Bill Expands Opportunities for Outdoor, Nature-Based Early Learning in Washington

by Jack Russillo


Washington children are now the first in the nation to have the option of attending early learning programs based entirely outdoors. 

A bill passed this year made Washington the first state in the country to allow service providers to offer full-day outdoor, nature-based early learning options to families with young children. Governor Jay Inslee signed Senate Bill 5151 into law on May 13, giving his stamp of approval to a project that started in 2017 when the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) began a four-year pilot program for outdoor preschools that tested out a system for licensing nature-based, outdoor child care and early learning programs. 

“The reason this outdoor preschool pilot was so successful was because we partnered with very knowledgeable, passionate people who really helped truly think about what is the best way to keep kids safe in these wonderful outdoor settings,” said Debbie Groff, the outdoor preschool pilot manager at the DCYF. 

The passed bill allows the DCYF to license new organizations interested in operating full-day outdoor, nature-based child care and early learning programs. Before the bill was signed, only the handful of programs that participated in the DCYF’s pilot program were licensed by the State to operate their outdoor education systems — and only for four hours per day at most. Outdoor programs could still operate legally, but those who ran the programs could not offer full-day service or prove that they met the State’s guidelines for safety and childhood enrichment without a license, and the service providers did not have access to resources available only to licensed agencies.

Now, individuals and organizations can apply for new licenses that assure statewide standards and can receive assistance from Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) to help support the cost of tuition for families below a certain income. Licensed programs can also now participate in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP). Additionally, outdoor child care providers have not been eligible for pandemic relief funds because they’re not licensed, but this bill’s passage will open up the millions of relief dollars that have been made available to licensed child care organizations.

The bill will take effect at the end of July, which is when new programs can begin to apply for licenses, and the original organizations with pilot programs’ licenses will have their licenses extended automatically. Licensing fees are waived until June 2023 under the passage of the bill.

Beginning this fall, more students will be able to participate in the expanded services and opportunities that outdoor-based education programs — like Tiny Trees, an original participant in the DCYF’s pilot program — can offer, such as a larger focus on learning about and experiencing the outdoors, higher teacher-to-student ratios, and more accessible child care. Outdoor school programs can also be a safer environment for children, according to the DCYF. Nature-based schooling can also help students perform better academically, grow their self-esteem, and improve their emotional regulation and mental health, according to studies reported on by REI

“From an academic standpoint, you’re outside experiencing the outdoors firsthand, there are so many opportunities for learning,” said Khavin Debbs, the partnerships manager of Tiny Trees. “There’s a lot of wonder that nature provides and it’s that sense of wonder that galvanizes learning. Our educators know how to cultivate that and they know how to scaffold those questions. They know how to challenge these students in developmentally appropriate ways and in ways that get them thinking in spaces that they may not necessarily think of otherwise. Or if they’re in an indoor space, then they’re not provided the same resources and learning opportunities.”

Tiny Trees was involved with the DCYF from the beginning of the pilot program, when it helped write the rule book for what outdoor, nature-based learning could look like in Washington. They were initially granted three licenses, but once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in full force, Tiny Trees downsized to a single license. 

With the new legislation in place, Tiny Trees and others will be able to apply for a license as a network that incorporates multiple sites under a single license. Tiny Trees can also apply for a new license that allows its programs to last the entire day and more than just four hours. This will help Tiny Trees to serve working families who need a full-time child care organization and not just a place for parents to drop their kids off for a few hours.

“It’s important to notice that a lot of child cares stayed open [during the COVID-19 pandemic], but the reason we didn’t is because, as a part-day program, most of our families are not essential workers,” said Kellie Morrill, the executive director of Tiny Trees. “Most of the families have the luxury and the flexibility to enroll their child in just a part-day program. They’re not actually using us as their child care.”

For an organization based in Seattle’s South End, which has a diverse population of many working-class families, Tiny Trees strives to serve its local residents as best it can. Just as each neighborhood or park offers its own set of learning opportunities, Tiny Trees seeks to supply unique and meaningful educational experiences that support the community’s youth. When the pandemic forced Tiny Trees to stop operations in March, it allowed its administrative staff the time and space to establish a framework that would allow it to better tailor teaching moments for students in its Rainier Beach program, for example — which had more white children enrolled than would be expected based on the neighborhood’s demographics.

“Every park is different, with different flora, fauna, and outside variables,” said Debbs. “If I have learned nothing else, it’s that people do a lot of weird stuff in parks. And so having to mitigate all that stuff on top of the physical space being different, it became pretty clear pretty fast that this wasn’t something we could copy and paste anywhere else. And on top of that, I realized that the majority of our kids were white boys and that, to me, just seemed off, in particular in a place like Rainier Beach, where the demographics are not that. That’s where the community piece comes in and trying to really work with folks and build out what makes sense for that space. That’s something we’ve really tried to lean into the last couple of years, shifting to actually working with folks and getting them outside.”

Expanding program hours and being able to offer more financial incentives to better suit working families will help Tiny Trees and other programs serve lower-income groups, but it won’t solve everything. 

“We’ve made this mistake over time of equating financial assistance with serving more diverse families and those things do not always conflate,” said Morrill. “We still get white families applying for financial aid and families of color paying full price. Those are two different things. We’re trying to be more inclusive to all incomes but that alone does not solve the problem. At the same time, we want to be more inclusive to working-class families but working class does not always mean Black and Brown families. Those are not always the same thing.”

As the new legislation becomes law and new organizations apply for licenses, the DCYF will continue working with programs it has worked with in the past to keep on fine-tuning the infrastructure for Washington’s nature-based learning. There will be experimentation with hybrid education models that feature an indoor child care center but an outdoor classroom, as well as discussions about how to integrate older children into nature-based curriculums. As those conversations progress, though, they will be taking place as more schooling options become available to families around Washington. 

“What we hope to see is more diversity in terms of the offerings of programs and that families have more choices to choose from,” said Frank Ordway, the chief of staff at DCYF. “We also want providers to have more business models to choose from so we can see a richer, more successful business of providing care to the youngest in our state. It’s a tough business right now. They don’t get paid enough. And so what we’re hoping is that this is the enrichment of a marketplace that really provides more choices for more families all over.”


Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

📸 Featured Image: Students in the Tiny Trees outdoor preschool program explore the tide pools of Saltwater State Park in Burien. A new State law allows for fully licensed outdoor schooling. (Photo: Susan Fried)

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