A recent study by University of Washington and United Way Whatcom County found that 81% of families in Whatcom County would like to see more outdoor education opportunities in their childcare options. 48% of respondents would also like to see more diverse classrooms. Respondents from the survey also identified that the quality of care, safety and a welcoming environment of childcare centers are the three main deciding factors they consider when choosing where they send their child.
One way to address these desires in Whatcom County is to take advantage of the recent certification process that the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) has developed for outdoor nature based (ONB) preschools and for outdoor childcare programs that serve school age children.
This certification process through DCYF can work towards achieving two major steps in assuring equity in childcare offerings.
The first is ensuring that a child will receive quality care through a certified provider. With their certification process, outdoor childcare centers and programs are required to meet specific child development outcomes, staff training and facility safety standards. With these required standards, families can be at ease knowing they are choosing an option that supports their child's growth and wellness.
The second, and more influential piece, is the access to these programs that a certification allows. Although it is not typically as expensive to run an ONB as it is to run an indoor preschool or program, there are costs associated that often prohibit lower income families from being able to send their children to ONB preschools or programs.
The cost of gear alone can range from $50-$200 for a season of rainy weather. Then, if you account for keeping up with a child's physical growth, you could be paying that range up to 3 times a year.
If a childcare center is certified, they are able to receive subsidies that offset the cost for qualifying low income families to attend. This includes outdoor nature based preschools and programs. By opening up opportunity to lower income families, outdoor nature based childcare programs can serve a more diverse population of youth that isn't prohibited by cost.
This is the beginning of a movement towards more equitable outdoor nature based education opportunities for youth, but there are still many hurdles that need to be overcome in order for our youth to have a safe and welcoming experience with outdoor education.
If you'd like to learn more about what the demand is for outdoor education in Whatcom County, hear stories of success or look into what the certification process looks like, take a look at the following resources:
Preliminary Report: Whatcom County Child Care Demand Study
Department of Children Youth and Families: Outdoor Preschool Pilot
Licensing Outdoor & Nature Based Preschools in Washington State and Beyond