Currently, outdoor forest and nature preschools in the state of Oregon, like the Wildwood Nature School program that I operate, are unable to qualify for licensure. We operate our programs as “recorded half-day preschool” programs that are exempt from licensing as long as the children are over 3, fully potty-trained and not under our care and supervision for more than 4 hours each day.
Although it may sound like a blessing to be exempt from oversight and paperwork, the inability to gain a full license restricts access to funding, creates inequitable situations for parents and discourages more nature preschools from opening their doors. Our neighboring state of Washington has had a similar situation, but the legislature has recently taken steps to create a path for licensing for outdoor schools.
Benefits of Outdoor Preschool
Washington state embarked on a pilot licensing program for outdoor schools after recognizing both the benefits of outdoor preschools and the need for more options for families. In 2018, doctoral researchers at the University of Washington published work outlining the benefits of nature preschools for child development in three main domains (as quoted in the March 2019 report to the Washington State Legislature on the status of the Outdoor Preschool Pilot Program):
Outdoor play provides more vigorous, varied, and sustained play than play indoors; improves gross and fine motor development, including bone health, balance, coordination, endurance, spatial awareness, core strength, and posture; strengthens immune systems; and promotes lifelong engagement in physical activity.
Outdoor, nature-based play supports improved executive functioning and self-regulation abilities; increases observation and problem-solving skills; increases attention and focus; and challenging play supports children’s resilience, independence, and self-confidence.
Social and Emotional Benefits:
Nature-based play supports children’s development of empathy for the natural world and an emotional connection to special places, laying the foundation for environmentally-responsible attitudes and behaviors and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.
Inequitable Access to Outdoor Preschool Programs
Despite these demonstrated benefits, not all families have access to outdoor programs. According to the Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative, there is currently only capacity to serve 1 out of every 3 children who need childcare in our state – in any type of program, outdoor or traditional. Since forest schools require little overhead in terms of building upkeep and rent, they should be an affordable option for families.
However, because they can operate for only 4 hours each day, they are not practical for working parents unless those parents have the money to afford additional childcare as well or other resources, like nearby grandparents, who can help with childcare. Additionally, since they are not licensed, outdoor programs are not eligible for DHS subsidies offered to low income families to help pay for childcare.
These barriers create an un-equitable situation for children, one that the state of Washington is taking measures to rectify.
The purpose of licensing standards, currently only for traditional indoor programs, is to ensure children’s safety. Outdoor schools are just as concerned with children’s safety as traditional programs, but some of the language and requirements in licensing standards preclude the participation of outdoor programs.
For example, programs are required to own/rent and maintain an indoor facility, have a fenced-in play yard completely under the control of the facility, maintain an insect-free environment and provide for drainage, all of which are difficult to follow in a public forest setting. The pilot program currently underway in the state of Washington seeks to determine if there is a way to ensure that outdoor programs operating in that state can be both safe options for children and authentic nature experiences.
Results of Washington State’s Outdoor Preschool Licensing Pilot
Washington State is now halfway through their four year pilot program, and the legislature recently published a report outlining the progress of the pilot and what they have learned so far. The first step of the pilot program was to identify state licensing standards that would need to be rewritten, adjusted or waived for outdoor programs.
They then used existed program standards, such as those for 4H, Outward Bound and forest schools in Europe, to develop a new set of standards specifically for outdoor preschools. While some standards (such as the one requiring schools to own/rent and maintain an indoor structure) were waived, many of the standards for outdoor schools ended up as more stringent than their indoor counterparts.
For example, while the preschool teacher to preschool child ratio in Washington is 1:10, it is 1:6 for outdoor preschools. There are also additional educational requirements for teachers, who must have additional education in outdoor learning, and standards that are only relevant to outdoor programs, such as the safe handling of eggs or outdoor campfires.
14 different outdoor preschool programs at 22 sites throughout Washington state worked to implement the standards and provide feedback to the legislature. A majority of the schools have successfully made changes to their programs, and are now working with the state to create a pathway for participation in the Washington’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS).
One of the biggest successes of the pilot was a new outdoor preschool that opened on tribal land, using the pilot licensing standards as a blueprint for the program.
The successful introduction of an outdoor program on tribal land shows that outdoor preschools can reach diverse children and families. The state of Washington saw a disconnect between the espoused benefits of outdoor preschool programs and their equitable availability for families, and they put in place a pilot licensing program to determine if the programs’ safety could be effectively monitored.
It is my hope that the state of Oregon can learn from our neighbors to the north and start our own pilot program to give outdoor preschools a path toward licensing.
Outdoor, Nature-based Early Learning and Child Care Pilot Program: Report to the Washington State Legislature, 2019. https://www.dcyf.wa.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/reports/Outdoor_Preschool_Pilot_2019.pdf
Oregon Health and Outdoors Initiative https://www.healthandoutdoors.org/