Why is Seattle opening outdoor preschools?

Two creative, back-to-the-basics approaches to preschool education promise to fill gaps left in young children's high-tech lives. 

Jason Redmond/REUTERS
A passenger on the Bainbridge Island Ferry takes a cell phone photo of the skyline in Seattle, Washington April 9, 2014.

Sixty percent of Washington State's youngest kids are not in preschool, seven points above the national average of 53 percent. 

That's too many, say the educational experts who have helped make early childhood education (ECE) a national priority. The Obama administration has earmarked $1 billion to help families send their kids to preschools, as images of kindergarten and preschool go from fun and games to an early-edge educational bootcamp

Even Janet Yellen, the head of the Federal Reserve, has chimed in, highlighting research that points to preschool attendance's correlation with later-in-life success, particularly for poorer children, as measured by degrees, income, and imprisonment. 

What worries Seattle outdoor educator Andrew Jay is who's not going to preschool. Families in what he calls the "forgotten middle" are often forced to forgo ECE, he says, as childcare becomes outrageously expensive. Washington couples making less than $29,000 per year receive free ECE, but on the open market, the average preschool bill runs to $12,000. 

Mr. Jay is the CEO of Tiny Trees, a preschool design launching in September 2016, which he says can lower costs and build young children's social and mental skills. There's just one catch: it's outside.

The inaugural class of Tiny Trees-ers will go to 'school' in nine Seattle parks, where they'll "use park bathrooms, nap on mats inside park shelters, and take their lessons under picnic pavilions when it rains," as the GoodNews Network reports — or, they can just keep tromping around in the mud, thanks to top-to-toe Oakiwear rain suits the school will provide. 

Tuition will be $7,000, a savings Jay says is made possible by the school's no-facilities model.

But advocates of outdoor education say that putting kids back in nature reaps other benefits, particularly for children growing up in a country where more than one third of adults are obese, and typical childhood screentime makes a mockery of pediatricians' recommendations that no more than two hours per day should be spent in front of computers, tablets, and TVs.

Rain or shine, "slow play" outdoors may help the preschool set get back to learning that's not only adventurous, and healthy, but aligns with how their rapidly-developing brains are meant to learn.

"Our brains evolved over millennia to process things that happen in real time," Dr. Dimitri Christakis explained to Northern California's KQED. Dr. Christakis is a pediatrician, and director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. Keeping up with fast-paced entertainment simply impossible for our ancestors drains us, and kids' executive functioning – meta-cognitive skills like self-control, which researchers increasingly see as key to kids' success – suffer after spending time with electronic media.

What does he recommend? Blocks.

That back-to-the-basics approach is shared with Forest Schools, the outdoor school tradition that inspired Tiny Trees. 

For one, it's designed to guarantee more physical activity. One recent study found that Seattle's naturally wriggly preschoolers actually spent just 48 minutes in motion at typical daycare centers. 

Forest School teachers claim their programs are backed by research, but also basic intuition: “Children learn through experience. They engage with the things they can hold, they can see, they can smell, they can touch. And the richness that’s available to them outside is so much greater than that which is available indoors," says Sara Knight, deputy chairman of the Forest School Association UK, in a video showing the school's students as they wade through puddles, fashion hammers, and cautiously explore a fallen tree.

But she warns against thinking that nature itself will provide all that's needed. Forest School is a teaching philosophy, not just a setting: a "child-led process" in which they have freedom to play, and learn, however they like for much of the day, under the careful eyes of certified teachers. But risk-management is also a valuable skill to learn, and Forest Schools say that developing real-life skills, knowledge of nature, and cooperation will lead to higher self-esteem.  

While Tiny Trees builds students' relationship with the great outdoors, a different preschool across town aims to repair another neglected one. 

The Intergenerational Learning Center is a preschool inside Seattle's Mt. Saint Vincent nursing home, where daily activities bring some of the city's youngest and oldest together to learn from one another.

Filmmaker Evan Briggs has set out to capture those relationships in "Present Perfect," a Kickstarter-funded documentary. As the trailer asks, "With the present as their only shared realm, what can the very young and the very old offer each other, if given the chance?" 

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