Outdoor preschools growing in popularity

SPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. – Outdoor preschools and daycare centers are popular choices in Europe, and they’re gaining popularity right here in Washington State.

Into the Forest is an outdoor learning center and preschool in Spokane Valley. Co-Owners Megan Benedict and Chelsey Converse have both worked in traditional preschool settings for years, but they wanted to try something different.

“We bring all of our work outside that we’re doing inside,” Converse said. “Whatever things we could’ve done in there, we just bring it out and have fun out here.”

Converse says the kids spend at least 50 percent of their time outdoors as opposed to sitting inside at a desk. The center gives kids the opportunity to learn through nature hikes, wilderness training, playtime with natural objects and plenty of outdoor time.

Co-owner Megan Benedict says Into the Forest aims to help kids learn to handle problems and challenges by giving them real world experience. She hopes to give kids life skills by allowing them to test their boundaries without constantly being told “no.”

“Climbing on a rock, climbing on a tree, how far can I go up feeling comfortable? How long can I be outside barefoot?” Benedict says.

Studies show that spending time outside is beneficial for kids’ learning processes, and that’s what Benedict and Converse are trying to bolster by getting them outside into nature. That effort is appreciated by local parents.

Jenna Alfrey says her 4-year-old son Kingston has down syndrome and faces challenges in a traditional setting. She says Into the Forest’s preschool format gives him opportunities he might not have somewhere else.

“It was absolutely zero question about whether he would be included with his appropriate age group,” Alfrey said.

Benedict and Converse say Into the Forest has both an indoor and outdoor area, and is licensed as a childcare center. The pair is also interested in starting centers that are fully outdoors.

Into the Forest is part of Washington State’s outdoor preschool pilot program, which is working out licensing requirements necessary for all day, fully outdoor preschools. Right now, such centers can only run for four hours at a time. Into the Forest is hoping to open a fully outdoor center as early as November.