The Key Peninsula’s newest preschool has no roof. Instead, youngsters at Swainston Homestead Sprouts preschool, opening in September, will play, count, draw, make music, snack and listen to stories entirely outdoors.
Except for rare occasions when weather makes outdoor play unsafe, rain or shine, Matthew Swainston plans to let youngsters romp all over his 2.5 acre hobby farm off Tiedman Road, care for and enjoy farm animals and crops, and guide them on nature walks through an adjoining 80-acre wooded parcel.
According to Swainston, an outdoor, interest-based curriculum in which children’s curiosity about the natural world guides their learning is effective education for this developmental stage. “It allows children to have a true and profound connection to nature where they can learn in a concrete way,” he said. Daily interaction with chickens, goats, pigs, rabbits and honeybees on the farm will lead to “concrete understanding of how to take care of animals, their needs and feelings,” Swainston said.
For example, collecting leaves to practice counting offers additional benefits beyond typical counting practice in the classroom. “[The child] will also learn there are different types of leaves and what they are. They can be different colors and shapes, they can change depending on the time of year. Some grow in one area but not another, some we grow on purpose and some grow wild,” he said.
Originally called “forest schools,” outdoor preschool was popularized in Scandinavia in the 1950s. They continue to be an important component of preschool education in both Denmark and Sweden and have recently gained acceptance in the U.S. and United Kingdom as well.
Swainston has 13 years of experience working in early childhood education, beginning when he was a student at Henderson Bay High School as a volunteer providing on-site child care, and later in a paid position there. For the past six years, Swainston has commuted to his job at Early Head Start Center in Seattle. His wife, Amanda, is a teacher at Key Peninsula Middle School, where his mother is employed as well.
Bohemia Taylor, Swainston’s mentor teacher in Seattle, suggested Swainston consider opening his own outdoor preschool. “He really liked the idea and ran with it,” Taylor said, adding that Swainston enjoys taking children outdoors. “When he takes the kids out into nature—whether to the park or for a walk—his entire demeanor changes. His view on the world is so bright and engaging. Outdoors is where he’s at his best,” Taylor said.
Swainston ran a licensed day care in his home for about three years when his three children were younger, but the small state subsidies were insufficient. “They give you a predetermined amount, which is the lowest they can give you. Five hundred dollars a month to watch a kid for 10 to 12 hours a day is not enough,” he said.
For this reason, as well as difficulty adhering to Washington Administrative Code (WAC) regulations about fencing outdoor play spaces, Swainston Homestead Sprouts will not be a fully licensed preschool. “Although most of the spaces on my farm are fully enclosed, I would not be able to fence the green space behind my house,” Swainston said.
“When you are licensed, your site is monitored by a licensor who is allowed to interpret WACs and RCWs [Revised Code of Washington laws] as they see fit, so the oversight provided by the state tends to be very subjective and not applied evenly,” he said. And since the program is an education-focused preschool and children attend for only three hours per day, Swainston added that it is exempt from most child care licensing laws.
The short day and lots of outdoor time was what led Leslie Mays to sign up her 3-year-old daughter, Andelynn. “We chose what [Swainston’s] doing because it’s an outdoor environment and that’s perfect for that age group,” Mays said.
While some parents might cringe at the idea of sending their youngsters outdoors for hours on the coldest and rainiest days, Swainston said that adults generate body heat when running, lifting and doing physical work outdoors, similar to children’s active outdoor play. Quoting one of his favorite Scandinavian proverbs, he said, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just improper clothing.”
A meet-the-teacher event for prospective families is scheduled at the Swainston Homestead Farm Saturday, Aug. 13, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For more information, go to swainstonhomestead.com, or contact Swainston at firstname.lastname@example.org.