I like to be on time. In fact, I usually like to be a bit early. My family and I moved to Kirkland in June 2016 and I decided at Christmas to begin looking at preschools so that my daughter could begin in the Fall of 2017.
Prior to beginning this search, I thought preschools were the type of place you walked into, liked it, signed up, and your kid was in. For anyone who knows the process in the greater Seattle area, this is laughable. The process is none too easy.
During the past three months, I have toured more than a dozen preschools, from Montessori schools to Waldorf, from cooperatives to outdoor schools. The latter is what has caught my interest.
Outdoor preschools, or nature schools, are becoming more popular in the Pacific Northwest while their origins in Scandinavia and Germany date back to the mid 1900s.
Similar to play-based preschools, this type of school allows children the opportunity to explore, adventure, play in the wild and get dirty. Children learn how to count by gathering stones and placing them in piles.
They learn letters by drawing them in the sand, or reconfiguring them out of sticks. They learn social skills by keeping an eye out for one another and giving each other a hand as the others cross the creek. They learn attentiveness as a hawk soars overhead beckoning their notice. They learn resilience, especially in the Northwest where rain is a commonality. And most of all, they learn a love and respect for Mother Nature.
“We couldn’t think of a better classroom for kids in the area, than being outside,” remarked Ann Glaser, head of Tiny Treks, a nature preschool located in Redmond that also offers classes to children as young as 20 months and up through age 7. “We build our curriculum around natural events, like the leaves changing, the salmon spawning (which flow through a creek on the premises), or mushrooms growing after the rains.”
But Tiny Treks doesn’t just start at preschool. It begins when children are toddlers as a parent/tot program. It’s essentially a nature coop, giving kids a running start in an outdoor setting until children are ready to attend preschool and leave their parents behind. Like so many other preschools, to guarantee a spot for a child, it is often essential to enroll them in classes like these prior to age 3.
Tiny Treks isn’t the only nature preschool offered on Seattle’s Eastside. In fact, there are over a dozen programs urging parents to give their children more time outdoors. The Child Mind Institute elaborated on what many are now calling nature deficit disorder,
“The average American child is said to spend four-to-seven minutes a day in unstructured play outdoors, and over seven hours a day in front of a screen.” Meanwhile the American Association for Pediatrics recommends at least 60 minutes of unstructured play outside for children.
Seattle’s Eastside is struggling to meet the demand for preschoolers. Many families find themselves on a handful of waitlists, hoping that something will open up. Looking outside the box, or classroom, may be the answer.
Here are some local outdoor preschools:
Days are spent 100 percent outside in the forest, farm and garden. Nature themes are mixed with craft and play. Circle time with songs and finger plays, puppets and some light yoga stretches. Give your child a running start in the great outdoors with Tiny Treks parent/child programs.
Kirkland/Redmond (Keep It Simple Farm; surrounding area)
Ages 1.5 -7
Field and Forest Outdoor Preschool
Children and staff spend their time outdoors on the beautiful five-acre wooded site with a unique program based on the German Forest Garden approach. Children have the opportunity to learn about the natural environment, how to handle risks and, most importantly, how to use their own initiative to solve problems and cooperate with others.
Fox in the Forest
Hike, build forts, climb, play in mud, learn about nature, campfire, build teeter totter, brew forest tea, cook over an open fire.
Bothell (Songaia Cohousing Community)
Ages 1.5 – 6
A program of the Pacific Science Center focused on play using nature as the ideal catalyst for discovery and stimulation. Seasonal themes and daily activities are designed to meet the developmental needs of early learners, while encouraging curiosity and fostering a love of nature and learning.
Bellevue (Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center)
Quickly expanding program that offers an affordable option for families. Aims to give children a joyful, nature rich childhood – one full of play, exploration and wonder and also offering a quality education in reading, math and science.
Kirkland (Big Finn Hill Park); Cougar Mountain (Issaquah/Bellevue)
Laura Borner is a Kirkland resident with a child attending Tiny Treks preschool in Kirkland.