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Outdoor-Only Preschool On Vashon Island

Carolyn Beeler

There's not a piece of construction paper or a glue stick in sight. In fact, at an entirely outdoor preschool on Vashon Island, there aren't even any walls. Just the forest at Cedarsong Nature School's Forest Kindergarten.


Four–year–old Orion Knowler is wearing the official uniform for his outdoor–only preschool.

Knowler: "I am wearing two coats and two shirts and I'm wearing my rain paints and one other set of pants and then my boots!"

Beeler: "Can you stomp in the puddles with them without getting wet?"

Knowler: "Yes."

Beeler: "What happens when it rains here?"

Knowler: "We get wet! "

The school's teacher Erin Kenny says in two years she's only brought the kids inside once. That was a winter day when the snow was so wet it soaked through their clothes. Other than that, they've stayed outside, rain or shine.

Kenny: "We believe in the motto that that there's no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing choices. Children, as long as they're warm and dry, they can stay out in nature for hours on end."

Kenny works with parents to make sure their kids are wearing the right clothes. On this day it's mild and sunny, but it rained hard overnight. Three kids in their rain pants and rubber boots splash in a big mud puddle in a clearing.

There are no lesson plans and no real curriculum at this preschool. Instead, Erin Kenny lets nature be the guide.

Kenny: "So guys was there any water here yesterday?"

Class: "No!"

Kenny: "Why do you think there's water in here today?"

Class: "Because it rained."

The school is set on five acres tucked deep in the woods. Seven preschoolers are spending their morning tromping on paths through the forest. When they see something interesting — a banana slug or a mushroom or a millipede — Kenny stops the group and sneaks in a lesson. She runs the school with the philosophy that kids learn best when they have time for free play and interaction with nature.

Kenny: "One of the biggest questions we get is 'Well what are the children learning?' and I can tell you these children know so much about the natural world, because they're having direct experience with nature and they're learning the lessons in the field, so the children are touching, tasting, feeling and experiencing the things that they're learning."

Gail Joseph is the director of the Early Childhood and Family Studies program at the University of Washington. She says there's a growing movement to get young kids outdoors more. It stems from the idea that kids today are out of touch with nature, they're increasingly obese, and they don't have enough unstructured play time.

Joseph: "Play is really thought to be essential for young children in order to develop. It helps them develop social skills, it helps them to develop emotional regulation, not to mention creativity and innovation that happens when children have long lengths of time with unstructured and un–adult intervening type of play."

Joseph says being outside allows kids to play more freely because there aren't as many rules to follow. Being outdoors also teaches kids how to deal with moderate risk and lets them to be more active. As long as kids are exposed to reading and early literacy at home, Joseph says an outdoor preschool could be a good alternative to a traditional school.

Kenny: "Guys. Guess what? It's time to go back and meet your parents!"

Back at Cedarsong, it's getting close to noon.

Bianca Perla is Orion's mom. When she was shopping around for preschools two years ago, she looked at traditional schools but opted for this one instead.

Perla: "It just seemed really early to start a lot of intellectual things. You know, you're in school for a lot of your life and learning a lot, and this form of learning, just sort of in an invisible school, really seemed to fit us."

Before Orion started going to the school, Perla says he hated to get dirty.

Perla: "He was the one who would stand on the edge of the pond telling his friends to go in because he didn't want to get his feet wet. And within the first year of Orion being here and playing with his friends out in nature, he forgot about all that."

As his mom talks, Orion squats in the mud with a stick, poking at the dirt. A drizzle starts to fall as parents pack their kids into cars. No one seems to mind.

For KUOW News, I'm Carolyn Beeler.

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