Rain or Shine Schools, Forest Preschools, Nature Schools, Forest Kindergartens. These are filling up Facebook and Instagram feeds with their gorgeous pictures of wee ones out in nature exploring, discovering, being children! Forest Preschools are increasingly popular. Smaller class size & a teacher to child ratios, and a focus on nature play, these programs may just revolutionize childcare in the US.
There is something so nostalgic, so romantic, and so deeply satisfying about seeing children in a richly green hued canvas. The texture of trees and mist surrounding them, seeing them knelt down in a full body rain suit examining the intricacies of a leaf makes us shout- YES! This is what childhood must be! Wouldn’t we all want to spend our days this way? I was hooked-completely and utterly hooked when my daughter was barely one. And so off I set thinking I was just gonna make that happen. I lived in Southern California of all places- how are these not a thing! There’s almost no rain, there’s no freezing temperatures or snow to contend with. No thunderstorms or tornados.
How do we not have them everywhere?!
It turns out there is actually no way to license an exclusively outdoor program in the state of California. An indoor space is required – even if you never use it.
In California, preschools, nursery schools, and commercial childcare centers are all legally the same. They are regulated, licensed, and legislated through the same agency and department. This means that preschools or nursery schools which only are open for a morning and an afternoon session are bound to the same rules and regulations as a center which is open from 6 AM- 8PM. Technically, they are all childcare centers in one big pile.
In theory I understand this, it’s an enormous state with some huge cities. They have to have rules. I get that. Of course, there should be fire extinguishers, gates, first aid kits, and emergency procedures. And it all makes sense. Environments are easy to legislate, license, and regulate. They are easy to manage.
But it seems counter productive to regulate schools which are only open for a morning session and an afternoon session in the same way as a center which is caring for children for 8 hours or more. Obviously, a center that is caring for children from 6 AM- 8PM needs some cozy indoor spaces. Having children outside from sunrise to sunset while away from their parents is a lot.
However, as it stands now, regulations require part time schools to have an indoor space even if a child is only in school for three hours at a time. Three hours of outdoor time in no way seems excessive. The AAP, CDC, and the WHO all recommend at least an hour of outside play a day for preschoolers. Yet, we force those programs to adhere to the same rules and regulations as those which provide all day care. And that comes at a cost to the parents.
Rental space in California is not cheap and outdoor space attached to indoor space is almost impossible to find in larger cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. When it is available, rent is enormous because the landlords are generally courting restaurants and bars who can afford 5 figure rents.
In the two years working on opening a nursery school in Los Angeles, I can tell you definitively, finding a space with the appropriate indoor/ outdoor space is a monumental task. It is without a doubt the highest line item on most childcare’s budgets. If you desire qualified teachers as well there is no way to make childcare affordable to the average working family. Childcare in LA runs between $1600-2200 for NAEYC accredited centers. This is equal or greater to what most families pay in rent in LA. But there’s no way to make it cheaper unless you only pay your staff the same as a fast food worker with no benefits. Which is no kinda trade off in my mind.
Enter Forest Preschools…
Tiny Trees, a nonprofit in Seattle,WA, is pioneering the notion that forest preschools can reduce costs while offering higher quality care due to savings on rent. They partnered with the parks department to consolidate their indoor spaces. A number of programs share a few indoor spaces the parks department already had and then the children and teachers utilize the city’s parks as their classrooms for most of their day. It is a simply brilliant model and I can’t wait to see how their programs evolve, flourish, and hopefully spark more throughout the country.
Since there is no way to perfectly ensure that the environment is entirely safe (which is kinda the point), forest preschools rely on teacher education and interactions to keep children safe. The student to teacher ratio is much lower, in my limited sample size, it was generally 1:3, 1:4 versus state requirements of 1:8; 1:12. Additionally, teachers are highly educated. Teachers generally hold a BA or higher as well as continuing education credits or certificates in early childhood education. There are a number of programs popping up around the country to offer specific training for outdoor school teachers.
This lower teacher to student ratio and higher teacher education strengthens the relationships betweens students and their teachers, creates stronger bonds between peers, and ensures challenging and safe enough exploration.
Few forest preschools I know of in California are actually licensed. Some are run as playgroups or co-ops with parents staying with the children which allows them to circumvent the childcare center regulations much like Free Forest Preschool LA. They are part of a larger community of like minded parents who set about creating a template and network so more parents can offer their children time to be in nature at a variety of nature reserves, and city, state, and national parks. It seems unreasonable to me that California doesn’t offer parents the ability to choose exclusively outdoor programs for themselves that are also state licensed. Forest Preschool directors are dedicated early childhood educators and deserve the chance to license their programs with the state.
Forest Preschools with a set location offer families something truly special. Children can explore more freely, there is the ability to disrupt the ground, create craters, piles of rocks and sticks, pick flowers and leaves. Children eat and sleep outside. They learn to make fires with their teachers, science is all around them, and they can explore further away from their adults.
How to start a Forest Preschool for a beginner…
One of the main concerns cited by parents as to why they restrict their children’s outdoor adventures is safety. And I can certainly attest to my own fears clouding my comfortability with outdoor exploration at times.
For me, two concerns leave me wanting to restrict children’s freedom of exploration in Southern California: poison oak and rattlesnakes. Poison Oak is everywhere in the spring here. There are entire hikes where it is creeping around all the trees and is growing right up onto the trails. I am Indiana Jones’ like in my dislike of snakes. I really don’t like them. And I used to think rattlesnakes weren’t an issue as long as we stayed on the trail… until I encountered three in one day on one trail.
I did not like! After that I shut down the run aheads. It was strictly hand holding and song singing. I did not maintain much chill.
Here’s the point though- the sightings allowed my fear to be diminished. I now feel empowered with plenty of ways to protect oneself. We saw snakes and were never really in much danger (save the first one- that one felt really close!). Practicing simple safety rules can keep you safe and your heart rate down. The sightings also empowered my daughter more than anything I did.
We now read the Caution Rattlesnake sign at the trail head at the beginning of each hike. Stay on the trail, don’t approach any snake, if you see a snake: stop and let it pass before moving on, and if you hear a rattle: stop, look, and try to locate where the sound is coming from, then move away or stay put until the snake moves away from the location. Wearing hiking boots that reach over the top of your ankle is helpful to.
I work to find trails that offer plenty of open space for exploring when we are hiking together. The balance of staying on the trail while singing trail songs or just talking against the exploration when we get to an open space seems to me to work out two important aspects to early childhood: the need for free play and the practice of impulse control and self regulation.
Each region of the US has something that could potentially pose a threat, yet it is our duty to manage these assumptions. Ticks and bug bites can be dangerous, but are easily avoided with proper clothing and the simple procedure of checking for ticks immediately after a hike. Wild animals in general are more afraid of us than we are of them and are incredibly unlikely to seek out humans while we explore.
Really all one needs to get out in nature is a desire and a little moxie. Get yourself good hiking shoes, clothing that covers your body while keeping you comfortable, a hat, water, sunscreen, bug repellent in certain areas, and maybe a backpack for all your extra stuff. That is really all you need. A guidebook heightens the experience as it teaches you about what you are seeing and hearing.
Children don’t need much to make their own adventures. They need an enriching environment and adults who can guide them.
Removing walls removes many of the safety features that we put in place to ensure that children remain unharmed. This simply means the adults need to be better informed and more present and focused. Ratios need to be smaller so children can roam freely while their caregiver remains confident of the child’s whereabouts.
Researchers have discovered what many a parent has witnessed for decades- children are easier to be with outdoors. They are carefree, joyful, full of spirit and wonder. They are less likely to engage in negative physicality (hitting, biting, pushing) when outdoors as well. There is something about the freedom that space provides that allows young children to feel more at ease and less likely to hit, push, or bite due to social anxiety.
There is just not much more from a childhood we could ask for than one that is filled with beauty and wonder. Spending time outdoors learning, growing, and playing provides children this in spades.