guidelines for use in outdoor classrooms.


At Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle the classroom is the great outdoors.

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell

Katie Campbell was the senior managing editor for video at Cascade Public Media and a founding reporter of the public media reporting partnership EarthFix. She covered environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest for more than six years, earning numerous regional and national journalism awards including eight regional Emmy Awards for reporting, photography and editing, a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation and the 2015 international Kavli Science Journalism Gold Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Katie currently works as a video journalist for the investigative journalism nonprofit organization ProPublica in New York City.

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