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Easing child care shortages: New law effective July 1 adds nature-based programs, fee suspension

UPDATED: Mon., July 12, 2021

Preschool kids have a natural classroom in the outdoors to learn, from finding insects to creating art with pine cones. Now, more outside adventures can begin.

New legislation affecting child care in Washington became effective July 1. It includes authorizing the state Department of Children, Youth and Families to license outdoor, nature-based child care programs.

Also, the passage of SB 5151 means that child care providers won’t have to pay licensing fees for two years under as a state suspension through June 30, 2023, as operators recover from the pandemic’s financial hit.

Washington is now the first state in the nation to permanently license outdoor, nature-based child care for preschool and school-age children under the new law. It will allow for more programs that enroll preschool or school-age children, teach a nature-based curriculum and provide such learning experiences for at least half of the day.

A few outdoor programs began after 2017 through a state pilot. One in Spokane is Little Woodland Adventures, said Megan Benedict, co-owner, and her 4-hour outdoor program uses the Dishman Hills Natural Area. Children ages 2½ to 5 learn with nature-based preschool curriculum.

The program briefly halted during the pandemic, but Benedict has recently taken kids back to the outdoors. She plans to get the new license option to broaden services by September because of what it offers to children.

“It keeps them from having walls and barriers, so it actually keeps them calmer; they can learn easier in an environment where they’re not restricted by walls,” Benedict said. “They have more ability to move around, jump around, run around while they’re learning and not constantly having to sit in one spot.

“We do have rules and boundaries where we can obviously see and hear them and interact with them, but it’s a more open environment for them to learn.”

Benedict is also co-owner of Into the Forest, a licensed Veradale center that incorporates outdoor learning. She says the new licensing option for nature programs gives more providers an ability to serve more children.

“In order to run it as an all-day day program, to give more families the option as a child care program, I’ll have to be licensed,” she said.

She said another challenge is hiring enough qualified teachers so she can increase capacity. As the licensing paperwork gets completed, she’ll continue to follow the pilot’s allowances of four hours of outdoor instruction.

Her program still has crafts, numbers, shapes, colors and typical preschool lessons, she said, but just taught in different ways to use the natural environment. Little Woodland Adventures runs in winter, too, with kids dressed appropriately, but they quickly shed extra layers as they’re moving, Benedict said.

The new licensing provision allows the outdoor, nature-based child care programs to receive subsidy payment through Working Connections Child Care for income-eligible families and to participate in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program.

Under traditional child care center licensing, the requirements wouldn’t carry over to allow a full outdoor program, Benedict said, because of rules for a building, the number of bathrooms and sinks per children and other standards.

“So with this, we have more ability to have more kids in the program who might need to be in an outdoor program more so than an indoor one,” she said.

“With it passing, there is still a set of standards and a set of licensing rules, but they’re different than what a center-style licensing program is. They give us more leeway to do things and explore more and not have to be inside a building.”

Under the provision to suspend licensing fees, it applies to new applicants as well as licensed providers. A news release said the fee suspension “will remove a financial burden for child care providers and will help alleviate the child care shortage in many areas.”

That means child care providers – from those in private homes to large centers – won’t be required to pay the fees that range from $30 annually for a family home provider to hundreds for centers and school-age locations.

“At this particular moment, everything counts,” said Luc Jasmin, owner of Parkview Early Learning Center in Spokane. Jasmin is also Washington Child Care Center Association president. That fee suspension can mean providers strapped for cash after the pandemic’s financial hits can afford facility upgrades or cover other operational costs.

“So for Parkview specifically, that’s $1,500 that we save. Right now, as you know across the state, we’re going through a heat wave,” Jasmin said. “Guess how many providers need $1,500 right now to be able to fix their cooling systems just to stay open to serve kids?

“That’s a tangible thing right now that if providers had to pay the licensing fees, they wouldn’t have that money to help. Just to start a place, there are expenses. Then you have to factor in that there’s permitting fees and construction fees, just in opening a facility.”

He also thinks the outdoor learning programs add more choices. “What you’re seeing is just flexibility, and typically government isn’t known for flexibility,” he said. “This is just another way they’re finding resourceful solutions.

“I applaud it and love that they’re thinking outside the box, and it’s truly a family choice, right? If a family wants to bring a child to an outdoor space, they can do that. If they want to take them to a family home or to a center, now you’ve just opened it up really in giving parents choice. That’s what we should be doing.”

Additional child care legislation passed this year, including the Fair Start for Kids Act, signed May 7 by Gov. Jay Inslee, to provide new funding for child care and early learning. And starting in July, most American families are eligible to receive monthly payments of as much as $300 per child.

As part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill President Joe Biden signed into law in March, Congress transformed the existing Child Tax Credit into what is effectively a monthly child allowance for all but the highest-earning parents.

Families who have filed taxes for 2019 or 2020 will automatically receive their first payments July 15, but low-income parents who didn’t file taxes in those years because they earned too little will need to request the money through an online portal set up by the Internal Revenue Service.

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