Using Nature to Bridge the Early Childhood Education Gap
By Barton Robison and Lynny Brown
Does seeing nature through a child’s eyes change the way you view the world? It turns out, spending time in nature does a lot for kids, too. Improved cognitive function, reduced stress, and improved academic performance are just a few of the many ways that being outside helps our kids as they grow and develop. Because of the many health benefits associated with spending time outside, the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative is spearheading a statewide effort to drive a pathway to licensure for outdoor preschools in Oregon.
Outdoor preschools, provisionally licensed in Washington and popular for decades in Europe, could help expand the number of childcare options available to families around the state and increase the number of children with access to care. However, state requirements for preschools currently exclude outdoor preschool programs from becoming licensed. For example, ensuring that classrooms are free of insects and rodents makes good sense for indoor programs, but there aren’t analogous provisions for outdoor-based preschools where nature is the classroom.
Washington addressed this problem in 2017 with the passage of SB 5357, which created a four-year pilot program in their Department of Children, Youth, and Families to explore pathways to licensure for outdoor preschools. As of Fall 2019, a handful of outdoor preschools are receiving special licenses to operate with new standards, which were developed by the State over the past two years. Washington’s innovative work, detailed in its 2019 legislative report, could serve as a roadmap for Oregon’s efforts.
Outdoor Preschools in Oregon
Outdoor preschools could be especially effective in Oregon, where all 36 counties were declared “childcare deserts” in an OSU report. That means that for every available spot in childcare facilities, there are three or more children waiting to get in. This shortage is especially difficult for low-income families who rely on subsidies to pay for childcare. In 2015, only 17% of children who qualify for state or federal childcare subsidies were actually enrolled in childcare programs that accept subsidies. Additionally, development coalitions across Oregon have identified a lack of childcare as a major barrier to economic development in rural Oregon.
To help us lead this effort, we’re excited to welcome our outdoor preschool graduate fellow, Lynny Brown. As a Masters of Public Health candidate at OHSU, Lynny’s expertise and experience working for Early Head Start bring an invaluable perspective to this work. And her passion for equity matches perfectly with the values of the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative.
“It is really important to me to bring a health equity lens to the project from the beginning. The licensing of outdoor preschools offers affordable options for working families, families who receive child care subsidies, and families who have not traditionally had access to outdoor spaces. I am excited to collaborate with community partners, listen to the needs of their communities, and reduce barriers that exist around outdoor access, preschool options, and nature-based learning opportunities.”
Lynny Brown, Graduate Fellow
With Lynny on board and our goal in sight, we’re stoked to build out our network of support to push this forward so that all Oregonians, old and young alike, have the chance to be as healthy as possible.
Special thanks to John Miller and the Kelley Family Foundation for helping to fund this opportunity.
Cover photo provided by Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District.