22 May I’m A Teacher: Why I Chose Outdoor Preschool for My child

By Kimberly Adamson, Tiny Trees Parent

Last year around January I remember feeling the pressure to find a good preschool fit for my child. Yikes! There was a lot to think about. Where would my daughter feel safe and valued? What sort of environment would best meet her developmental needs? Would a given preschool prepare her for the mammoth transition into elementary school?

At the same time, it was a decision I felt uniquely qualified to make. As an elementary school teacher I had access to a deep well of evidence-based practices that helped me make an educated choice for my child. I referred to studies and programs in Nurture Shock like Tools of the Mind, learned everything I could about the Zones of Regulation , and considered class rhythm with tips from Simplicity Parenting . I thought about the importance of toys, books, and classroom set-up with a Waldorf-esque approach, and reviewed Finnish school methods of learning through play. I did my research to find a developmentally appropriate and playful space where my child could feel at home while learning valuable foundational skills.

Of all of the choices available, Tiny Trees was the best fit. It works wonderfully for my family, and incorporates all of my educational must-haves in a beautiful and balanced approach. It is one of the best and most influential choices I have made for my child. Here’s what stands out for me as a teacher:

  • Tiny Trees focuses on emotional awareness and mindfulness in an effort to help children develop self-regulation. For me, outdoor play is ideal for developing emotional and social skills.
  • An educational philosophy that is built on learning through play. Brain science is clear that children learn through hands on play, and the outdoors is one of the best, and most natural, of play spaces.

Recently, I volunteered at Tiny Trees during bubble play and exploration. Children were given ownership by creating play plans for sharing and taking turns with the bubbles. I observed students processing and identifying changing emotions. Children shared how they felt with friends. Friends redirected back to their plan or adjusted previously shared plans. Some children used specific tools, like a break with a teacher and self-talk to transition from feelings of uneasiness, anger, or jealously, while waiting for a turn. Tools and coping strategies to learn about feelings and redirect behaviors are often discussed at Tiny Trees, and children know that all feelings and emotions are okay. Teachers are deliberate in identifying emotions and equipping children with phrases like “Stop, give my body space,” or “When you do this, I feel uncomfortable.” When a child bumped another child with a bubble wand, a friend noticed a change in facial expression. Social awareness helped children check in with friends who looked upset. This reoccurring self-regulation was in the works throughout the entire activity.

With an expected and flexible rhythm and well-trained teachers, these brief social interactions become valuable opportunities to problem solve, empathize, and self-regulate.

Inquiry and exploration are constant in an outdoor school. What a great way to promote higher-level thinking! As a Singapore Math educator and mother who tries to break down gender norms (I’m always looking for STEM opportunities for girls and boys) I love to watch teachers incorporate science and math concepts into their students’ playtime.

On one occasion during free-play, I was ecstatic when I observed counting concepts practiced during “Ice Cream Shop” and the monetary exchanges taking place. “That will be 7 dollars.” I remember watching as a child looked for 7 green leaves and cedar scales to pay for a product. These concrete learning experiences develop the number sense children need to transition onto more abstract concepts throughout elementary school. Teachers are able to guide this sort of play in meaningful ways. A teacher may ask, “What is one more or one less than 7 dollars?” or “I have ten cedar scales, what part should I give you?” Core concepts like part-part-whole and ordering and comparing occur naturally. In the outdoors, quantifying scientific observations and comparing organisms becomes part of play. While looking for barnacles, crabs, and mussels on the beach, I’ve watched children compare sizes and classify. Tiny Trees children experience maths through play at it’s best!

For language learning, friends create silly rhymes with wacky songs like “Icky Sticky and Ooey Gooey,” and spy letters on Letter Tree to be practiced later in the art station. Phonemic awareness develops while children instantaneously connect with complex ecosystems. This natural environment offers limitless opportunities for vocabulary and exploration.

This is especially true when it comes to science. When I ask my daughter about her day I hear about chlorophyll in leaves, looking for salamander eggs, eagle calls, or the life cycle of a salmon. Botany, entomology, and marine biology are all part of child-led play and daily observations. Students naturally hypothesize and infer in their changing classroom. Every time I visit for a hike, teachers guide students to stop, notice, and discuss new plants and seasonal creatures. Students experiment with natural materials. I’ve watched children re-construct and adjust branches for a “hideout” and mix mud and mulch to get just the right consistency during bakery play- so many possibilities!

Imagine the meaning behind daily learning when the content is related to a child’s own city and environment. My daughter and I read nature books like S is for Salmon together at home, and she is able to make observations at the Salmon Fry during school- instantly putting the lesson into a context. The text-to-self connections are fascinating!

My daughter is building her academic and social foundation in incredibly positive ways. But what I especially love as a parent is that my child feels loved and accepted. She is valued for who she is and cared for by mindful, intelligent, and empowering teachers. When I see how happy and at home my child feels in her outdoor classroom, I feel confident in our preschool decision.

Maybe you too have felt overwhelmed with how many preschool choices and philosophies there are out there. My advice: go outside! Listening to my daughter’s recap after school each day validates again and again, that Tiny Trees (or “Forest School” as my daughter likes to call it), is a play space of wonder, and a fantastic place for her to be.


  • Sharyl Magnuson, MD
    Posted at 20:27h, 22 May

    I love this type of experiential learning. Children joyously incorporate concepts that would be laboriosly acquired in a traditional walled classroom.