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“Outdoor Preschool During COVID: Reflections, Successes and Challenges”

Like every other childcare program in the state of Oregon, our half-time indoors/half-time outdoors nature school temporarily closed in March due to COVID. When we reopened in June, we switched to an all outdoors all the time format as a safety precaution. Now that we have 4 months of all outdoor learning behind us and have made the transition to a new group of children for the school year, it is a good time to reflect on the outdoor preschool experience.

Overall, the transition to running an exclusively outdoor program has been a positive one, with easier onboarding for new students, less conflicts between students and less power struggles. We definitely are still working out kinks with the amount of time it takes to wash hands and the distance between the various forest clearings we visit and the indoor bathroom.

More Engaged Learning Time

We used to start our day inside and then move outside for snack and the second half of our day. Once the rainy season started, transitioning from inside to outside could be a time-consuming process as children managed zippers, buttons, layers, boots and snaps. While these are important fine motor and self-help skills, it can be frustrating for children while they are practicing and challenging for those who quickly dress themselves to wait for their classmates.

Now that we start our day outside, children arrive in the morning already dressed for the weather. The time we used to spend getting every child insulated from the cold is now extra time for children to engage in meaningful play. Without the numerous breaks in our day to transition from one area to another, children have more time to create elaborate projects and carry ideas through to completion.

Clean Up Struggles are Gone

Another way we have been gifted more time for learning is through the elimination of a designated whole group clean up time. Cleaning up the indoor space to transition to outside used to require a lot of teaching and cajoling, especially at the beginning of the year when a new crop of 3 year olds who have never before been in a group setting join us. I used puppets to demonstrate how to put things away, had children offer suggestions to one another, held hands so individual children could clean up with me, and gave constant positive reinforcement in the way of, “I see so and so putting the shells in the basket. I see so and so tucking the dolls into their bed.”

Now, we have one “dirty box,” where children place materials as soon as they are done using them. It is such a simple process that none of the children have trouble figuring out what to do – and not a single child has reacted with anything other than “okay” when reminded to come back and put something they are no longer using into the “dirty box.” We also use far less materials, as many of the children’s “toys” are sticks, dirt, flowers, or leaves that they find on the ground. The natural items just go back on the ground when they are done using them.

Less Classroom Cleaning and Sanitizing

Likewise, the cleaning and sanitizing that teachers need to do at the end of each session is simplified. The forest floor never needs to be vacuumed or mopped. The only “furniture” to clean is the paint easel. Everything that the children collected in the “dirty box” gets dunked in soapy water, rinsed with clean water and then sanitized. The teachers sort and replace the items when they are dry.

More Wildlife Sightings

An unexpected bonus to our outdoor time has been increased wildlife sightings. The birdsongs are quite loud in the mornings, and we have a hummingbird that regularly visits flowers next to us during group meeting times. We watch squirrels, rabbits and birds while we eat snack or lunch. Especially gratifying have been the deer sightings. I do not know if our increased sightings are because we are simply outside for longer periods of time or if the wildlife have accepted our presence because it is more consistent. The deer certainly seem much more at ease with us and allow us to observe from a fairly close vantage point.

Challenges Include the Bathroom

Our main challenge has been the bathroom. While we are outside the entire time, using the bathroom requires stepping into the indoor facility. Some of the children are still adjusting to the amount of time they need to allow their bladder for the transition inside. It is not always a quick process, and one teacher may be inside with a single child while the other manages the rest of the group.

Overall, I have been quite happy with our switch to an all outdoor program. As the weather turns colder, we may have new challenges with being outside and may need to create new solutions. However, once the danger of COVID has passed, it is doubtful that we will ever return again to a 50-50 split between indoor and outdoor learning. Both the children and teachers seem much morre flexible, relaxed and engaged in nature.

Nicole Fravel, Wildwood Nature School, 408-656-6916

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