Wednesday, May 2, 2018

DEL explores outdoor preschool through pilot project

The Department of Early Learning (DEL) has begun exploring the possibility of licensing outdoor, nature-based preschool programs. Through a pilot project with more than a dozen of the state’s outdoor preschools, DEL seeks to collect and analyze data about child safety in outdoor settings.

Currently, there are more than 40 outdoor preschools operating in the state. Because these preschools are part-day programs, they are not subject to child care licensing regulations, but many of these programs seek to create full-day programs. DEL’s outdoor preschool pilot was established by the Washington State Legislature in spring of 2017 to investigate how outdoor preschools currently operate and how to adapt licensing rules to allow for the operation of full-day outdoor programs.

“For me the motivation is really about ensuring the health and safety of children and helping to promote the model as a whole and gain credibility for the field,” said Kit Harrington, pilot participant and director of the Fiddleheads Forest School at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I hope that it provides the opportunity for more families to access outdoor preschool programming.”

The pilot project began in July 2017 with the recruitment of 16 programs to be pilot participants who will advise DEL on the creation of licensing rules especially for outdoor programs. Participants will test out full-day services and aid in the ongoing collection and analysis of data. In the fourth year of the pilot, beginning July 2020, DEL will conduct its final data collection and analysis and submit pilot recommendations to the legislature.

The participants met for their first in-person meeting of 2018 on March 12. At the meeting, pilot participants learned the basic procedures for becoming licensed, including signing up for MERIT, Washington’s professional development registry, and beginning the portable background check process for the programs’ staff members. DEL staff and pilot participants also discussed some of the licensing challenges associated with outdoor preschools, including appropriate staff-to-child ratios and the assessment and use of outdoor spaces.

The pilot participants represent an array of outdoor-based learning environments. Some participants have indoor classrooms but emphasize outdoor time. Others are fully immersed in forests or other outdoor environments without any indoor space. Regardless of the environment, though, outdoor preschools feel they offer unique experiences to early learners.

“We let what’s going on around us shape our curriculum. That’s what nature-based means to us,” said pilot participant Caroline Cook, the early childhood education coordinator at the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center in Bellevue. “One of the most important things I hope kids get out of their time here is a strong connection to and love for nature that will stay with them throughout their lives.”

The outdoor environment allows children to engage in learning in hands-on ways, many participants agree.

“They get to have learning in context, so they’re learning not only what dirt feels like but also what it feels like when it’s wet or slippery,” said Sarah Salazar-Tipton, a pilot participant from Olympic Nature Experience in Sequim. “There are so many layers of learning.”

For some pilot participants, the benefits of participation extend beyond informing the creation of licensing standards.

“Our greatest goal is just to increase that network of support for nature preschools everywhere and to make sure nature preschool is something all children can access,” Harrington said. “Everyone deserves the opportunity to live and learn in an outdoor classroom.”

The pilot participants will continue to meet regularly with DEL staff in-person and over the phone throughout the four years of the project.

“I hope that everybody who is participating is excited with the outcome and that we feel like we’ve created opportunities for schools and programs to get involved,” Salazar-Tipton said. “It’s been great working with the Department of Early Learning. They’ve been very responsive and collaborative.”

For more information about the outdoor preschool pilot project or to read the 2018 legislative report on the pilot, visit

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