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Program Pivot: Moving to an Outdoor Preschool

COVID-19 has forced a new level of creativity and adaptation for all sorts of businesses, and child care is no different. From changing the way drop-off and pick-up happen, to enforcing new daily routines to allow for social distancing, preschool programs are finding new ways to keep everyone safe and healthy. For Julie Fellom, the owner and director of Neighborhood Playgarden in San Francisco, CA, fully moving from an indoor to an outdoor preschool has been her approach.

Moving outdoors was a bit of a no-brainer for Fellom. Neighborhood Playgarden is a Waldorf program, where children have always spent a good amount of time outdoors every day. Fellom’s program has a large outdoor space onsite. Additionally, Fridays have historically been hike days, where Fellom and her teachers take the class to local parks and trails for the day.

When COVID hit, Fellom leaned into the way hike days worked, and turned every day into a hike day. Now, her families drop off at Stern Grove Recreation Area in the morning, where the kids spend their day outside climbing trees, making art, collecting sticks, creating plays, playing in the park sprinkler system, and exploring the woods. The change in scenery feels safer for everyone: parents, kids, and teachers, too.


Why Move to an Outdoor Preschool?

The best research we have suggests that viral transmission is reduced outdoors. Environmental factors like wind and sun help reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. In addition to that, social distancing is much easier outdoors. Kids have a lot more space to spread out. And finally, cleaning is reduced. The kids are mostly interacting with the rocks, leaves, sticks, and dirt that are already in the park. These things don’t require daily scrubbing and cleaning.

Pandemic aside, there are so many benefits to outdoor learning:

Outdoor play allows for muscle and motor development that isn’t always possible indoors. Children build confidence in their physical abilities. This increase in movement reduces child obesity and improves sleep quality.

Playing outdoors creates space for risky play. Whether it’s playing on the bank of a stream, climbing a tree, or helping build the fire for snack time, children are able to naturally test and learn the limits of their bodies.

The outdoor preschool environment works well for children with special needs. There’s so much more flexibility in movement and sound, which can allow children with special needs to be more successful. Environments like forest schools also create opportunities for children to develop and display skills that an indoor classroom might miss.

Finally, outdoor play lends itself to being very child-led. A child who is following their own interests is going to be more engaged, and when children are more engaged there are fewer behavioral issues. Fewer behavioral issues means more feelings of competency and self-worth. And we want all children to develop a sense of confidence, self-worth, and belonging.

But what about all of that other “preschool” stuff?

The outdoor environment is a bit of a blank canvas. All areas of child development can be included and nurtured in a day spent outside. Here’s a sampling of what happens on a daily basis in Fellom’s program:

  • Dramatic play
  • Problem solving
  • Pre-literacy
  • Pre-math
  • Art
  • Meals
  • Cooking
  • Sensory
  • Science
  • Language and vocabulary development
  • Self-regulation
  • Independence
  • Gross motor
  • Fine motor
  • Quiet time

All of a child’s developmental needs can be met in an outdoor preschool.

How to Move Your Preschool Program Outdoors

Do some self-reflection

There are different versions of outdoor preschool, depending on your personal philosophy, where you’re located, and what your comfort level is. Before you make any big changes you’ll want to ask yourself questions, like:

  • What is your classroom management style? And will that work in an outdoor environment?
  • Is your own child in your program? And how is that going?
  • Are you someone who prefers a camping vacation?
  • Did you grow up in a family with a lot of outdoor time?
  • Do you love learning about your local flora and fauna?
  • How many staff do you have/are you able to hire?

Being honest with yourself about the answers to these questions will help you structure your program in a way that fits with your own skills and preferences.

1. Decide on a Location for Your Program

You could choose to be in a local park, at a beach, or in your own yard space. Decide on what works best for you, and research if any specific permits or permissions are required for you to host your program in that space.

When researching where to host your outdoor preschool you’ll want to look at things like: availability of water and bathrooms, proximity to parking and/or a good drop-off/pick-up location, availability of shade for hot days and/or rainy days, picnic tables, etc.

2. Get to Know the Space Really Well

Before you bring kids into a new outdoor space, make sure you know it well. You’ll want to visit it during the time of day you’ll host your program– not just on weekends, when it might feel different. Fellom walked every trail in and around Stern Grove before bringing her kids there. You want to have an idea of the plants, animals, and natural features you’ll have in your space.

3. Plan Your Daily Schedule

Once you know where your program will be held you can think about your daily schedule. Fellom is licensed as an in-home program, so she is continuing to follow the rules and regulations set out by California licensing. One of the licensing regulations is that kids have a dark and quiet space for nap time. Fellom is only doing a part day program to allow kids to leave and nap at home.

The only state that has developed licensing regulations for outdoor programs is Washington. If you are starting an outdoor program from scratch in any of the 49 other states, you will be operating in a bit of a gray zone. But if you’re moving your program from indoors to outdoors you will have to keep licensing regulations in mind. A good place to start is to call your licensing analyst.

4. Plan Program Rules & Other Logistics

Based on the location you’ve chosen and the schedule you’ve settled on, you’ll want to develop your safety policies. Questions to ask yourself:

  • What do families need to bring every day?
  • What do children need to wear every day?
  • What does parent involvement look like?
  • How will you approach things like sunscreen?
  • What does classroom management and safety look like in your outdoor classroom?

5. Obtain required materials

Next you’ll want to develop two different lists of materials:

  1. What you’re going to bring to the outdoor site with you everyday
  2. What your families will need to wear and bring on a daily basis.

Fellom doesn’t allow rain boots, sandals or sneakers, but instead requires kids to come wearing wool socks and hiking boots every day. Through experience she has learned that hiking boots are far superior to other footwear. For example, rain boots have no grip and slip and slide on wet or muddy trails. Your packing list might vary a bit, but here’s a sample from Fellom’s years of taking kids out for hike day:

  • Backpack with a chest and waist strap (to keep the backpack on the little bodies!)
  • Hiking boots
  • Wool socks
  • Sun hat or winter hat
  • Water bottle
  • Lunch
  • 2 ziplock bags: one with extra clothes, one empty
  • T-shirts printed with the school name

For teachers, Fellom recommends:

  • Extra layers
  • Lunch
  • Water
  • Cell phone
  • Walkie talkies (especially if cell phone service is spotty where you will be)
  • First aid fanny packs

The list of extra materials Fellom brings is pretty limited. Nature provides most of what the children play with on a daily basis. The things she does bring on a regular basis include:

  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Ingredients to make play dough
  • Pocket knife
  • Rope
  • Bubbles
  • Balls
  • Guidebooks about local flora and fauna

7. Prep parents

Before day one of your outdoor program, you’ll want to schedule a time when parents meet you in your outdoor spot without their children. You want to literally walk parents through the space and the schedule of the day. You want them to experience firsthand what their children will be doing each day.

Another aspect of preparing parents is updating your parent handbook to reflect any new policies associated with being outdoors. You want to ensure everyone is on the same page with expectations. Fellom, for example, does not allow children to attend if they’ve forgotten anything from the required list. She is up front about this expectation, and enforces it if, for example, a child shows up in sandals.

Part of reviewing and updating your policies may also include your tuition rates. If you are transitioning outdoors and no longer able to offer a full day program, or if you’re no longer providing snacks and meals, you will probably want to update your prices to take that into account.

8. Go!

Have day one in your new outdoor classroom! And pay attention to how it’s going. There might be small tweaks you can make to create a smoother day for everyone. One thing Fellom recommends is to not abandon anything too quickly. Kids need time to adjust and learn new routines, so just because something isn’t working right away doesn’t mean it can’t work. It just might take a little bit more time.

Moving part or all of your preschool program outdoors might be the perfect solution for you throughout the pandemic and beyond. If you’re interested in hearing directly from Julie Fellom, you can watch our recent webinar series on why and how to move outdoors.

Meredith Downing

Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.