07 Jan We Toured 14 Potential Locations – Here Is What We Learned
By Andrew A. Jay
In early December I joined senior parks leadership and operations staff and our partners from the Associated Recreation Council (ARC)* to explore potential Tiny Trees Preschool locations (for those of you wondering when we are going to announce, our next step is a face to face meeting with Parks on January 13 to talk about the final locations). These tours were a big step and helped Tiny Trees gain a broader perspective on what makes for a great outdoor learning environment. Here is a little of what we learned:
Seattle Has a Wealth of Greenspace: We are really lucky to live in a city with an abundance of public land. And due to the hard work of the thousands of volunteers who are part of the Green Seattle Partnership much of that greenspace is being restored to native ecosystems to create healthier and more welcoming space for wildlife and people. We looked at a short list of 14 parks and green spaces, but the long list could be much greater.
Safety is Our Top Priority: Geography is a big part of creating a safe space. At each site we looked at sight lines, at potential risks and if and how they can be managed and emergency response from how to respond to a thunderstorm to evacuating a hurt child. We also spent a lot of time thinking about how to manage interactions with the public. One lesson on this was that we will not open schools in parks with homeless encampments. Another was that our home classroom at each park should have natural barriers that discourage entry but should also be a visible presence. Our best allies are neighbors and regular park users and the more folks that are looking out for our children the safer they will be.
Community Support Matters: For the last year families have been enrolling online and casting a vote on which park they want to see Tiny Trees at. These votes and addresses have been key. They helped us determine how much support there is for a given location and how many families live next to each park.
Size Matters: We looked at parks ranging in size from 5 acres to 500. We found that a park really needs to be more than 10 acres in size (about the size of a two city blocks) to be an appropriate outdoor classroom. Ideally with a large portion of natural and forested space.
Community Centers Matter: In an era where community is moving online and into the cloud (and increasingly into echo chambers) welcoming, physical spaces where people can gather have become even more important (including as a place for all your new online friends to meet up). For Tiny Trees community centers provide an opportunity for affordable indoor before & after care to support working families who need a full day of coverage. Plus it gives us the option of indoor nap time during the crappiest of weather. 7 of the parks we looked at were next to community centers or environmental learning centers.
Preschools in Parks: Parks are already used as outdoor classrooms by a number of early learning programs: Many parents have shared with me stories about how their current preschool or daycare uses the local park. There are even some excellent partnerships that the Parks Department has built with preschool providers such as Seattle Children’s Play Garden in the Central District, Nature Kids at Discovery Park (operated by ARC*) and of course our inspiration the Fiddleheads School in the Arboretum.
ODE to the PlayGarden
Here, we turn and return
And tumble and learn
By Sherman Alexie
Adding Nature: One location we looked at had big benefits like access to light rail, a great community center & pea/garden patch and a short walk from a dense urban village with lots of families. But the amount of wild & natural space was less than other parks. This is a location where we would need to add more natural materials and intentionally create an outdoor learning environment.
Adding Shelter: We looked at a number of green spaces that would be ideal outdoor classrooms. To meet our children’s needs we would add temporary shelters (like a big tarp for the rain) and temporary bathrooms (porta-potty with a child sized seat). In the long run however some of these preschools would be better served with a permanent rain/picnic shelter.
Having completed these tours we now have a strong list of parks for 2016 that will make excellent Tiny Trees Preschools. Many thanks go out to all of the parks staff who helped make these tours possible (especially Dan Johnson for all of the maps and preparation he put into the tours) and to our partners with ARC. Together we are building something amazing.
*The Associated Recreation Council (ARC) is one of our city’s best kept secrets. They are the non-profit that operates many of our community centers, including extensive summer camp, after school and child care programs. During the teacher strike this fall it was ARC that stepped up and in partnership with the parks department provided free care at community centers for students who would have been in school. ARC is also an example of how a successful partnership with the Seattle Parks department works.
By Andrew A. Jay, Chief Executive Officer, Tiny Trees Preschool