Outdoor Preschool Licensing Pilot Will Create Safe, Equitable Access to Child Care
It is a sunny winter day in the woods at Notchcliff Nature Programs, located on the grounds of Glen Meadows Retirement Community. In a forest classroom sheltered under the tall trees, young children experiment with ice to learn about freezing and melting. They discuss what needs to happen with the temperature and light for sap to flow. They observe branching patterns with opposite 'v' branches to find a maple tree. Children engage in hands-on learning as they examine tree buds and search for clues of maple seeds and leaves on the forest floor. They look for sapsucker holes dripping with sap, read stories about maple sugaring, and learn how a spile gets tapped into a tree. It is a typical day of forest preschool which takes place 100% outside.
House Bill 525 was introduced by Delegate Michele Guyton (District 43B) along with thirteen co-sponsors to establish an Outdoor Preschool Licensing Pilot, the first of its kind in Maryland. If passed, it will be the second in the nation to create a path to license outdoor preschools. Advocates for HB525 want to expand high quality child care and provide greater access to families who must use State scholarship funds to attend preschool.
The purpose of the bill is for the Maryland State Department of Education's (MSDE) Office of Child Care to implement a three-year pilot with guidance from experienced nature-based educators to determine specific regulations to license fully immersive outdoor programs.
Unlike typical licensed preschool and child care programs that utilize indoor classrooms for all or part of the day, outdoor preschools are immersed in nature. They develop the same early learning standards and goals as traditional preschools but instead utilize outdoor classroom settings. Outdoor preschools have an educational philosophy that values the social, emotional, academic, cognitive, and environmental literacy benefits that come from learning in, with, and about nature (nature-based early childhood education). They incorporate best practices such as health, safety, and emergency planning relevant to their unique needs. Despite growing demands for outdoor preschool, this approach challenges current licensing regulations.
According to the bill's proponents on the Maryland's Outdoor Preschool Licensing Advisory Team, licensing is key. Only licensed programs can accept State scholarship funds. As long as outdoor preschools remain unlicensed, there is a perpetual barrier for low-income families to access them.
Bill advocates also want to make sure outdoor preschool teachers are vetted for the same credentials that licensed child care providers have such as background checks, current first aid and CPR, emergency disaster training, and courses in early childhood education. Beyond these credentials, advocates want to incorporate additional, relevant required training in nature-based education and risk management for outdoor settings.
According to the Maryland Family Network, the number of child care programs dropped significantly since the pandemic creating 'child care deserts' across the state. Outdoor preschools, if licensed, could offer a solution for some families who choose this form of high-quality early childhood education. Monica Wiedel-Lubinski, director of the Eastern Region Association of Forest and Nature Schools and co-chair of the Maryland Outdoor Preschool Licensing Advisory Team states, "Right now there is a barrier for families who need to use State funds for child care at a time when we know there is a serious lack of high quality ECE programs across the state. HB525 offers a path towards safe, equitable access for everyone who seeks the benefits of outdoor preschool."
Learn more about House Bill 525 at erafans.org/OPL-MD.