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Decolonizing the Outdoors: A Community-Based Approach to Improving Health Equity in Early Childhood

Principal Investigator: Amber Fyfe-Johnson, ND, PhD; Co-PI: Ka’imi Sinclair

We believe kids and nature are better together. This study will be conducted at the newest Tiny Trees classroom location in Burien, Washington. Study participants include parents of children attending Tiny Trees, community members, and teachers and other outdoor educators.

This project is designed to leverage and expand on the critically important work – Decolonizing the Outdoors – conducted by Tiny Trees from 2017-2020. Tiny Trees is the largest exclusively outdoor preschool in the U.S., offering ~200 enrollment spots in 12 classrooms in King County and Seattle parks. Decolonizing the Outdoors, funded by King County Best Starts for Kids, aimed to address the opportunity gap that is perpetuated when children do not have equitable access to the outdoors. This work was informed by the historic and systemic lack of representation of young children and families of color in nature in the Seattle area, and the accumulating research that outdoor time improves physical health, development, and mental health outcomes in childhood. Decolonizing the Outdoors is Tiny Trees’ comprehensive approach to remove barriers to high-quality nature-based learning, and to increase access and opportunities for families with young children to engage with the outdoors.

During the same period (2017-2020), the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families conducted a pilot project to support permanent licensure of outdoor preschools in Washington state. As a direct result of this work, Washington is the first state to license outdoor preschools in the U.S. Licensure allows provision of state-level funding for free and reduced tuition and full-day programming, which offers unparalleled potential to improve access to early childhood education for families with limited resources. In fall 2021, Tiny Trees will open the first licensed, community-based, full-day outdoor preschool in the U.S., partnering directly with a community center (Burien Community Center). Burien is a suburban city located approximately 15 miles south of Seattle, and 52% of the population is represented by communities of color. Enrollment at the Burien Tiny Trees site is equity based, and intentionally prioritizes families who need childcare the most.

This study is innovative in several ways. First, communities of color are underrepresented in early childhood outdoor education research. Currently, only 3% of U.S. outdoor preschoolers are Black or African American and only 7% are Hispanic or Latino. Given that 100% of enrolled families at the Tiny Trees Burien site are families of color and nearly all will receive free or reduced tuition, this project has an unparalleled opportunity to address health equity in early childhood. Second, while research examining associations between nature exposure and physical, behavioral, and mental health outcomes in childhood is accelerating, no study in any population has conducted focus groups to culturally tailor an outdoor learning environment. Third, this will be the first study conducted on a licensed, community-based, full-day outdoor preschool model.

Fyfe-Johnson had a HERC seed grant awarded in 2017-18; these data were used to directly inform Bill 5151, which is awaiting signature from Governor Inslee and will license outdoor preschools in Washington.