How to Move Your Preschool Program Outdoors

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The spread of COVID-19 has forced every single business to rethink how they safely and effectively deliver services to their customers, and the child care industry is no different. Businesses are either having to close, re-think how they operate, and there's even a number of parents having to look for stay-at-home mom jobs, which may be having an indirect effect on the industry.

While the best data we have suggests children are much less likely to become ill from COVID, it also suggests that kids still aid in the spread of the virus. Participating in virtual classes are one way of dealing with this, and are a very valid option, however, one way that early learning programs can adjust their services to be proactive about defraying the spread of COVID is to move outdoors.

Moving a preschool program outdoors doesn’t have to be all or nothing. In fact, it’s much more of a spectrum. Here are different approaches (and different levels of commitment) for moving your program outdoors, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

1. Plan a hike day

This can be a really good entry point for educators who want to change how they spend their time, without fully committing to an outdoor program. Hike day is a designated day each week where instead of having parents drop off at your program, they drop off at a park. Here’s a sample schedule you might follow on hike day:

9:00 am: drop off, health check & handwashing

9:30 am: group hike for at least 30 minutes

10:00 am: wash hands and snack

10:30 am: free play

12:00 pm: bathroom break, wash hands and lunch

1:00 pm: pick-up time 

You might notice this is only a half-day schedule. One important factor to think about when moving outdoors is nap time. Depending on your state’s licensing requirements, and the ages of children you serve, you may be able to host nap time outdoors, or you might be required to be indoors. What this means is a hike day either needs to be a shortened day, or you need to have transportation lined up back to your program. 

A hike day might be the best option for you if you can walk to your park from your program because that would allow for a full morning outside while easily returning indoors for nap time.

2. Create an outdoor classroom

Pretty much anything you do inside the walls of your classroom you can do outside. Circle time, art, dramatic play, building, reading, singing, meals, and more can all happen outdoors. Think about recreating your learning centers using folding tables. You can have one table with an art project, one table with books, and another table with play dough. You might also use the same kind of buckets that you use inside your classroom to organize specific materials for kids to use throughout the yard. For example, you might have a bucket filled with your science observation tools (magnifying glasses, binoculars, clipboards, and paper, etc.) for kids to pull out when they spot a cool bug or a new rock.

There are some more permanent changes you can make to your outdoor space, like a mud kitchen, turning your fence into an easel, or building a playhouse, but you don’t have to rush to make those changes immediately. You want to have enough to do for everyone to stay engaged, but then you can take your time and observe how kids are playing in the space before you invest time or money to make changes. You might also notice that just by bringing some of the more traditionally classified “indoor” materials outside, they engage kids in a new and exciting way. For example, rolling race cars down the slide might entertain everyone for days!

3. Transition to a full forest program

This is the program change that requires the largest commitment. You’ll need to scout out a new location, keeping in mind a good setup for drop-off/pick-up and access to water and bathrooms. You’ll need to research and obtain any permits required to run your program in your chosen location. And you’ll want to make sure to visit the space upwards of ten times to become very familiar with it, especially visiting during the hours your program will be operating. Parks can feel very different between weekends and weekdays and you want to make sure you’re prepared for that.

Once you feel set with your new location, you’ll need to properly prepare your parents. Here’s a sample list of gear you may want to require parents to provide every day:

  • Backpack with a chest and waist strap (to keep the backpack on the little bodies!)
  • Hiking boots
  • Wool socks
  • Sun hat or winter hat
  • Water bottle
  • Lunch
  • 2 ziplock bags: one with extra clothes, one empty
  • T-shirts printed with your school name

Wearing the proper attire is especially important in an outdoor environment, so you’ll really need to get all of the parents (and kids!) on board with showing up every day with everything on your list.

What you do about your existing child care license is going to vary based on where you live. Currently, Washington state is the only state formally licensing outdoor programs. In all other states, outdoor programs are operating in a bit of a gray area when it comes to licensing. This likely won’t last, as other states may use Washington as a model for how to regulate outdoor programs, so make sure to look for the most up-to-date information for your area.

Pandemic aside, there are so many benefits to outdoor learning. Outdoor play allows for muscle and motor development that isn’t always possible indoors. Children build confidence in their physical abilities.

It can also be particularly beneficial in children who have ADHD autism. Although, this does not necessarily replace the need for medical treatments, or even alternative therapies like CBD.

Playing outdoors creates space for risky play. Whether it’s playing on the bank of a stream, climbing a tree, or helping build the fire for snack time, children are able to naturally test and learn the limits of their bodies. It will take some work to transition your program outdoors, but the benefits for you, your kids, and your parents will more than pay off.