HECHINGER REPORT: Outdoor preschools grow in popularity but most serve middle-class white kids

by TINA DEINES February 19, 2021 | The Hechinger Report

The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. This story also appeared in High Country News

Cedar Crest, N.M. — On a frigid December morning in a snow-speckled forest clearing in New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains, a chorus of children bundled in snowsuits, hats and gloves attempted their best impressions of a bear snoring. “I can snort like a pig!” one chimed in as the others giggled.

“Now can you make a rustle on the ground?” prompted their teacher, Brie-Anne Stout, known as “Miss Brie” to the kids. The six “tree-schoolers” ran their fingers through wood chips and dirt, not seeming to mind the cold.

This is what story circle looks like at Sol Forest School, an all-weather, all-outdoor preschool about 15 minutes east of Albuquerque.

Teacher BrieAnne Stout (center) guides students through a closing circle during a forest school session in Tijeras, New Mexico on February 3, 2021. Credit: Adria Malcolm for The Hechinger Report

Interest in outdoor schools like Sol has spiked since Covid-19 hit the United States last year, according to a 2020 snapshot report from the Natural Start Alliance. (They were unable to do a full survey this year, due to the pandemic, so must wait for firm numbers.) But despite the growth in the number of programs, not everyone has access — most programs are private and expensive and battle diversity issues. Some, like Sol, are attempting to address these problems to give more students an opportunity for an outdoor education.

585 forest kindergartens and outdoor preschools exist in the U.S. today, nearly double the number in 2017.

Forest school — also known as nature school, forest kindergarten and outdoor school — isn’t a new idea; such schools have existed in the United States since the mid-1960s, but interest has increased in recent years. The number of forest kindergartens and outdoor preschools operating in the U.S. has more than doubled since 2017 to 585 in 2020, according to the Natural Start Alliance.

The benefits of nature-based education go beyond decreased risk of Covid-19 transmission. Integrating nature into early childhood education is beneficial to brain development, improves academic performance, enhances communication, reduces stress, minimizes symptoms of ADHD and provides other mental health benefits, according to a summary of the research by the Natural Start Alliance. Spending so much time outdoors also promotes physical activity and motor development, the research finds.

Sally Anderson, the director of Sol Forest School, collects acorns with Aldo Stearnes, 3, in early 2021. Last year was especially challenging for Anderson because of tuition loss due to pandemic class-size limitations. Credit: Adria Malcolm for The Hechinger Report

“Our tree-schoolers are being pushed, they’re out of their comfort zone,” Sol Forest School Founder Sally Anderson said. For instance, risk assessment is a core component in many nature preschools. At Sol, students are allowed independence to take risks like climbing trees. However, teachers also encourage them to analyze the dangers of taking a given risk. Kids in teacher Gavin Ouellette’s story circle debated whether loading one child on a sled that was made for a heavier load was hazardous, and soon collectively decided it was safer to have two kids ride together — Ouellette let students lead the debate and reminded them that they were discussing a hazard.

Learning can come from seemingly mundane everyday experiences. According to Anderson, earlier that week one student noticed that it was easier to pull her classmate on the sled if he lay on his belly — this turned into an exploration of “why” and a simple science lesson. Sometimes, the learning is more structured through sessions focusing on closely monitored tool use with mallets, hammers and handsaws, or counting games with pinecones.

Related: Into the woods: When preschoolers spend every class outdoors

Not every child has access to the benefits of outdoor programs like Sol, which can be expensive. Only 3 percent of outdoor preschoolers are Black or African American and only 7 percent are Hispanic or Latino, according to Natural Start Alliance’s 2017 survey of 121 nature-based programs in the United States. Although many programs integrate education about the Indigenous land they occupy — leaders from the nearby Sandia Pueblo tribe join students at Sol each year for a pre-semester blessing — only 1 percent of students are American Indian or Alaska Native.

3 percent of ‘tree-schoolers’ are Black or African American; 7 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

“We totally own the fact that most of the children come from a similar socioeconomic background,” Anderson said of Sol, whose student body is predominantly white. She adds that this is something she wants to change. Currently, two of the school’s 30 families receive financial assistance to cover the $44 tuition for one four-hour session, or $220 for a week’s worth. A few families do work-trade in exchange for reduced tuition. Anderson would like to offer 10 or more scholarships in the future. She said the school runs several GoFundMe campaigns each year to raise scholarship monies, but just hasn’t been able to raise enough to expand financial aid offerings. Last year was especially challenging because of tuition loss due to Covid class-size limitations.

To address diversity issues, Anderson is pursuing partnerships with local preschool programs that are more representative of the cultural identity of the Albuquerque metro area, which has sizable Hispanic, Latino and American Indian populations. However, partnership discussions, along with Anderson’s plans to expand financial aid, have slowed due to pandemic-era challenges like restructuring classes to comply with state health orders and budget woes.

“Less than ideal,” Anderson said of her shift in focus, “but it really became a question of doing this or shutting down.”

Related: Goodbye sensory tables, hello ‘air hugs’: Child care in the coronavirus era

A boy eats his lunch at the site of his outdoor preschool in the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. Advocates see government investment as key to getting more kids of color and kids from low-income families into outdoor schools. Credit: Adria Malcolm for The Hechinger Report

Leaders at the Seattle-based Tiny Trees Preschool grapple with similar problems but have made progress in recent years. Partnerships Manager Khavin Debbs has been with the organization since 2016 and immediately noticed the preschool served a homogenous demographic — mostly white boys — even when operating classes in more diverse areas of the city. “I was like, ‘OK, we’re not doing something right,’” he said.

Since then, Debbs has led efforts to meet this issue head on. Among other things, people of color don’t always feel like they belong in nature, he said. Redefining the Outdoors,* a Tiny Trees program he now leads, seeks to create space for families of color, including refugee and immigrant families and those with limited financial resources, to engage with nature in ways that are meaningful to them.

“Whatever you’re doing outside is getting in nature,” Debbs said, adding that spending time outdoors is different for everyone — a walk around the block is just as important as a hike in the woods.

The Redefining the Outdoors project, originally called “Decolonizing the Outdoors,” is funded by a grant from King County’s Best Starts for Kids and includes community events and hikes in collaboration with other Seattle-area organizations like Families of Color – Seattle. Tiny Trees is committed to assisting local organizations with logistics for outdoor events, said Executive Director Kellie Morrill.

Teachers and students walk through the teaching site during a session at Sol Forest School in New Mexico. Not every child has access to the benefits of outdoor programs like Sol, which tend to cost about the same as indoor private preschool.
Teddy Ligon, 6, plays on a swing at Sol Forest School in Tijeras, New Mexico on February 3, 2021.
A student eats a snack during a session at Sol Forest School in New Mexico. Integrating nature into early childhood education is beneficial to brain development, improves academic performance, and reduces stress, according to research.
Sol Forest School students play a game that looks like follow-the-leader in February 2021. Interest in outdoor schools like Sol has spiked since Covid-19 hit the United States last year.

Tiny Trees is also striving to make classrooms more inclusive and welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds. This started with anti-racism training for staff that centered on race, power and privilege, and the ways systemic racism shows up in the classroom. “It’s been a fight,” Debbs said of the shift, noting some early internal struggles among staff when it came to being accountable for these issues.

The school also prioritizes economic equity. In 2019, Tiny Trees offered tuition assistance to about half of its students, but that was cut to 30 percent in 2020 because of budget challenges. Morrill hopes to get that back to 40 to 50 percent this year. Scholarships target those meeting income requirements, families of color, and those with a caregiver pursuing a college degree.

Because Tiny Trees is licensed, students can receive financial aid made possible through city and state funds. Advocates see government investment as key to getting more kids of color and kids from low-income families into outdoor schools.

“Our tree-schoolers are being pushed, they’re out of their comfort zone.”

Sally Anderson, Founder of Sol Forest School in New Mexico

“Licensing legitimizes outdoor preschool, but most importantly, it expands access,” Morrill said.

In 2019, Washington became the first state to license outdoor preschools as part of a pilot program. Colorado is currently the only other state that has licensed outdoor schools, according to Christy Merrick, director of the Natural Start Alliance, and the state’s effort is just a small pilot that had granted two licenses as of February 2020.

Many outdoor schools across the country go unlicensed, as most states make it difficult for schools that operate entirely outside, said Merrick. Because Sol Forest School doesn’t have a physical building, it doesn’t qualify for licensing in New Mexico, and is cut off from access to state funds. Instead, Anderson is hoping more private funding will allow the school to stay afloat and eventually expand diversity and equity initiatives.

Related: Voters guarantee Oregon public school kids a week in the woods

Three Sol Forest School students move a cart full of gear after finishing an outdoor preschool session in Tijeras, New Mexico in February 2021. Credit: Adria Malcolm for The Hechinger Report

While funding issues persist in many nature-based programs, there are hopeful signs in the movement to get more kids outside, as an increasing number of traditional schools are beginning to embrace the outdoor model. When many U.S. classrooms reopened last fall, about 20 percent of districts moved toward outdoor programming, Merrick said.

Some examples include Falmouth Public Schools in Massachusetts, which raised funds through the local Rotary Club to fund supplies like tents and portable white boards, and the Lakeside School District in Hot Springs, Arkansas, which takes special needs students to a nearby botanic garden to learn. Merrick is hopeful these forays into outdoor education will inspire school districts to continue getting kids outside even as the threat of the pandemic recedes.

“Sometimes you have to see something to believe it,” she said. “I think they [the teachers] will see some of the benefits now that they’re doing it.”

“Licensing legitimizes outdoor preschool, but most importantly, it expands access.”

Kellie Morrill, Executive Director of Tiny Trees in Seattle

Many public schools and districts also invested CARES Act funds into building outdoor classrooms, which could mean purchasing equipment like picnic tables and white boards. “Those are really durable investments,” Merrick said. “They’ll be there next year and into the future.”

Perhaps the most durable investment of the forest school model comes without a price tag — more opportunity for play. At Sol, when kids are asked about their favorite aspect of school, play is the dominant theme: Josephine likes playing superheroes, Rory likes playing Pokémon with Teddy and several other students like sledding.

And then there’s this: To an onlooker, the stress and strain of a global pandemic seemed a world away as bundled kids tore through freshly fallen snow, laughing and squealing under a deep blue New Mexico winter sky.

This story about outdoor schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

*This story has been corrected to include the current name of the Redefining the Outdoors program at Tiny Trees in Seattle.

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