Outdoor Preschools Can Help Rebuild Our Child Care System
By Lynny Brown
I grew up in the concrete jungles of Bangkok, Thailand, in a 20-story apartment building. On the ground level was a small green area. It had a few plants, a small pond, and a patch of grass, but even that alone was an entire universe of possibilities for my preschool-aged self. I was able to run around barefoot in the mud during the heavy rains of the monsoon season and, in the spring, I found myself picking fuzzy pink flowers and rubbing them in between my fingers to calm down.
Those are some of my earliest and fondest memories. And now as a public health professional, I recognize how good it was for me physically, mentally, and developmentally. What would it look like if all young ones had access to meaningful outdoor experiences as a regular part of preschool?
One year ago, COVID-19 turned the world upside-down. Our fragile social systems were hit hard by the pandemic and inequities were laid bare. Child care was one of many systems upended. Within a few weeks of the stay-at-home order, nearly half of licensed child care centers in Oregon closed. Many families found themselves in impossible situations, juggling the responsibilities of suddenly being a worker, teacher, and caregiver all at once. This has been a year of individual and collective grief and uncertainty.
But even in the midst of tragedies, we’ve also heard stories of grit and resilience. People have come together, working tirelessly to rebuild stronger, healthier, and more equitable communities. And now, a year into the pandemic, many recognize that rebuilding our child care system is foundational to our society’s recovery.
There is a lot of evidence that outdoor and nature-based preschools could be an important step in rebuilding our child care systems for better outcomes. They help children lower their stress levels and encourage them to be more physically active. Learning outdoors can help children concentrate and stay motivated. All families should have the option to send their children to an outdoor preschool and give them access to the mental health, physical health, and developmental benefits that they provide.
Willamette Partnership believes that people and the environment are inextricably linked and outdoor preschools help nurture that mutual relationship at a young age. Over the past year, I’ve had the great privilege of working with advocates across the country to develop the Outdoor Preschool Policy Action Framework. The Framework aims to advance equity and access to nature-based programs. In conjunction with the Outdoor Preschool Equity Toolkit, the Framework outlines tools to help rebuild our child care system in a way that offers safe and meaningful spaces for little ones to reap the benefits of being outdoors. No matter where children live, whether close to a park or in an urban setting, there are opportunities to learn and play outside!
– Lynny Brown, Partner, Health & Outdoors