Squaxin Island Child Development Center
Sabrina Green is the Operations Manager at Squaxin Island Child Development Center in Shelton, Washington. The Center has always incorporated nature into its preschool program, but had to follow strict state licensing guidelines for being outdoors. That all changed when Washington launched the Outdoor Preschool Pilot Program in 2017, with the goal of adapting licensing requirements to include outdoor preschools. Since joining the pilot program, the Squaxin Island Child Development Center now serves 24 students in its outdoor preschool program and has a growing waiting list for the fall.
Tell us how your program evolved from a primarily indoor childcare facility to include a licensed, outdoor preschool classroom.
A couple of years ago, during a visit from our state licensor, we learned that the Department of Children, Youth, and Families in Washington had started an outdoor school licensing pilot program. Our licensor had already helped us to take advantage of our beautiful, outdoor setting while still upholding licensing requirements. During that visit, she recommended the state’s pilot program and, a few months later, after meeting with the program’s manager, we were officially a part of the program. We began attending trainings and helping to create the administrative codes for licensed early learning outdoor programs.
We sat amongst outdoor preschool programs who had been living my dream for years, connecting children with nature every day in their programs. But, at the time, these outdoor programs could only operate for four or fewer hours per day and could not be licensed. We knew immediately this group was where we belonged. Even though we were a licensed indoor program, we tried to get our children outside whenever possible, and always strived for more. As a result of the licensing pilot program, we opened our Sapling and Cedars classrooms in October 2018, with 12 children and 3 full time teachers.
How do you integrate tribal customs and connections to nature into your program?
We are always looking for ways to partner with the Squaxin Island community members to incorporate tribal practices and culture within our program. We drum on Fridays with Kaya Vicki (Kaya is LuShootseed for Grandma) and host an annual Salmon Ceremony. We have always taught the children respect for nature and emphasized that all things are connected. Now, through our outdoor learning program, we are able to expand their understanding and experiences.
We have partnered on this journey with the Squaxin Island Community Garden, tribal elders, and teachers who are helping us learn about all the plants that surround us and their many uses. Some teachers are learning and speaking LuShootseed with the children. Our Saplings class got down in the creek with our Chum Salmon run this year, closely watching and investigating the salmon’s journey, life cycle, and habitat. Our connections to tribal customs and the natural world are growing daily!
Your program went through a big transition. How did parents, caregivers, and staff respond to this new approach?
At first, some teachers and families where unsure about the new approach. However, because of our wonderful setting and our efforts to incorporate “beyond-the-fence time,” they eased into the idea.
Teachers attended an outdoor conference last summer, and we hoped to identify a few teachers that showed a spark for this type of learning. All of our teachers have extensive early learning backgrounds and little nature-based training, so it was important to us that they wanted to be outside.
The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive. After the first group was up and running, it was not a month before we had a waiting list with 12 more children, so we added a second group. Now, with a waiting list of 28 children for the fall, we are trying to figure out how to add another class.
Families cannot believe the growth in confidence and the behavior changes they have seen in their children. One parent shared that they have been trying to get their family outdoors more and, now that their daughter wants to go on adventures, it’s helped the whole family reconnect with nature.
Children who were once shy and quiet are now yelling, “Watch me!” as they jump off logs. Seeing all of this unfold before our eyes has been breathtaking.
“I don’t believe in magic. I believe in the sun and the stars, the water, the tides, the floods, the owls, the hawks flying, the river running, the wind talking. They’re measurements. They tell us how healthy things are. How healthy we are. Because we and they are the same. That’s what I believe in.”
--Billy Frank Jr.
Read more about the Squaxin Island Child Development Center's outdoor program: https://www.thurstontalk.com/2019/01/29/squaxin-island-tribes-child-care-development-center-takes-preschool-outside/?fbclid=IwAR1Kk859qv5JwqV1cYXMZ30jRssvOKV41rEd9bxFHLLEQrJqJvboklcI5gk