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Learning naturally: Anacortes’ Fidalgo Nature Preschool held outdoors

October 9, 2018
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Fidalgo Nature Preschool student Adeline Taniguchi, 3, holds branches she gathered from the forest floor Oct. 1 at Washington Park in Anacortes. She was using the branches to build a nest-like structure in which she could sit.

ANACORTES — Tucked away in a corner of Washington Park last week, a group of “birds” started to roost.

Wearing boots and brightly colored rain jackets, kids pretending to be birds built nests from fallen branches and practiced their bird calls.

Moments later, they stepped out of their nests and into their classroom — a small clearing where logs and stumps served as chairs and tables.

“Our kids do not spend enough time outside,” said Nichole Kean, director of the new Fidalgo Nature Preschool in Anacortes.

The preschool is the first outdoor preschool to open in Skagit County since Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill in May 2017 that allows licensing for such schools.

“Early childhood education is absolutely critical,” said state Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, who sponsored the bill. “Some people need a book, some people want to be outdoors and they want to learn about science and nature and math outdoors. The more avenues for learning, the better.”

The bill established a four-year pilot program for the outdoor preschools to obtain licensing and create quality standards, making it possible for the schools to expand and offer all-day services.

“It’s an incredible opportunity,” Ranker said. “It’s good for their health, their sense of place, their sense of conservation.”

Kean, who has been involved with early childhood education for 15 years, said when she first heard about the concept of outdoor preschools, she was instantly interested.

“I fell in love with the idea and the philosophy,” she said. “It’s so exciting to be a part of this new type of preschool.”

She said she was surprised to learn there wasn’t one in the area.

“I was shocked,” she said. “Our area is incredibly beautiful. The weather is perfect.”

Rain or shine, the students at Fidalgo Nature Preschool are out exploring their environment, Kean said. If a student discovers something interesting, such as a ladybug, all the students stop and learn.

“We let them lead the pace,” Kean said. “They retain more as they’re learning and moving.”

A few days before the students began learning about birds, a deer walked through their outdoor classroom, she said.

“The kids are so engaged and they’re calm and they’re focused,” Kean said. “It’s a more tangible, realistic way for them to learn.”

Ten students are enrolled in the school, which offers classes five days a week, Kean said.

Aside from herself, Kean said there are two teachers.

While other preschool classrooms are decorated in bright colors and letters from the alphabet, the classroom at Fidalgo Nature School is decorated with tiny, hidden “fairy houses” the students have made out of leaves and sticks.

“They take ownership of their space,” Kean said.

In that way, she said, they carve out their own place in the forest and the world around them.

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