Collage of two photos depicting educators in colorful scrubs playing with children in a "nature" playground.

Othello Child-Care Center Invests in ‘Nature’ Playground

Dirt itself may stretch young minds

by Sally James

Children at the Tiny Tots Development Center preschool in South Seattle’s Othello neighborhood have some new ways of learning after the center created a “nature” playground designed to stretch their imaginations. The center was dedicated Sept. 8.

Center employee Loralee Knudsen described kids running outside to play there for the first time. A ring of tree trunks intended for sitting became something else as the kids tipped them over and started rolling them around. This was a moment of “oh no” followed by “why not?” she told the Emerald, in an online interview. Just that kind of open-endedness is the goal of natural environments for both children and teachers, she said.

Open-ended play is something educators focus on because it deepens a child’s experience. They can make a pile of dirt into anything — a pretend kitchen or airport or doctor’s office. If they have a plastic toy instead, it is usually only good for one kind of pretending. Knudson is now a development director for Tiny Tots, which operates five child-care and preschool sites in the Rainier Valley. At Othello, there will eventually be 80 children in three different classrooms: infant, toddler, and preschool age.

The new space includes trees, raised garden beds planted with edible food plants, and of course, those logs. It also boasts a pretend kitchen space.

Angelia Hicks-Maxie is the chief executive of the Tiny Tots programs and one of the daughters of the founder, Helen Hicks, who opened the first center in 1969 to fill a need for care in the South End, where most families are families of color. Of the children enrolled across all of Tiny Tots, about half are Black, and about one-third identify as mixed-race. The organization estimates that 70% of families are low-income households, and many receive subsidies in order to afford the monthly fees. Tiny Tots also works with ECEAP, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. ECEAP is a Washington state-funded program similar to the federally funded Head Start, a program to support children with economic hardships to get support before beginning public school.

“I was not on board with this in the beginning,” Hicks-Maxie said. She thought of playgrounds as places with bright-colored plastic slides and climbing structures.

“I wanted some flat turf back there and I will go buy some plastic crawling things and a jungle gym and, you know, call it a day,” she said. But gradually as she heard from others who have studied more natural play areas, and heard from the nonprofit Nature Explore, she became convinced of how this might benefit the children. Nature Explore provided both training for teachers and some curriculum that they could use with the children to make connections between the plants in the play area, for example, and foods they cook in their classroom.

Watering and talking about the fragile baby plants is helping the children see them as precious and needing protection. Hicks-Maxie said the children are connected to them in a way they may not have a chance to be at home.

Photo depicting a Black- and female-presenting youth holding a shovel and wearing a bright-yellow shirt smiling at the camera.
A happy toddler explores new “nature” playground at the Tiny Tots Development Center’s preschool in Othello. (Photo courtesy of Tiny Tots Development Center.)

Teachers have reported the children being calmer at play in the space than on an ordinary playground. Somehow, they all find things to touch or explore, and spend less time arguing.

Excitement about the playground has spread from the Othello site to teachers from the other sites, and Hicks-Maxie says the teachers are asking that she redevelop their playgrounds to be nature-focused, too. That transformation won’t happen overnight, but she hopes eventually to build nature into all the other sites.

Developing the nature playground required donations from the PNC Foundation, as well as Seattle Children’s Hospital. PNC is a philanthropy that gets most of its money from the PNC Financial Services group and invests in early childhood education and community and economic development.

Caring about the nature outside can create a profound shift in people’s behavior. Hicks-Maxie sees a snowballing influence.

“I brought some of my fellow child-care center leaders out to see, and they were asking how they might get this. … So even if it rubs off on two or three, and that rubs off on two or three more, look at the effect and how many more children might be exposed to this simply because we dared to try,” she said

The Tiny Tots may be rolling out a big new idea from their new playground.

Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.

📸 Featured Image: Educators and students in the new playground. (Photo courtesy of Tiny Tots Development Center.)

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