Why We Do This – Kellie Morrill, Tiny Trees Executive Director

Kellie Morrill’s address at the 5th Annual Tiny Trees Luncheon, Friday, October 25, 2019

What a beautiful community, I am so honored to be here. I joined Tiny Trees in June, and have been inspired every day.  

Today we are here to celebrate outdoor preschool and I want to acknowledge the indigenous people who have been modeling nature based education since time immemorial, and who continue to teach us to listen, and find “right-relationship” with the land. 

We are here today on Duwamish land. The Duwamish people are still fighting for Federal Recognition, and we recognize the Duwamish, Suquamish, Muckleshoot, and Snoqualmie nations as leaders in the communities where Tiny Trees operate.  

We’re beginning to implement Since Time Immemorial early learning curriculum, where children experience concepts related to tribal sovereignty and local tribal history. This includes:

  • Exploration of family and culture
  • Sense of place: and an awareness of Native American families and knowledge
  • Connections to salmon and other habitats of the PNW
  • Interconnections between people, animals and the world
  • Honoring this place, and giving thanks for all

When we learn about salmon and streams, we’ll practice “belly biology”, by walking to a creek, and laying on our bellies right at the edge – to get a closer look at salmon spawning.   

Consider this: In the first five years of life, almost a million new neural connections are formed every second. The brain is most flexible and adaptable during this time. Children who have access to early learning opportunities start school ahead, and stay ahead. 

But preschool can be wildly expensive, and good ones can be hard to find. 60% of children in Washington state don’t attend preschool. For children in low-income households, that number is closer to 85%. As a result of this lack of opportunity, only about half of incoming kindergarteners are meeting the State Standards for Kindergarten Readiness. 

Now add to this the idea of Nature Deficit Disorder, a term coined by author Richard Louv in 2005 to describe what happens when humans are divorced from nature. Kids today only spend an average of 4–7 minutes outdoors while spending an average of 7½ hours on electronics.

As our cities expand, our kids are increasingly isolated from the natural world, with fewer safe healthy green spaces than ever before. Children are missing out on the incredible benefits of time outdoors, including reduced obesity, improved cognitive and social-emotional skills. 

At Tiny Trees, we believe that nature cultivates children’s innate curiosity, and is a beautiful platform for learning.

What better way is there to learn and fall in love with nature?

To dig your hands in the earth. 

To wonder at the ocean. 

To feel the rain on your cheeks. 

To feel limitless in your potential. 

It takes time and space to grow the muscle of stewardship and resilience, and we are starting early. 

We make high quality early learning accessible by building outdoor classrooms in public parks. By leveraging public resources, we eliminate most facilities costs, so we can invest in what matters: offering free and reduced tuition, and supporting great teachers. 

We now operate 12 classrooms in 9 Parks across King County, serving over 300 families.  

In our Seattle parks, we partner with the City of Seattle’s Preschool Program – Pathways and many families get free or reduced tuition and health screenings, while teachers get additional coaching and professional development resources. 

I want to show you what it looks like when brilliant minds connect with nature. This is emergent learning in action: 

We read every day – yes, even our books are waterproof! In an indoor classroom, a child might read a book about a slug, but these kids get to connect that learning to daily life. Slugs don’t have ears so they can’t hear, but they can still sense us by our vibrations. We hum to the slugs because it encourages it to perk up and “sniff their surroundings” and it reminds us to be gentle when interacting with each other. 

Those children are getting a powerful education. Not only are they exploring science concepts, they are also deepening their sense of empathy and inclusion. Our anti-bias curriculum teaches identity, diversity, justice and action: from speaking out against pollution, to stand up for ourselves and others. 

As an organization, we are also learning to listen in new ways. This year, Tiny Trees will form its first family council, and we are connecting with community based organizations to better understand the needs in the neighborhoods we operate in. 

None of this is possible without our partners. It is a pleasure to work with you in making the dream of outdoor preschool in public parks a reality. Thank you!

Now I’m going to back up a little, so you can get to know me. When I was a child, I had the privilege to spend plenty of days outside. I read books and played with GI Joes in the apple tree in our backyard. I didn’t go to preschool, but I built forts in the woods, jumped in puddles and collected rocks.

When I had a baby, we wanted him to grow up feeling smart, capable, and connected. I knew the power of early learning, but even as a supervisor in an early learning center, with a deep staff discount, we were still spending over ⅓ of our income on childcare. It was hard to survive in Seattle and even harder to foster a love of nature. I left the city or found parks on the weekends, but our Monday through Friday was pretty devoid of nature. I wish Tiny Trees had existed back then. He’s 13 now, and almost 6 feet tall. He’s old enough to find his own way outside, and he goes outside to hoop every day. 

Being a mother has shaped my career. I worked for 20 years for change in early learning systems. For trauma informed care, to increase opportunity and improve quality, to help schools serve children of all abilities well, and to uplift parent leadership and voice. I’m dedicated to making preschool more equitable, more inclusive, more welcoming. 

But there’s this quote I’ve been carrying around in heart for a while. It’s by Buckminster Fuller – he’s the mid-century architect who spent much of his life trying to improve human shelter, and invented the geodesic dome. He said this:

“You never change things by fighting against the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the old model obsolete.”

The first time I visited a Tiny Trees classroom, I felt like I found what I had been been searching for. I was blown away by the calmness of the classroom, the care of the teachers, and the brilliance of the kids before me.  If you haven’t seen our teachers in action yet, please — come out for a tour. I promise you will leave with hope for our future.  

I’m so grateful to our founder Andrew Jay, for having the audacity to start starting Tiny Trees in 2014, building partnerships with parks, and expanding rapidly over the next 3 years. 

I also want to recognize our founding educators, who braved the wettest winter on record, and showed us what resilience and care truly looks like.  Rachel, Anna and Tess, Khavin, Liz can you please stand?

I want to introduce you to the class of 2020. These students will graduate high school in the year 2033:

  • This year about 300 children will attend a Tiny Trees classroom. 
  • Thanks to donors and partners like you, we offered financial assistance to about half of these families. 
  • 30% identify as families of color, and 22% speak multiple languages at home, representing over 31 languages.

Last year, 89% of our tinies met ALL of Washington State’s PreK school readiness standards, and each spent an average of 550 hours outdoors. 

Amber Fyfe-Johnson, is a researcher at Washington State University. We lovingly call Amber the poop lady because she has the very glamorous job of collecting stool samples to measure gut biomes. In her preliminary research, she saw reduced BMI rates, in outdoor preschool kiddos, and this study will also look at the effects of outdoor preschool on sleep quality, and development of healthy gut bacteria for kids in outdoor preschool. 

Our students are growing essential skills in literacy, math, and social- emotional development at rates higher than their peers. This data tells the story of children who are ready to succeed in kindergarten and beyond, who are resilient, adaptable and creative. These children are the leaders we need in an increasingly unpredictable future.

So where do we go from here? 

I’ve learned a lot in these past 4 months. I’ve learned the names of more plant species than I can count, and I’ve learned to always keep an extra pair of rainboots with me. As an organization, we’ve learned to slow down and take measured risks. To make sure that we are not only the biggest outdoor preschool in the nation but that we are the best. 


Our climbing protocol teaches children that they must have three points of contact to keep safe. That could be a hand and two feet, or your belly and two hands, or any other combination to stay safe. 

In our organizational growth and development, we also hold firm to three points of contact:

  1. High Quality Early Learning 
  2. Environmental justice  
  3. Educational Equity 

We’ll keep coming back to these guiding principles as we develop our next strategic plan, and we will continue to invest in what matters: children, families and staff. 

At Tiny Trees, we have a saying: we are tiny, but we are mighty, and we can change the world!  Every dollar raised today will enable us to expand access to Tiny Trees. Every new volunteer helps us do more with your collective investments.

Check out this video REI produced on the growing movement of Outdoor Preschool: 

We’ve recently been featured in these publications, and many more. This week, we filmed with NBC. No confirmation yet, but check out the Today Show this weekend if any of you still have cable.

 


We’ve received calls for collaboration from outdoor preschools and people who want to start one in Kentucky, Texas, Maine, Florida and Germany. We are building our capacity to help others and build the field of outdoor early educators. 

This year we will launch the Tiny Trees advocacy agenda and work with community organizers on issues that threaten the environment and impact children and families in King County. 

We are so humbled by all of this. We are still a small scrappy team with the hardest working staff you’ve ever met, and  we need your help.

A common phrase we’re keeping close to our hearts is: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. This is a pivotal time for Tiny Trees, when your investment can be high impact, transforming children, families, and communities. As the largest outdoor preschool in North America, we have a rare opportunity to change the game for children and families in Washington and beyond. 

I hope you will join us.

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