Reimagining Outdoor Head Start Preschools in Tygh Valley
By Lynny Brown
“We just got done with feeding the pigs!” exclaimed an excited Velvet Cooley, Associate Director of the Mid-Columbia Children’s Council, as I idled up to Tygh Valley Head Start. A group of eight 3-5 year olds were scurrying back to school behind her.
As I parked, Teacher Nedly Cole opened the gate to let the kids back into their partially covered outdoor space, where they resumed typical school routines: Counting numbers while playing hopscotch, drawing at the writing station, sharing buckets as they dug and filled containers full of sand, and throwing balls through hula hoops.
In most ways, Tygh Valley looks and feels like a typical Head Start classroom. There’s a familiar Head Start sign out front, a yellow school bus with “Mid-Columbia Children’s Council” written on the side. The main difference? The kids who learn here spend nearly one hundred percent of their school days outside.
It all started last September, when Cole wondered if she could move her classroom outdoors.
Associate Director Cooley enthusiastically responded with a yes: “What do you need to make this work?” she recalls firing back.
It’s not shocking she was immediately on board; last year, Cooley completed a doctorate degree researching how to encourage teachers’ use of outdoor learning environments. She explored ways to reduce barriers so that teachers in East Multnomah County Head Start classrooms could spend their days outside, whether accessing a nearby green space or using the blacktop outside of an apartment building. She found that even in diverse outdoor learning environments, teachers could brainstorm ways to meet all learning objectives using natural materials as much as possible.
Tygh Valley Head Start has an indoor classroom, bathrooms with running water, and a kitchen to prepare food, but they choose to be outdoors every day that they can. They learn outside, play outside, eat outside, and on nice days, nap outside.
“Naptime actually works for us,” commented Cole, “the students are tired!”
As far as I could see, the spacious outdoor area is a perfect space to meet all of Head Start’s Learning Domains. I watched children scribble shapes in the sand with examples of the alphabet written next to them. I heard them ask each other for help as they navigated tricycles on uneven and bumpy terrain. There was no lack of learning opportunities and child-led exploration outside.
According to Teacher Cole, moving outdoors has supported her student’s social-emotional development and there has been a decrease in challenging behavior. Associate Director Cooley attributes this to the calming effects of outdoor spaces; there’s more room to appropriately let out big feelings by kicking a ball or running around, and noise isn’t trapped inside and bouncing off the walls of a classroom, which can be overstimulating and overwhelming for sensory-sensitive kids.
Research supports their experience, suggesting that outdoor spaces are soothing environments for children that can decrease stress and increase focus, curiosity, and attention. It’s immediately apparent when seeing these kids outside. When I asked about her observed impact on her classroom’s mental health, Cole responded, “The mental health specialist said that [our program] will put her out of a job!”
It’s also great for pandemic learning. Although many families have chosen not to send their families back to school during Covid-19, Tygh Valley Head Start has the potential to fill all 18 slots, if separated into two learning pods. The Oregon Health Authority and Early Learning Division recognize that outdoor spaces significantly reduce the risk of transmission and suggest spending additional time outside. It’s a smart and safe option for in-person learning during the pandemic: a study found that the odds of catching coronavirus inside was 19 times greater than catching it outside.
That said, even though teachers and administrators are on board with outdoor learning, some might worry that families may not be. In this specific case? “No parents have raised concern,” Cole says. “Our families are outside families.”
For families that are unsure about the model, Cooley suggests that teachers invite them to school to see it for themselves. “It helps if they can visualize it and see it in action,” she said.
At the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative, our vision is that every child in every state has the choice to attend an outdoor preschool, to benefit from the physical and mental health improvements that nature provides, and to have equitable access to these resources.
Tygh Valley is a great example of why we have been pursuing licensure for outdoor preschools: they work. Licensure could allow outdoor preschools to participate in programs like Preschool Promise and Employment-Related Day Care, opening it up to families who receive childcare assistance. As we continue to develop those licensing pathways, Tygh Valley Head Start shows that there are ways to increase outdoor time for young learners right now within the existing licensing framework.
There are no rules against individual teachers choosing to spend more time outside. Program administrators can support their staff by offering training, resources, and encouragement to be able to do it.
When Head Start programs embrace outdoor learning, they open the door to meaningful nature experiences for so many children. Individual schools like Tygh Valley make a difference: They touch children’s lives, inspire fellow teachers, and offer a model that other programs can emulate.
It’s going so well in Tygh Valley that they are expanding the outdoor model. “We have another classroom that will be completely outdoors next week,” says Cooley, proudly.
What would it look like if we could reimagine Head Start program options that are entirely, or almost entirely outside? Tygh Valley offers advice to other Head Start or preschool classrooms that want to explore outdoor learning: Connect with partners who are already doing the work and think outside the box.
I drove away from Tygh Valley excited. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a perfect example of how individual schools have the power to be movers and shakers, creating change and offering different opportunities for the children in their communities.
Partner, Health & Outdoors