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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Veradale preschool among small group participating in state pilot program for outdoor learning

Students at Into the Forest preschool in Veradale make leaf angels on Thursday. Into the Forest is a partially outdoors preschool program that is a pilot through Washington state. They have the children learning outside at least 50% of the day, regardless of weather. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Students at Into the Forest preschool in Veradale make leaf angels on Thursday. Into the Forest is a partially outdoors preschool program that is a pilot through Washington state. They have the children learning outside at least 50% of the day, regardless of weather. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

While kids in Spokane Public Schools had a snow day Wednesday, Macy Smith and her classmates at Into the Forest Preschool had a day playing in the snow.

Into The Forest, located in Veradale, is one of 20 facilities that signed on for Washington’s 2017 outdoor preschool pilot program. Of those, Into the Forest and 11 other programs are participating in the pilot. The pilot allows them to spend time outdoors and give feedback to the program about how to develop appropriate standards for outdoor preschool learning.

For Macy, that meant making “puppy lemonade soup,” an outdoor inspired dish that included huckleberries, strawberries, blueberries and other ingredients.

Washington became the first state to license outdoor preschools in September, said Debbie Groff, outdoor preschool pilot program manager. Groff said many other states are interested, including Colorado, which is running an outdoor pilot as well.

Two Washington facilities have been licensed thus far, three more should join by the end of next week and three are waiting in the wings.

“This is a hope of mine and our program folks is that we’ll find healthy children, they’ll be confident children,” Groff said. “We see some wonderful problem-solving that happens in the out of doors that will absolutely help any child in their education setting in a kindergarten classroom.”

Once Macy’s soup was complete, the pestle was converted to a makeshift spoon, and her creation was offered. She counted slurps aloud and on her fingers: one, two, three, four, five.

None of her teachers were asking her to recite a math lesson from rote. She was counting in her natural environment, which is the point. The point is that the kids play – and they have so much fun they forget they’re learning.

Into the Forest describes its teaching philosophy as blending “the Reggio Approach and Waldorf Theory with a Montessori style.”

“Children learn through their environment,” said Megan Benedict, Into the Forest co-owner and director. “They learn through seeing, touching, feeling, real life experiences. So seeing the colors outside and talking about the colors of the trees, the colors of the leaves, how many are there, we do it that way.”

Snow tastes like puppies and puppies eat snow when they get hungry, Bennett Dill, 3, said, grabbing a mouthful off a table’s top layer, adding a “woof, woof” for emphasis. He advised to stay away from yellow snow, which tastes like puppy something else. Bennett waited for his turn while Wyatt Blumhorst, 3, scooped seeds from a pumpkin and transplanted them into something resembling a large, plastic garlic press, squeezing out the goo.

Wyatt said on Tuesday his class took a trip to Green Bluff and went on a tractor ride and ate apples. The dissected pumpkin, however, came straight from the school’s garden, and Wyatt was simply doing his “work.”

“We call it work – and it’s a lot of activities that are meant to do a certain skill set, so instead of sitting down with a piece of paper copying writing, every child doing the same thing, we have like a little wooden tray that has sand in it, and then there’s letters so they can draw the letters in the sand,” Benedict said.

Mary Lesaowski, who has two children at Into the Forest, said she loves the structure of the program – and the messes.

“I pick them up, and they’re most likely covered in mud from the mud kitchen,” Lesaowski said. “Some parents would be like, ‘Is this all you did today?’ And I was like, ‘Wow, you did what you should be doing for your age.’ ”

Into the Forest regularly assesses its students, and the entirety of the class that started kindergarten this year was kindergarten ready by state standard. By contrast, a statewide study showed that three-quarters of Spokane children were not prepared for kindergarten. All Into the Forest students were able to read at some level, knew all phonetic sounds, recognized their numbers and were beginning addition and subtraction.

For now, Into the Forest has an indoor space, and the children split their time 50/50 between inside and outside, including regular hikes. But Benedict is hoping for an all-outdoor location in Dishman Hills as soon as November. Holly Jones – a mother of three who has one child in preschool and one in the school-age before and after care – will likely sign up Irene, her 4-year-old.

“We’re totally on board with it,” Jones said. “We’ve been really happy with everything that they’ve done at Into the Forest and the priorities that they place on being outdoors and giving the kids the freedom to play and to explore their environment. We’ve really seen our kids thrive in that.”

The biggest barrier to convincing parents is days like Wednesday, when the question arises, What will their children do in inclement weather with no indoor option? Groff said some parents are wary due to misconceptions.

“I think just understanding that if children are in the cold weather they’re not necessarily going to get sick,” Groff said. “If they’re properly clothed, if they’re properly involved in activity levels that keep their body temperatures up, that they truly aren’t going to get sick just because it’s rainy.”

She also said that if the weather becomes dangerous or risky, then every program has to follow National Weather Service and Washington state service predictors. Groff, who is also the Department of Children, Youth and Families for Childcare licensing area administrator, said one of the standards set by licensing requires facilities to use a radio or weather apps to continuously monitor the weather.

“They have to make decisions every morning as to whether they have class, if it’s too dangerous of weather, or whether they can start with class and maybe they move into an area where they can keep the kids a little bit warmer or under a shelter from the rain,” Groff said.

Because Benedict understands that parents may be nervous about the all-outdoor option, she said she plans to ease parents into it by offering a four-hour program at first.

Benedict said she isn’t concerned that the children will want to go inside, because they just won’t have the option.

“I think it would take a little bit of getting used to for the kids because a lot of kids aren’t used to that type of environment,” Benedict said. “ … Once the kids realize what they’re able to do, I think they’ll become more comfortable with it.”

The program also sets different standards for outdoor preschool teachers, requiring them to have a background not only in early childhood education but also in environmental education.

“These staff people have to know things that would come about with plant life and what’s safe and what’s not safe, what’s safe for weather,” Groff said. “Those kinds of things that they would learn through coursework in environmental education.”

Into the Forest has three different ages groups, which all come along with their own teacher-student ratios. For the 1- to 2 1/2-year-olds, there is one teacher for every seven kids, and the school has 12 students in this group. For the 3- to 5-year-olds, the ratio is one teacher for every 10 kids, and 30 are currently enrolled. For the school-age children, who can be as old as 13, the ratio is one to 15, and 26 kids are participating.

For the fully outdoor programs, the facilities will have to have a 1-to-6 ratio, with a maximum group size of 16. A big reason these standards were developed is because outdoor preschools will involve a certain amount of risk. The preschools will have to take steps to mitigate those risks – part of the reasoning behind the teacher’s special certifications – and have parents sign a document stating they understand the program comes with risks.

“We had teachers truly look at the risky play element in their environment and to do a benefit-risk assessment for each of those areas that would be considered risky to children,” Groff said.

But Groff said those very risks are a benefit in the education the children receive.

“If we can stretch our children, if we can do it in a safe way, they will be able to manipulate and use their environment safely as adults,” Groff said. “It’s hard to teach kids how to navigate spaces if they’re never challenged in those spaces.”

For most parents, the cost of day care and preschool is a factor in finding a place for their child. At Into the Forest, the monthly cost for the full-time toddler and preschool program is $820. On Jan. 1, the center is raising its rate to $943.

By contrast, in 2018, the median cost in Spokane County for a toddler was $966 per month, and for a preschooler, $867 per month, according to Child Care Aware Washington.

The estimated cost of the all-outdoor program is $800, but the all-outdoor program will not carry expensive overhead such as building costs. Rent at the current location – which they will continue to run alongside the all-outdoor program – is $4,000 a month, utilities average $1,000 per month, as well as insurance at $700 per month.

Costs for the outdoor program will be payroll, liability insurance which is $560 per month, as well as $50 up front for each student’s gear.

Licensing provides two major benefits to the outdoor preschools. For one thing, it authorizes them to have an all-day outdoor program. For another, it allows them to accept kids whose child care is subsidized, making the programs more accessible.

“That is one of the reasons we moved forward as well as we have is because we do want to open that access to all families,” Groff said. “By getting a child care license, we can offer subsidized child care to those families who qualify, and so I think the outreach to families in need will be that much greater.”

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