Outdoor Preschool During a Pandemic: Creating an Urban Forest School

So there we were last spring: in the middle of a global pandemic. School, childcare, everything, shutdown! Then all summer we wondered: Yes, school? No, school? We humans like predictability and routines we can count on, but what happens when all that’s thrown out the window? One thing that happens is we remember another human trait we all share: the ability to be flexible and adaptable. It’s certainly not easy but we’ve seen adaptability everywhere: in restaurants, businesses, the entertainment industry, your family, your community, and schools and preschools. All summer my younger son’s preschool didn’t exactly know what they were going to do. Anything less than their wonderful normal program felt, well, less. Back then even the thought of masks on kids and teachers felt unacceptable. How were they going to do it? Could the school open in a way that was safe in a global pandemic, let alone be the beautiful, engaging family-based center it had always been? Was that even possible?

The short answer turns out to be: yes. The long answer is that it took a lot of soul-searching and creative problem-solving on the part of the adults involved. My son has two brilliant teachers, Valerie and Jeanette, who run the school as a dynamic duo. I like to help them design and build stuff for their outdoor space. One of the first decisions they made—like many other schools—was to become an all outside program. Now, I’m a big fan of forest schools and nature kindergartens where children in rain gear spend whole days outside exploring woods, creeks, and meadows so I was excited and happy to brainstorm how the environment could support this new venture. “An urban forest school”. I liked the sound of that! When it comes to Covid and our health we know that the outdoors is the best place to be. It has been heartening to see childcare centers and schools turning their worlds inside out and taking daily life and learning outside. Valerie and Jeanette would sort out the CDC guidelines and figure out the health protocols to be able to open the school—masks, temperature checks, Covid-questions, daily vigorous cleanings, etc. But what would the outdoor space look like to support this new direction?

The school’s outdoor environment is already fantastic with natural wild plantings, loose parts and topography, sand and magic. It’s small but has infinite possibilities for play and learning. All it was going to need, we figured, were a few new amenities for fun, and a few additions to help it function as an all-outdoor school.

Besides retrofitting a hand-me down playhouse with a parachute roof and adding new sand and water play troughs, the biggest addition to the yard was the new ground level deck system we built that would function as a make-shift “indoor-ish” space, right in their outdoors. We wanted something off the wet ground and something with a roof of sorts against the weather. Working with a low budget we screwed plywood to used palettes we scrounged from local businesses. We installed a retractable awning that could shade and cover the deck. To my amazement this became their outdoor no-shoes-on living room! A book shelf lives here with a comfy carpet. Stories are read here, art is made here, puzzles are built here, lunch is eaten here. It’s super cozy!

The school opened. It’s running. It’s happening! Children and teachers (and parents) are thriving here again. At first I almost couldn’t believe how well everything was working…until I remembered that great human quality that we adults can muster, and that children easily master: adaptability and flexibility. “This is our world now? Ok…. let’s play!