Opinion

Can taking pre-K classrooms outdoors end education inequity for our youngest learners?

‘Every child deserves a fair shot at the American dream’

Joshua Doctorow, 4, gets help putting on his mitten from teacher and school co-director Kit Harrington at Fiddlehead Forest School in Seattle. Children spend their entire four-hour day outside, so must be dressed for the elements.

Preschool is expensive and increasingly a luxury that only the wealthy can afford. In most states in our country, preschool costs more than rent or college tuition.

This leads to women (and increasingly men) dropping out of the workforce during a critical time in their careers and contributing to a shortage of skilled talent in our economy, from the technology sector to the school classroom — not to mention the 60 percent of children in our country who enter kindergarten two years behind their wealthier (and luckier) peers.

In the recent Hechinger Report article, Into the woods: When preschoolers spend every class outdoors, Lillian Mongeau presented a hopeful portrait of a new trend in American preschools: breaking down the school house walls and taking the classroom outdoors.

Related: Into the woods: When preschoolers spend every class outdoors

A preschool where children develop the emotional, social and academic skills they need to thrive in kindergarten while also living a vibrant, joyful childhood. A childhood full of play, exploration and wonder in the natural world. The article also appeared in The New York Times.

The article also mentions that outdoor preschools make a quality education more affordable.

It’s simple really. A brick and mortar schoolhouse is expensive. It requires significant capital to build, to meet state licensing standards and to heat, clean or cool every day. Take the classroom outdoors and that expensive building becomes unnecessary, cutting costs up to 25 percent.

Related: Poll: Voters agree, candidates should talk preschool

Here in Seattle Tiny Trees Preschool is taking this idea to scale with nine outdoor preschools approved by Seattle Parks and Recreation for 2016 and 2017.

Our goal is for these preschools be public schools with free tuition for low income families provided by the City of Seattle’s new Preschool Program.

The preschools aim to meet state licensing and quality standards and align with local school districts to make sure every child is prepared to enter kindergarten.

Adel Miroite, 3, sits in the “nest” she carved out for herself in a handy pile of woodchips in her outdoor classroom at Fiddleheads Forest School, located in the Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle.

Related: Q&A: Publicly funded preschool ‘top priority’ for U.S. Department of Education

Parks are the most democratic of spaces and speak to the values of a public education: equity, opportunity and excellence. Parks are universally loved and provide a perfect venue for universal preschool.

Outdoor classrooms in parks also address a shortage of preschools and child care centers in urban areas.

As real estate prices climb in cities like Seattle, San Francisco and New York preschools struggle to find the buildings they need to meet the demand.

Related: Fixing a higher education “caste system’’ that screams inequality: Help us find answers

Child care is not a very profitable industry and cannot compete with doggy day care, restaurants and technology companies for real estate in a hot market. The result: long wait lists and increasingly childless cities.

President Obama wants to see the spirit of public education expanded to cover our youngest students so no matter how lucky or unlucky a child was in the lottery that is birth they have an equal chance of achieving the American dream.

In his State of the Union address this month, the president called for universal preschool where every child has “a fair shot at opportunity in the new economy.”

Related: Should college tuition be free or paid on a sliding scale? Just ask preschool advocates

When the president presented his vision of preschool he received a standing ovation.

Lawmakers from both parties stood to support early childhood education. Not only for the benefit for the child but also the financial reality that dollars spent on children at an early age result in greater savings later in life: a child who goes to preschools spends less time in expensive jails, drug treatment centers and mental health facilities.

Every child deserves a fair shot at the American dream.

Outdoor preschools can help ensure that a fair shot is something both families and taxpayers can afford.

Andrew Jay is chief executive officer of Tiny Trees Preschool.

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Andrew Jay

Andrew Jay is chief executive officer of Tiny Trees Preschool. See Archive

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