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Licensing Outdoor Preschool?

By Diona Williams, M.Ed. ECSE

The state of Washington is the first pilot in the United States that aims to finally license outdoor, nature-based, and forest preschools. This is in reference to schools that spend the majority of their days outside the four walls, exploring natural spaces, regardless of the weather. You can see all the outdoor, nature, and forest-based schools in the United States on the Natural Start Alliance‘s website; they are the Early Childhood Environmental Education program of our partner organizations, NAAEE.


Currently in the United States, there are no licensing systems in place for outdoor preschools as much of the licensing process is build around the school’s physical building. Washington is leading the way in confronting this issue, because without licensing, outdoor preschools face huge barriers for making their program accessible to everyone. Just like a regular preschool licensing system, Washington’s licensing pilot program has a set of standards that the schools will all have to meet. Why might this Washington experiment be important to us down here in Arizona?

Here’s an example from my life: As an owner/lead educator of a nature preschool in Arizona, this pilot program is ground breaking for our state. Our licensing systems have many rules that simply don’t align with foundational practices in outdoor and garden-based learning. Imagine you are a teacher in the state of Arizona. You start a school garden and want to grow tomatoes because they do so well in the sun here. Unfortunately, in our current system, this plant is categorized as poisonous so licensed facilities cannot have them in a children’s garden. This happened to me, and this is the reality of licensed programs throughout the state of Arizona. Many preschool teachers express frustration at the limited vegetation their programs can grow in their school gardens or have in the green spaces their program goes to.

So, how does the state of Arizona move forward? Of course, my initial thought it’s time to start our own pilot program. I think this starts with reviewing and surveying the specific gardening and outdoor time limitations for licensed programs such as child care centers, in-home providers, Head Starts, and public schools currently experience. After we review the findings, we’ll be able to write our own set of standards that makes sense for our schools and our climate. Then, we can move towards policy discussions by educating stakeholders on the importance of spending time in nature and gardening and how the current rules limit licensed facilities from providing the outdoor time & gardening opportunities that children deserve.

If you’re interested in joining our Early Childhood Environmental Education working group that is beginning to explore the options of increasing nature-based and outdoor early learning in Arizona, let us know!

Contact Diona Williams at outbacklearning2019@gmail.com for more information.

A Nature-Based Preschool in the Desert?! You Bet!

By AAEE Member & Volunteer: Diona Williams

I am a full-time Early Childhood Education Professor a few days out of the week at a Tribal Community College called Tohono O’odham.  However, I have worked with children birth to age 8 for the last 17 plus years in many different capacities. My career has allowed me to work as an Infant/Toddler Mental Health Clinician II (behavioral health), Arizona Early Intervention Program, and CHILD Find Team/Public Educator as an Early Childhood Special Teacher.

What inspired me to open Out Back Learning LLC is truly my desire to grow my knowledge in the profession in Early Childhood Education and discover new and innovative ways to work with young children. I had an opportunity to attend a conference a year and a half ago at Prescott College, where I was able to learn about Nature-based Place and Play in Early Childhood Education. I was so inspired by the movement that I implemented the ideas and knowledge with my students the following school year, which led to gardening and outdoor lessons. I decided to leave public education to pursue higher education and to start this Nature-based Preschool Program. I love teaching college students about Early Childhood Education, but I absolutely love working with young children and families. The program is a passion project, but I have witnessed first hand how children can benefit from outdoor nature-based preschools.

Offering a Nature-Based preschool in the desert is unique from the typical nature-based and forest schools in the northwest, northeast, and midwest programs, because the desert environment is so different. In the desert we have everything from giant mesquite trees, prickly pear cactus & their fruit, to the scorpions & poisonous spiders.

So, how do the Out Backers survive the desert?

 

In Out Back Learning I have discovered the beauty of nature in a different way with my students, also known as the Out Backers.  For instance, one day the Out Backers discovered the Mexican Bird of Paradise plant has seed pods, and they could create, count, snap, build, and grow seeds. However, this plant has led to many other discussions beyond that. One example would be, when Leo asked, “Why do we not water this plant, but we water the jalapeno plant?” Or, when Isaac wondered, “Why does this plant have so many seed pods?”. This plant has led to even more conversations about pollinators, the importance of bees, and why butterflies hang out by the Mexican Bird of Paradise plant.

Life in Out Back Learning also gives the Out Backers an opportunity to take nature walks daily, even in the desert! I remember the first time the Out Backers took a nature walk, and we learned the importance of signs, landmarks, and directions. Now, the nature walks take twice as long because the Out Backers have discovered the wonders of every part of nature such as the pine needles, different rock varieties, flowers, leaves, cacti, etc.

Out Back Learning LLC also offers gardening opportunities for the Out Backers in the fall and spring, another easy way to connect with nature in the desert. Our fall garden currently has corn, herbs, cabbage, strawberries, jalapeno, cucumber, tomatoes, and sunflowers.

Every Monday the Out Backers get to harvest any item from the garden that they like to eat, take home, or cook. There are so many ways for young learners to safely play in and with nature in a desert environment. Knowing there are so many benefits to spending time in nature and nature-based learning & play, it’s important that we give all learners these opportunities, no matter what environment they’re growing up in!

You can follow the Out Backers’ adventures on their Facebook page and their Instagram @outbacklearning2019

 

 

Do you want your program featured in AAEE’s newsletter, on our website, & on our social media platforms? Contact us on our Facebook page, Instagram @EEinArizona, or comment on this article!

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