Residents of the Puget Sound region know that December in Western Washington is a pretty wet affair. Parents may not feel super excited to take their kids outside for hours on end.
But a growing number of preschools make it their mission to educate kids outside, even in the sogginess of a Pacific Northwest winter. And one scientist from Washington State University is trying to measure possible health benefits from outdoor play.
On a recent weekday morning, amid a steady rain, a group of kids who attend Tiny Trees Preschool in Jefferson Park in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood stared up at their friend. He was perched in the branches of a cedar tree.
“How did you get up there?” one girl asked.
He explained his technique.
“Put your two feet on that one like that, and just hold the top,” he said.
The ground was muddy. The kids' cheeks were red from the chill. But none of them really seemed to care. One group was preoccupied with making tacos out of leaves. Another boy was busy with a plastic hammer and some wood.
He conceded that it was a little cold, but explained that he felt fine because he was wearing gloves, a jacket and boots.
The school supplies kids with a rubberized rain coat and rain pants – the same kind that Scandinavian fishermen wear.
“On really cold days, we have camp stoves to do cooking projects," said Katie Weiss, philanthropy and communications manager for Tiny Trees Preschool. "We have emergency heaters. We use a lot of hand warmers."
She said outside learning is tactile and experiential.
“That learning experience is so much more rich than what you get in an indoor classroom, where they’re learning about things like slugs and snails in a book and looking at a picture of it,” Weiss said. “They’re not touching it lightly with their fingers. They’re not smelling it or watching it eat a mushroom.”
Europe has a long history of forest preschools. Washington has about 40 and there are outdoor preschools in much colder places such as Homer, Alaska, and Billings, Montana. Washington recently became the first state to license outdoor preschools.
All of this has sparked the interest of Prof. Amber Fyfe-Johnson with WSU. She’s a pediatric epidemiologist studying obesity prevention in childhood.
Almost a third of kids in the U.S. are overweight or obese. Fyfe-Johnson previously worked as a pediatrician and got discouraged seeing children above a healthy weight. Now as an epidemiologist, she's looking at the big picture.
“I wanted to take a really proactive, positive approach, which is instead of thinking about what is the problem, thinking about things that exist currently that are a solution,” she said. “We know that kids are more physically active outside, but we don’t know details – as many details as I would like to know.”
So she's begun a five-year project to see whether kids in outdoor preschools are healthier. She's been visiting Tiny Trees Preschool to put wearable devices on the kids to collect data on physical activity and sleep. As she strapped the devices on one 5-year-old boy, she explained it to him and enlisted his help.
“Who is this special for?” she asked him.
“Me!” he answered.
“It’s special for you!” she told him. “When you get to wear one of these, you know what you get to be? You get to be a scientist, too.”
Early childhood is a key time for establishing healthy behavior but research shows that traditional preschools may be falling short.
Dr. Pooja Tandon is a pediatrician at Seattle Children's and an associate professor at the University of Washington. Tandon researched Seattle-area child care centers and found that on average, kids only spent 8 percent of their school day outside. They also didn't get the recommended amount of physical activity.
She said there are a lot of possible reasons. There's bad weather, for example, and also a push by preschools to emphasize kindergarten readiness and academics.
“I think our policies and our expectations for early childhood educators are often set up to arguably deprioritize some of the physical activity and play opportunities,” Tandon said.
At Tiny Trees Preschool, a group of girls had invented a new game of tag.
“I found a cheetah,” one girl said.
“It’s going to eat us,” the other said with a squeal.
What's clear is that their game involved plenty of running. Fyfe-Johnson is eager to know just how much running — and what that means for their health.