The preschoolers at Fiddleheads Forest School at Seattle's Washington Park Arboretum are outdoors for every minute of their four-hour school day. This means the children become first-hand witness to everything happening in their forest grove classroom: a Cooper’s hawk eating a squirrel while they eat their own lunches, baby owls learning to hunt and fly every Spring, even the occasional evidence of coyotes (don't worry — coyotes are scared of even the littlest people).
“It was such an awe-inspiring experience to have in the city,” says Sarah Heller, director and teacher at Fiddleheads Forest School. “Just noticing things on a small scale — a tiny insect or leaves that have fallen, bright red against the green grass — how exciting it is to see that, too.”
There are are at least a dozen preschool programs in the Seattle area that have an outdoor focus. Heller says the book Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, published in 2008, helped early childhood educators realize exposing kids to nature is vital.
Still, interest in outdoor preschools has been growing for decades. The concept took shape in the 1950s in Sweden and Denmark; in Germany in 1968, which is now home to hundreds of “forest kindergartens”; and more recently in the United Kingdom. In these schools, children spend almost all of their preschool day outdoors.
The outdoor-focused preschools have varied philosophies and curricula, but all of them focus on getting young children into nature for long swaths of time. Some area educators say they look to Vashon Island’s Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten and its founder Erin Kenny, a national leader in outdoor preschool education who has traveled to Europe to study Forest Kindergartens and has written a book called Forest Kindergartens The Cedarsong Way.
At Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten, families decide how long their children (age 2 to 6) spend at school every day (3, 4 or 5 hours) and the children spend the entire day outside. “There’s no structure or schedule. We ask, ‘What do you kids feel like doing today?’” says Kenny. “We follow them and we make notes at the end of the day. At the end of each month, we write a newsletter from these notes, so the children write the curriculum.”
Cedarsong is now in its ninth year of operation, and serves 41 families. Two other outdoor-focused preschools predate Cedarsong in our area: Discovery Park Nature Kids and Seattle Waldorf School’s preschool program. At Discovery Park Nature Kids in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood, attendees spend an hour outside, and while they follow a nature-based curriculum, there is still circle time, and children also spend time learning about letters and numbers inside a classroom.
At Seattle Waldorf School's preschool, children spend an hour to an hour and a half in the play yard, where there are places to climb, pour water, play with sand, fruit trees, and a cob oven for baking activities. They also take daily walks in the neighborhood. (Other Waldorf Schools in the Seattle area have preschool programs, with varying levels of outdoor time: The Madrona School in Bainbridge Island, Whidbey Island Waldorf School, Bright Water on Capitol Hill, and Three Cedars in Bellevue.)
“In preschool (and kindergarten), we are not really teaching anything. We are giving them space to observe what is going on around then in nature. By fifth grade, all those primary nature experiences will be called upon and brought to a more intellectual level,” says Meg Petty, admissions director.
“We are laying a foundation for a love of the natural world, an affinity for being in nature, and developing an observation sense that will serve them throughout their lives.”
Other preschool directors second these notions, and speak to how being outside gives credence to young children’s natural instinct to explore and be on the move while helping their development in a very innate way. “Have you seen a child talking to themselves while engaging in pretend play?," asks Katrina Luters, founder and teacher at Matthews Beach Playschool. "That is their executive function developing. And if you give them a chance to be outside and respect the play that they are doing, you can naturally see any red flags regarding their development, too."
“When they are ready to learn letters and numbers they will, we see it happen. Everybody nearing kindergarten [age], they start saying, ‘Hey Katrina, how do I write this word?’”
Of course, each outdoor preschool has its own unique curriculum, with some schools offering traditional curricula with letter and number learning time woven in on a regular basis, while other schools follow the children’s lead for learning at all times.
Still, parents tend to choose this type of school for the outdoor exploration time. Seattle parent Rachel Douglas’s daughter is now in fourth grade, but Douglas is thankful she sent her to Discovery Park’s Discovery Kids Preschool.
“I love that the learning occurred while moving in boots, tromping around in the trees or on the beach,” says Douglas. “It’s the best early education decision we made. She’s still my nature girl.”
Outdoor or nature-based preschools in Seattle, the Eastside and the South Sound
Seattle outdoor and nature-oriented preschools
Tiny Trees Preschool; four locations in Seattle parks, with more slated to open
Tiny Trees Preschool, an innovative model that combines affordability and nature orientation, opened in four Seattle parks locations in summer/fall of 2016. Locations and schedules were steered by feedback from interested parents. At Tiny Trees, kids age 3 to 5 spend four hours outdoors in either a morning or afternoon class. Tiny Trees is working with the City of Seattle to create options for working parents such as partnering with aftercare programs to cover a full workday, and getting into the Seattle Preschool Program to provide free care for qualifying families; more locations are slated to open in the fall of 2017, and rates are 10–40 percent below market rates.
Bloom and Grow Preschool at Anna's Little Farm; Columbia City, Seattle
Children ages 2.5 to 6 spend all day outdoors, including lots of time with animals on the farm. Here there is the added benefit of a bilingual teacher and Spanish-speaking staff weaving language lessons into the day. Teachers emphasize emotion coaching and play-based education.
Seattle Children's Playgarden Preschool; Mount Baker, Seaettle
Children ages 3 to 5 spend most or all of their school day outside in the Playgarden, a innovative park, garden and playspace designed to be inclusive for kids of all abilities.
Discovery Park Nature Kids Preschool; Magnolia, Seattle
Children ages 3 to 5 spend at least an hour outdoors every day. Inside time includes opening and closing circle time, lessons on letters and numbers, lunch, and open play time with an art table.
Fiddleheads Forest School at the Washington Park Arboretum; University of Washington/Laurelhurst
The only building at this University of Washington program is a greenhouse; children ages 3 to 5 spend their time exclusively outdoors, barring extreme weather. In fall of 2015, the school expanded from one to two "forest grove" class sites. There are two-, three- and five-day options of classes that go from 9 a.m.–1 p.m. The kids love making Western red cedar tea and climbing downed tree logs. Fiddleheads also operates a parent-child program several days a week; see below for information.
Woodland Park Co-operative Preschool with Teacher Tom and Teacher Rachel; Fremont, Seattle
Children ages 3 to 6 spend half of their school day outside. This school is part of the North Seattle Community College’s Cooperative Preschool program. Teacher Tom (who writes a popular blog on play-based education) has led this classroom since 2002. Teacher Rachel joined the school as its kindergarten teacher in 2015. They are known for their creative, child-lead curriculum.
Woodsong Preschool; Fremont/Greenlake, Seattle
Children ages 2.5 to 5 spend an hour outside immersed in nature at Woodland Park, which is across the street from the school. Parents looking for a bilingual experience will love the Spanish language and cultural lessons that are woven into the day by the bilingual head teacher. There are also options for those needing full day care and tuition assistance.
Matthews Beach Playschool; Matthews Beach neighborhood in Northeast Seattle
Children ages 2 to 5 spend all their time outdoors, alternating between nature explorations in Matthews Beach Park and a fenced-in outdoor space with a sand pit, play house, planter boxes, fairy garden and covered areas for projects. Kids help decide on the agenda for the day, and are encouraged to explore, be social and take on projects of their own design.
Little Farm Preschool; Broadview neighborhood in Northwest Seattle
Kids spend nearly half their day exploring this urban farm with chickens, goats and gardens as well as a children's play area with a working pump and sand pit. The indoor classroom is full of handmade and natural materials.
Seattle Waldorf School Preschool Program; Northeast Seattle/Meadowbrook
Children ages 3 to 5 spend an hour to an hour and half every day in the outside play yard, where there are places to climb, pour water, play with sand, fruit trees, and a cob oven for baking activities. Kindergartners at Seattle Waldorf School similarly spend an hour or more outdoors during their school day.
North of Seattle outdoor preschools
Fox in the Forest; Bothell
This preschool currently meets every Wednesday and Thursday and parents often join their children (ages 1.5 to 6). Located in Songaia cohousing community, there is a large community garden and a forest here. Days are spent outside, with an indoor area for use in cooking projects and as shelter from extreme weather
Froggy Holler Outdoor School; Shoreline
Run by the Shoreline Parks Department (register here) at Hamlin Park, Froggy Holler has a Tadpole parent/child group for ages 2 to 4 and a Froglet groups serving ages 3 to 5. Class sizes are small, run once per week in 10 week sessions, and is all spent outside.
This preschool currently meets every Wednesday and Thursday and parents often join their children (ages 1.5 to 6). Located in Songaia Co-Housing community, there is a large community garden and a forest here. Days are spent outside, with an indoor area for use in cooking projects and as shelter from extreme weather.
Eastside outdoor preschools
Field and Forest Outdoor Preschool; Woodinville
Children ages 3 to 6 spend the day on the 5-acre wooded site, with circle time in an authentic 18-foot tipi, also a home base during more extreme weather. The program is based on the German forest garden model and offers play-based learning within a balance of routine and structure. There are options 5 days a week plus outdoor classes for older children. Field & Forest Outdoor Preschool is a program of The Attic Learning Community.
Roots and Wings Nature Preschool; Duvall
Run by the ever-popular Wilderness Awareness School, children ages 4 to 6 spend their entire day outside doing nature activities.
Tiny Treks Preschool at Farrel-McWhirtier, Redmond
Children ages 3 to 5 spend 3-hour days outdoors at Keep It Simple farm and the connected forest land. Each day consists of a nature theme, crafts and playtime. Kids might visit animals, roast marshmallows, or play hide-and-seek in the forest.
Mercer Slough Polliwogs Preschool, Bellevue
This program is run by the city of Bellevue, the Pacific Science Center and Bellevue’s Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center. Children ages 3 to 5 spend 70 percent or more of their time outside, and the program focuses on both science and preparing children for kindergarten.
Natural Start Preschool at Eastgate Park, Bellevue
Children ages 3 to 5 spend 45 to 90 minutes outside each class day; they play in the large gym at South Bellevue Community Center during extreme weather conditions. The school has access to 39 acres of natural habitat that includes forests, meadows, hiking trails, and a stream, and there is a preschool garden where students grow vegetables and flowers, and as two outdoor playgrounds and a sports field.
Sammamish Learning Adventures, Sammamish
Kids ages 3 to 6 will spend their entire class days exploring either Beaver Lake Park or Ebright Park. Days start with an opening circle followed by a guided nature adventure and ended with a snack and reflection on the days lesson.
Playful Hearts Little Sparrows Forest School, Maple Valley
Little Sparrows is an all-outdoors, all-weather forest school in Maple Valley's Lake Wilderness Arboretum. Calling themselves a "hands-in-the-earth and feet-in-the-puddles kind of program," kids ages 3 to 5 get dirty and learn to follow the rythms of the earth and seasons of nature, right down to the snacks.
Nature Nuts Outdoor Preschool, Maple Valley
Year-round, kids age 3-7 explore the Nature Nuts forest adjacent to Shadow Lake Elementary, with naturalist tools such as magnifying glasses and butterfly nets to aid them. Kids are encouraged to use all their senses to learn about the plants and animals surrounding them.
South Sound/Vashon Island outdoor preschools
Nurture in Nature Preschool; Tacoma’s Central Neighborhood
With Metro Parks Tacoma as its parent organization, Nurture in Nature offers multiple sessions each week for 3- and 4-year-olds and for 4- and 5-year-olds. Preschoolers spend at least an hour each day outside at this nature and discovery based program, which resides on 71 acres of land at the Tacoma Nature Center at Snake Lake.
GGHF Curious by Nature School, Gig Harbor
Run by the Greater Gig Harbor Foundation and located adjacent to the Adam Tallman Nature Park, children ages 2 to 6 spend an hour to an hour and a half outside. Class groups include toddler, preschool, pre-K, and Friday-Kindergarten. The teachers are certified in nature-based curriculum Growing Up WILD, an early childhood education program.
Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten, Vashon Island
Children ages 2 to 6 spend the entire day outdoors with no set curriculum. Founder Erin Kenny also offers three levels of Forest Kindergarten Teacher Training and Certification.
Wind Gatherer Nature Preschool, Vashon Island
Children ages 4 to 6 spend the entire day outside. Originally a project of the Wilderness Awareness School, this program eventually became rooted by a group of passionate Vashon parents. Days may include guided wanderings, scavenger hunts, beach and woodland exploration, awareness skills, journaling and improvisational play.
Heartstone Preschool at Plum Forest Farm, Vashon Island
Children ages 4 to 6 spend about half of their days year-round outdoors caring for animals at the farm and exploring the woods. Inside activities include lunch, art, cooking and story.
Nature play groups
You’ve twirled and sang at parent-child movement classes, but have you thought about joining a parent-child nature exploration group?
It’s great for putting outdoor time on your schedule, and it’s a real plus to have help making your discovery time memorable. There are numerous options around the Sound, from set parent-child classes to outdoor preschools and regular outdoor playgroups to one-time outdoor classes.
Note the listing for Family Adventures in Nature Seattle. The group is free to join, and parent-led meetups range from toddler-paced urban hikes to weekend camping excursions. If your kids aren't quite preschool age, check out Hike it Baby, an online platform that helps parents organize and lead hikes and nature activities for families with babies and kids.
Some of the outdoor preschools in our area have parent-child classes, too:
- Many parents are always part of Bothell's Fox in the Forest’s preschool class.
- Fiddleheads Forest School at the Washington Park Arboretum has parent-child classes.
- Froggy Holler in Shoreline has a Tadpole parent/child group for ages 2 to 4.
- Tiny Treks at Farrel-McWhirtier Park in Redmond has a parent-child Program for kids age 2 to 5.
- Seward Park Audubon Center has Tales & Trails classes on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
- Brightwater Center in Woodinville (run by Islandwood) has some programming for parents and kids.
- Seattle Tilth has parent-child classes.
- Hike It Baby is an online platform that connects new parents interested in hiking and exploring nature with their kids.
- The Seattle Parks Department also offers parent-child outdoor activities at many city parks. Check their catalogs for information. Here are a few more options:
Search online for more options. If there isn’t a playgroup near you or that fits your time schedule, think about starting your own group and ask an already established gathering for information on getting started.
This article was published in January 2014 and updated in December 2015.