Outdoor preschool in Mukilteo uses science to engage young imaginations

A preschool in Mukilteo was created to tap into children’s curiosity by using Washington’s great outdoors as a learning tool. Nature Together, founded by Kristin Hammer, was designed as a child-led program for kids ages two to five years old.

“It’s really important for children to have that experience outside. It’s awesome for their health and their development,” said Hammer.

The early-education program meets four days a week for three hours outdoors in the rain, snow or sunshine. Hammer said Nature Together is mostly inquiry-based learning, with a large emphasis on engaging a child’s imagination.

“When you’re outdoors, all of your senses are engaged. And when the kids are out there, we can ask them the questions that provide the scientific thinking and the math skills and the verbal skills,” said Hammer.

A representative with the state Department of Children, Youth and Families said the state’s outdoor preschool pilot began in 2017. Since then, there were more than 40 outdoor preschools operating under four hours a day. The representative said these programs operating for four or less hours a day met the exemption requirement for a childcare license.

Hammer started Nature Together in the fall of 2018 with two classes. In the fall of 2019, there were four classes as more parents enrolled their kids in the unique experience. Hammer and her assistant begin each day by teaching simple skills like writing, cutting and gluing, before the real learning begins on the trail.

“They’re immediately interested in what’s under a rock, they go running down the hill, they can’t wait to enter the forest, they’re drawn to puddles,” said Hammer.

Children spend two-and-a-half hours in the woods before cleaning up for storytime and lunch.

“In eating together, we teach lessons in being patient. We have to wait for everyone to be seated at the table together because we’re a family here and we take care of each other,” said Hammer.

Heidi Hagens had two children enrolled in the outdoor preschool.

“I feel like babies and kids are wired to be scientists. They’re always asking why,” said Hagens. “I just think that’s where the best learning happens. They’re with friends, so they’re having to problem solve and have teamwork. And they’re face to face and eye to eye rather than face in a screen.”

This was the second year in the program for Hagens’ son. She said she noticed growth in his skills and confidence.

“He’s always covered from head to toe in dirt and mud. So, I know he’s been busy learning,” said Hagens. “I love that there’s a space that are encouraged rather than discouraged.”

Hammer mentioned some parents questioned if children should be outdoors every day in Washington’s inclement weather. She said she sends out a suggested list of apparel before the year starts so parents can dress their kids accordingly. Hammer also mentioned she has a Nature Together clothing store for parents to purchase apparel.

“If kids are warm and dry, they don’t care what the weather is like. Our very first day of school here was the wettest day we’ve had and the kids were happy,” said Hammer.

Nature Together follows the Mukilteo School District calendar year.

Learn more here.