A train rushes by Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, which happens to be the newest location of the outdoor Tiny Trees Preschool.
Kids spend the whole day outside there, rain or shine. Already outside, and eating lunch in a nearby clearing, the teachers quickly shuffle the excited kids over to watch the train go by.
It’s just one perk of spending the day in a classroom without walls.
“We use outdoor classrooms in public parks to make preschool more affordable,” said Tiny Trees Preschool CEO Andrew Jay. “By not spending money on a building, we’re able to invest in what really matters in education which is paying teachers well, keeping tuition affordable and creating vibrant, mixed income classrooms. Half of our children at Tiny Trees receive financial assistance.”
Instead of walls these kids get full views of the Olympic Mountains, Puget Sound and, of course, the big, colorful art pieces curated by SAM.
“We are outdoors, year round, rain or shine,” Jay said from underneath a yellow leafed Aspen tree. “That looks like children wearing these amazing, little Alaskan fisherman suits. So they will have full rubber rain gear on, insulated rubber boots, all the layers they need underneath to keep them warm. This model is not new; the outdoor preschool model has really taken off in Scandinavia and northern Europe, where they’ve shown that children can thrive and learn outdoors in all weather and all conditions. The proverb is: there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.”
Tiny Trees Preschool
Dad, Howard Wu, has a three-year-old daughter, Myra, currently enrolled. Her older brother is now in kindergarten and Wu says he misses spending his days outside.
“He complains that they only get to play in the playground a few times a day,” Wu said. “He misses hiking. He talks about hiking a lot. We actually took him on little hikes and he talks about all the different plants he knows. He’s like, ‘That’s an Oregon grape!’ He talks about different kinds of plants, which I have no idea what he’s talking about! For the foreseeable future they’re going to be indoor a lot more than they’re outdoor, at least Monday through Friday. So I figure the more we can give them exposure to nature in the early, formidable years [the better].”
This is lead preschool teacher Alicia Guinn’s first experience teaching outdoors. She says she notices a difference between these kids and the ones kept indoors most of the day.
“We really can accommodate kids’ different needs,” she said. “So one kid might come to school in the morning and want to read and another is ready to run. In a traditional indoor preschool classroom we’d usually be telling that kid who needs to run, ‘Oh! Be quiet. Oh, sit down. Now’s the time to be quiet and later we can run.’ And here one kid can read and another can run. And everyone’s needs get taken care of.”
Jay says parents report their kids sleep better, have bigger appetites and are generally joyful after a day of outdoors curiosity. Plus, they’re not afraid of the rain like many adults.
“Children care about the present and adults really care a lot about the future,” Jay said. “A parent who wakes up in the morning and sees that it’s going to rain and be windy, they might be really concerned. As a child, they only care if they get cold and wet. So for us, it’s making sure it’s the right clothing. There is a joy to Seattle weather that children can really show. The joy of splashing in mud puddles, the joy of making things as muddy as possible. And we, as adults sometimes, forget about that.”
This school is one of seven outdoor Tiny Trees Preschools.