Washington State Outdoor Preschool Pilot

Students at play


Outdoor preschools—schools where children spend the majority of the school day learning outdoors with a nature-focused curriculum—are growing rapidly in the United States. In most states, however, regulatory systems were built for programs that primarily take place indoors, and many licensing requirements don’t fit when nature is the classroom. For example, licensing rules may require that classrooms are free from insects, or require programs to furnish and maintain large indoor spaces that are rarely, if ever, used in outdoor preschools. As a result, many outdoor preschools are not licensed, which means that they often must operate with reduced hours, can only serve small numbers of children, and can’t accept public funding for early childhood education.

In 2017, the state of Washington embarked on the nation’s first pilot project to license outdoor preschools in order to bring outdoor learning opportunities to more children.1 The state’s Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) developed specialized licensing standards for outdoor preschools and monitored a small group of pilot programs from 2018 to 2020. The results were overwhelmingly positive, and in 2021 the state made the program permanent.2 States across the country are now looking to Washington and its licensing standards for outdoor preschools as a model for increasing equity in access to outdoor, nature-based learning for all young children.

In the state of Washington, quality early childhood education is in high demand, with more children in need of care and education than seats in classrooms. And seats in classrooms are expensive, leaving families with lower incomes few options. So in 2017, regulators interested in offering families more affordable choices in high-quality early childhood education started looking outside of classrooms for solutions.

In outdoor, or nature-based, preschools, children and teachers spend the majority of the school day outdoors, using a curriculum focused on the natural world. Numerous studies have shown that nature has proven to provide a particularly enriching setting for education, offering a variety of developmental benefits to children.3 Nature based preschools are growing rapidly in the United States, and regulators noted that at least 40 such programs were operating in Washington at the time. But without typical
indoor classrooms, Washington’s outdoor preschools could not be licensed, which made the schools ineligible to participate in state funding programs for early childhood education that help make early education more affordable. Creating a new licensing option for outdoor preschools was seen as an opportunity to both offer more high-quality education to Washington families and to increase children’s
outdoor time to take advantage of the benefits of nature for children’s healthy development.

In 2017, Washington launched the first pilot program in the United States to license outdoor preschools
with a plan to evaluate the schools’ safety and effectiveness. New licensing standards were needed
to accommodate the largely outdoor setting and the nature-focused curriculum. These standards
addressed concerns such as the appropriate teacher child ratio in outdoor programs; how to safely
balance benefits and risks of activities like playing near open water, climbing trees, or using tools; and
how to implement a nature-based curriculum that supports children’s healthy development while also
encouraging their connections with nature. In all, 13 programs participated in the pilot over a two-year
period from 2018 to 2020.

Washington DCYF closely monitored outdoor preschools participating in the pilot to track the programs’ safety and effectiveness as they operated under the new licensing standards and supported programs in meeting these standards. The agency relied upon data collected within programs about children’s learning, development, and behavior; reports from researchers; feedback from partnering agencies; and feedback from pilot programs about the new licensing standards and their implementation.

Regulators in Washington found that the outdoor preschools in the pilot were a safe and effective
option for Washington families, noting physical, cognitive, and social-emotional benefits of the model.
Some key findings include:

• Initial analysis indicated that child development outcomes for children qualifying for low-income
assistance programs enrolled in outdoor preschools were the same or better than the average outcomes for children enrolled in the same assistance programs statewide. 

• Over the two-year period, only one serious injury was reported across all outdoor preschool pilot programs, and the injury was not related to outdoor activities such as climbing trees or using tools. Across all programs monitored by DCYF over the same period, 109 serious injuries were reported.

• A pilot study comparing children’s obesity rates at an outdoor preschool pilot site with more
traditional indoor preschools revealed that children at the outdoor preschool experienced a 14% decline in obesity compared to no change in obesity for the control group at traditional indoor preschools.

• When educators at one pilot program tracked incidences of challenging behaviors over a two-month period, they found 29 incidents of challenging behaviors indoors but zero incidences outdoors for the same group of children.

As a result of Washington’s outdoor preschool pilot, DCYF recommended that the legislature permanently authorize the agency to license outdoor, nature-based programs, and in May 2021, the
governor signed the bill into law.

Washington’s pilot has confirmed what researchers, educators, and parents have concluded: Nature-based education for young children is a safe and effective approach to early childhood education that
brings a variety of benefits for children’s healthy development. In addition to preparing children for kindergarten and beyond, nature based education offers extended time in nature, a focus on play
and personal relationships, opportunities to take healthy risks, and opportunities to build connections to the places where children live.

Specialized licensing options for outdoor programs like those developed in Washington not only help ensure that minimum standards of safety are met, but also help make outdoor preschools accessible to families relying on public funding for early care and education. All children deserve high-quality early education, and all children deserve the opportunity to play and learn in nature on a regular basis. Washington’s early leadership in licensing outdoor preschools paves the way for other states to consider similar regulatory changes to encourage outdoor education for young children so that every child can enjoy a childhood in nature.


Aliza Yair
Washington Department of Children, Youth,
and Families

Debbie Groff
Washington Department of Children, Youth,
and Families

Kit Harrington
Natural Start Alliance
North American Association for
Environmental Education (NAAEE)

Christy Merrick
Natural Start Alliance
North American Association for
Environmental Education (NAAEE)


1. Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF), “DCYF Begins Licensing Outdoor
Preschools,” October 8, 2019, https://www.dcyf.wa.gov/news/dcyf-begins-licensing-outdoor-preschools.
2. Washington State Senate, Ways and Means Committee, Concerning Foster Care and Child Care Licensing
by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, SB 5151, 67th Legis., 2021,
3. Ming Kuo, Michael Barnes, and Catherine Jordan, “Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning?
Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship,” Frontiers in Psychology 10, (February 2019),
https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305; Nicole M. Ardoin and Alison W. Bowers, “Early Childhood
Environmental Education: A Systematic Review of the Research Literatur