Amber Paulsen, Kaleidoscope Preschool and Child Care Center’s director, perches on a tree stump in the woods off Enchanted Forest Road and articulates the concept of “nature deficit-disorder” — the growing gap between human beings and nature.
“It’s a common idea among forest schools,” she says. “Outdoor schools are a way to combat it and do things a little differently. Being on an island, the resources that we have available to us in terms of our natural beauty are….”
Her thoughts halt as a loud cry emanates mysteriously from the distance. A howl much louder than the sound of playing kids on the personified “Little Mountain” tree echoes through the Camp Orkila forest.
“You guys, listen!” Paulsen whispers urgently to the kids and the forest goes quiet again.
“I was spooked!” 4-year-old Archer Vierthaler exclaims as he sits by the campfire, his hands comfortably tucked in his tiny Carhartt jacket, a stick poking out of his blue knit cap.
“I think that was a Barred Owl,” preschool teacher Vanessa Daquilante says quietly. “I heard the ‘who-cooks-for-you’ call.”
Archer howls towards the sky.
It was the second month of the new school year at Kaleidoscope Forest Preschool on Orcas, the first licensed full-day, outdoor preschool in the nation — where instead of gathering around cubbies inside, kids play in the “mud kitchen,” whittle spoons and go on nature hikes. The preschool takes place entirely outdoors in all weather conditions from September through June. The curriculum is fluid, focusing on learner-led outdoor play that encourages curiosity and exploration.
“We needed to grow and legitimize the outdoor preschool program,” said Paulsen, who, three years ago, led Kaleidoscope to offer forest school in the afternoons two days a week. “A lot of research that’s out there now showcases the detriment to children who do not spend enough time outdoors. We need to be intentional in our efforts to make it available because our society is changing. When the legislature voted to make Forest School legal, we started to look into how we could participate. I got in touch with the outdoor preschool pilot program coordinators in Olympia. It was exciting to get to be a part of it in the beginning. Vanessa has been instrumental in that enthusiasm.”
Daquilante shared information from her own research, citing that outdoor school students grow up to be less obese, do well in continuing education, learn how to risk-assess and self-regulate. In one month, she’s seen improvement in friendships in kids who have trouble making friends in “the traditional setting.”
The evolution from indoor to outdoor was vital, says Kimberly Worthington, a program specialist and lead teacher.
Both Daquilante and Worthington teach classes Monday through Thursday from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m, mostly in the woods of Camp Orkila. The YMCA camp offered the use of the land at no charge. Kaleidoscope also licensed the use of Moran State Park and San Juan County Parks so “all of Orcas is essentially available to us.” Their students, kids aged three to five, are thinking about their relationships to nature more, they said. They’re more self-aware, physically and emotionally. The experiences are different outside, yet the practices are similar to the traditional preschool class.
Paulsen said, “We keep our schedule by using two little tin cans full of sticks. It was something we started doing after the kids started asking us what time it was every five minutes. Since we don’t have a clock, as one task is completed, it goes from the “school” tin can to the “home” tin can. In an outdoor setting, we struggle with a lot of the same stuff as we do indoors. Kids still miss their moms.”
Outdoor early education has been popular in Scandinavia for decades, but is recently becoming more prevalent in the United States. According to the Loughborough University’s Media Centre, forest schools started popping up in Denmark as the country struggled with a lack of indoor space for young childhood education centers.
Paulsen echoed, “To build more buildings would be expensive. There’s no money in childcare. Saying we’re going to build a 2 million dollar building so we can charge 5 dollars an hour for childcare — nobody is going to sign up for that.”
In 2017, the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families launched a 4-year pilot program to develop official requirements that all licensed outdoor preschools must follow.
Until now, no outdoor preschools in the United States were licensed, which meant there were no industry standards, and they couldn’t offer full-day programs, an important factor for many working families. Unlicensed outdoor preschools also can’t offer state financial assistance to families.
But over the past two years, the Washington State DCYF has worked instrumentally on creating new guidelines specifically for outdoor learning, which has slightly different regulations than indoor schools. One new standard requires preschool providers to provide a risk management plan for all regularly used locations and nature-based activities. Other guidelines detail staff and child ratio, 1:6, how to implement naptime, or what to do when it rains.
“The trees offer some shelter from the rain, but we will put up a big tarp as well,” Paulsen said. “We have a lot of conversations around what do we do to stay dry? What layers do you need to change into when you do get wet? When a child says ‘I’m cold,’ instead of saying ‘put your jacket on’ we say ‘what can you do about that?’ or ‘why don’t you go ask a friend what you can do about that.’ Self-regulation and self-awareness of the body temperature and solutions are paramount.”
Having a campfire not only keeps the indoor classroom at Kaleidoscope smelling like Forest School long after the kids return at the end of the day, it also helps mitigate the cold, Paulsen said. She mentions the specific sections in the state’s licensing standards detailing requirements for the firepit, tree climbing, composting toilets and handwashing without handwashing facilities.
“After doing childcare licensing for 20 years, it is unbelievable to me how rules in one realm can be so strict and rigid and then in another, just so much more accommodating.”
This August, with the new regulations in hand, the state first licensed Kaleidoscope for outdoor preschool. Shortly after, Squaxin Island Child Development Center in Shelton, Washington followed. Others too, like Tiny Trees in West Seattle, are soon to complete the licensing process. Over the next year, the state will monitor and evaluate outdoor preschool quality and impact. Aliza Yair, an Outdoor Preschool Pilot Program specialist, said being the first program with a license, is “a wonderful accolade.”
Yair shared that nature can be a place for a young scientist to discover in a field what might be hidden to them in a textbook and that hands-on learning is a very developmentally appropriate way to engage all of children’s senses.
“Time spent in a natural place can increase children’s emotional connectedness with nature, which can also have huge impacts on their emotional and mental well-being as they grow up and in the types of care they will show the earth,” Yair said.
So far, Archer has loved Kaleidoscope’s Forest School, except for when he misses his mom. To cope, the teachers at Kaleidoscope printed and laminated a picture of her that he keeps in his backpack, although they haven’t seen him pull it out in a few weeks.
But while the state pushes forward to promote outdoor learning, some families have voiced worries about the idea.
Paulsen said it’s been a challenge to find families to support the idea of four full days outdoors, and some criticism she’s received regarding the program suggests it’s too progressive.
“Even if research proves that outdoor education is valuable for preschoolers, the next educational step for them doesn’t traditionally support this progressive model. Transition to public education could be difficult,” Paulsen said.
However one of her goals is to offer more evidence that outdoor time is crucial for children’s development.
In reviewing Kaleidoscope’s “Ouch Reports” each month, Paulsen said she noticed a difference in reports from indoors to outdoors.
“Out in the forest, the kids are so much more aware of where they’re putting their bodies,” she said. “Even with all the roots and trip hazards, that’s all part of their space and they learn to respect it and work with it.”
Daquilante added, “I see Madrona’s balance and mobility markedly improving after joining Forest School. She’s getting so fast and jumping from higher things. The first week, she fell and cried about every five minutes. Seeing their growth really is incredible.”
Kaleidoscope offers two options for outdoor forest preschool. Families can enroll for two full days a week or four full days a week, or families can enroll in the regular preschool program and kids will still attend one full day of forest school each week. There are 12 available spots each day, and Paulsen says they always try to make sure the new Kaleidoscope forest school bus is full, so some preschoolers may have the chance to attend more than once a week. Monthly prices are $1,000 for four full days and $500 for two full days, and state financial assistance is available through the Washington pilot program license.