House Bill 376 is waiting to be put up for a vote in the Maryland General Assembly this spring… and area parents are anxiously advocating sending the bill to the floor before the session closes.

If passed, the legislation would establish an Outdoor Preschool License pilot program in the Maryland State Department of Education to “license outdoor, nature-based early learning and child care programs in order to expand access to affordable, high-quality early learning programs and to investigate the benefits of outdoor, nature-based classrooms.”

The open air curriculum philosophy – affectionately nicknamed by some as the ‘bugs not blackboards’ educational approach – has gained popularity over the last decade, and interest has certainly surged over the last two years as parents and educators grappled with “how to do school safely.” Currently, there are a number of licensed nature-based preschools and preschools that have committed to integrating outdoor education into their curriculum in the state of Maryland. To qualify for licensing, nature-based programs must have an indoor building space incorporated into their educational sphere.

Outdoor Preschool in Maryland

An outdoor preschool is defined as a fully immersive outdoor learning program in a wild or natural setting for children ages 3-5 years old. Outdoor preschools have access to a shelter space in case of emergency, but no indoor classroom spaces are used for daily learning. Since outdoor preschools are completely outdoors, they don’t qualify for licensing in the state of Maryland. Washington state is the first, and only, state that has passed legislation to allow fully outdoor preschools to be licensed.

But the programs exist – and are popular! – in Maryland. Notchcliff Forest Preschool in Glen Arm takes place 100% outdoors. Children and teachers gear up and enjoy the weather, rain or shine, in all seasons. Preschool programs like Notchcliff are run by dedicated educators committed to harnessing the benefits of outdoor education for the littlest learners.

They are not, as some may believe, year-round summer camps.

“You’re not going to just see children running around in the woods,” said Delegate Michele Guyton (42B) while introducing the bill last month to the Ways and Means Committee. “You will observe joyful children engaging in a really creative educational curriculum with certified teachers.”

“Outdoor preschools use curriculum, align with curriculum standards and developmentally appropriate practices, document and assess learning, have parent/teacher conferencing, offer community-building events with families, and more,” said Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, Executive Director of the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools (ERAFANS) that oversees Notchcliff’s forest preschool program. “We recognize that they aren’t necessarily going to be the right fit for all families, but kids who participate in the programs are definitely learning and achieving.”

Outdoor Preschool in Maryland

Right now, access to outdoor preschool programs is limited to families who can afford a part-time only program (meaning that any family needing to use childcare subsidies aren’t able to utilize them and programs can’t offer extended hours to accommodate working families) and best practices for outdoor preschools aren’t standardized across the state. As you can imagine, licensing guidelines that exist for traditional preschools don’t necessarily translate to an outdoor model. The licensing pilot project will address equity, teacher training, and best practices in early childhood outdoor education, said Wiedel-Lubinski, as well as look at how to coordinate special education services in these environments.

Over 120 individuals – from environmental educators to representatives from local nature centers and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources – are participating on the Outdoor Preschool Licensing and Advisory Team (OPL), co-chaired by Wiedel-Lubinski and Lisa Poe of Little Bugs Nature Preschool. If the Bill passes, 5-10 outdoor, nature-based early learning and child care programs from a mix of rural, urban, and suburban areas will be selected to participate in the first year of the pilot program. A part-time contract position will be established at the Maryland Department of Education’s Department of Childcare to oversee the pilot in consultation with OPL and ERAFANS.

It’s another step toward increasing affordable childcare options for Maryland families.

“Maryland was the first state in the nation to enact Environmental Literacy standards in K-12 schools as a graduation requirement in 2011,” said Wiedel-Lubinski. “Let’s be the second state to ensure the viability and vitality of outdoor preschools.”

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Want to see Outdoor Preschool Programs licensed in Maryland? Let your Delegate know! Show your support and ask that HB0376 be sent for a vote and that they support it. The Outdoor Preschool Licensing and Advisory Team has created a template that you can use here. You can find a list of Maryland Delegates by county here.

OPL has created a policy advocacy paper that you can view here.

Editor’s Note: Images were provided by ERAFANS.