Outdoor Preschool as an Equity and Resilience Tool for Communities

Outdoor Preschool as an Equity and Resilience Tool for Communities

By Barton Robison and Lynny Brown


A group of all ages hikes along a hillside. Photo by Fas Khan, Unsplash.

The realities of our current pandemic have upended almost every facet of everyday life, and the world of education is no different. In many states, schools were the first things to close to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The combination of closely-packed classrooms and generally asymptomatic transmission of the virus amongst young people make schools unique in their ability to serve as transmission hubs across communities. 

The timing for school closures in Oregon could hardly have been more tragic. In 2019, the state legislature passed House Bill 3427, a new business tax that was projected to raise nearly $2 billion for education over the next biennium. $200 million of that was slated to help get more kids into affordable preschools through the Preschool Promise program. Just one year later, our state’s educational outcomes look more dire than ever before.

As the education sector begins to build out reopening and resilience strategies for the years ahead, one model is gaining some attention around the world: outdoor and nature-based schools. The benefits of outdoor schools have been known for decades—reduced rates of obesity, improved attention and focus, etc.—but one benefit in particular makes outdoor schools an especially attractive model right now: outdoor-based programs are less efficient spreaders of communicable diseases. Children in outdoor classrooms aren’t confined to indoor spaces that prevent physical distancing. Classroom sizes tend to be smaller, meaning fewer potential infections. And when nature is the playground, there are fewer surfaces on which viruses can survive than on traditional toys and play equipment.

People around the world are taking notice, and some are making outdoor schools a central strategy to combat disease resurgence once schools reopen. Scotland has already listed outdoor schools as part of their “curriculum for excellence”, and is poised to expand outdoor preschool offerings once schools start to reopen. Forbes listed outdoor schools as one of four education models that may gain popularity in a post-pandemic world. The Washington Post highlights outdoor spaces as a way to make schools better prepared to face outbreaks and reduce the spread of disease in the future. 

Outdoor Preschool and the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative

Oregon Health and Outdoors InitiativeThrough the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative, we’re working to help expand access to outdoor preschools by advocating for pathways to licensure for these programs. We’re working on a national Outdoor Preschool Policy Action Framework to help advocates in all 50 states learn about which policies inhibit and expand access to outdoor preschools.

We’re also happy to announce the launch of our Outdoor Preschool Equity Toolkit. This resource was designed for current preschool providers to highlight best practices that schools are doing around the state to help families overcome financial, logistical, and cultural barriers to accessing nature-based and outdoor preschools. This Toolkit was created after conducting interviews with current nature-based and outdoor preschool providers across Oregon, all of whom are already taking steps to improve equity in their schools and community. 

As our communities shift into resilience planning for the future, we’ve got a unique opportunity to invest in education in ways that are sustainable and innovative. And with evidence to show that outdoor schools are safe, healthy options for families, making sure every child has equitable access to the outdoors is more important now than ever. 

You can hear Lynny Brown speak about the Outdoor Preschool Equity Toolkit at the Natural Start Alliance Virtual Conference, during a featured storytellers panel. The plenary panel will highlight approaches to bring outdoor preschools to all children, with an eye toward equity, partnership, and collective action. Click here for more information.

Read the ‘Outdoor Preschool Equity Toolkit’

Barton Robison knows firsthand the healing powers of nature and is passionate about removing access barriers so that all Oregonians can know the benefits of time in green space. He leads Willamette Partnership’s work on the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative, and his strengths include facilitation, strategy development, and communications.


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