“They Just Aren’t a Good Fit for Our Program:” Navigating the Implications of “Fit” for Children in Outdoor Preschools
By Rachel Franz (she/her), Twig & Thread Consulting, WANPA Advisory Board
Outdoor schools, including “forest kindergartens,” “outdoor preschools,” and some nature-based programs, sit at an important intersection. On one hand, outdoor preschools are designed for children who might not typically thrive in an indoor setting, especially children who need additional room to run, to move, and to yell. Yet, outdoor preschool educators tend to be the most challenged by children who run off and exhibit other “challenging behaviors” (i.e. aggression, hiding, sensory needs). The concept of “fit” has been long discussed in the outdoor early education community; how do we know that our programs are a good match for certain students and what do we do if we think they are not?
“Good Fit” Practices & Outdoor Preschool Tendencies
What does “a good fit” mean anyway? I believe that this term is very subjective and dependent on both the capacity of the program and the program’s philosophy around behavioral guidance or “discipline.”
Perhaps “fit” is a term like “Kindergarten Readiness” where we shape children to fit the system (instead of shaping the system to best serve children). Can we look more deeply into equitable practices and inclusion, and ask ourselves uncomfortable questions? Are we denying children access to an outdoor childhood because they don’t fit what’s easiest for us as educators?
The late Erin Kenny in Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way wrote about one philosophy on “fit,” which matches those of many small forest schools across the country. She writes, “I have witnessed outdoor parents who desperately want their child to embrace a program such as ours; however, their child is not a good match. They may refuse to put their hands in the dirt, or cannot express their emotions without whining or crying” (37). Kenny eventually evolved her program to be more inclusive of students’ developmental and cultural realities, but the question still lingers for many families and providers. How can we help a child succeed when they have a tantrum each time their fingers get muddy?
Reasonably, we must look at the current capacity of the program to support a child’s needs. If a child needs a 1:1 aide and we cannot hire additional staff, what can we do to support the family and serve this child? Is there a developmental preschool program nearby where this child would thrive more? If we don’t have the training to support a child with special needs, how can we access the training? How can we evolve our program to be more inclusive?
It can be difficult to encounter behavior each day that jeopardizes safety. It can be especially hard to know when to draw the line when behaviors are challenging but just within teacher’s capacity. How do the dynamics of the class change when winter comes and cold hands and bodies need almost constant tending?
The unique additional challenges of outdoor classrooms are an easy place to say “that is just too much”? So, why should we fight so hard to keep these students in our programs?
The Issue with Expulsion & Student Relocation
When we talk about students being a “good fit” for our programs, there is a dilemma. While we don’t want students running away or hurting themselves or others, we must also consider the tremendous impact of asking a family to leave a program on that individual child. In fact, thousands of preschoolers are expelled each year from early learning programs, a rate that is 3 times that of children enrolled in Kindergarten- 12th grade. These expulsions occur during the child’s most formative years.
According to The Institute on Early Childhood Health & Wellness, the impact of suspension and expulsion on preschoolers is tremendous:
“Young children expelled from preschool are more likely to:
In fact, many of the skills and attitudes Forest Schools are so great at promoting are directly lost when a child is suspended or expelled. Additionally, expulsion tends to affect certain demographics of children more than others. In this helpful video by NPR’s Cory Turner, the tendency for bias in around preschool behavior is illustrated:
This bias has been cited by countless researchers. Dr. Dolores Stegelin (2018), of the Institute for Child Success, writes:
Importantly, the majority of these young children, at least 42 percent of preschool children suspended, are identified as African American boys. These racial and gender disparities are evident as early as preschool, where black students are 3.6 times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as their white classmates. Additionally, while boys represent 54 percent of preschool enrollment, they constitute 79 percent of all suspended preschool children. Research indicates that a child’s early educational experiences greatly influence their development and outcomes later in life, making these data particularly consequential (Segelin, 2018).
Many outdoor preschools and nature-based programs, especially prior to the Washington Outdoor Preschool Pilot, have been writing our own rules on behavior, discipline, and expulsion. Yet, it is critical for equitable access to our programs that we look seriously at the impact of these policies.
Some outdoor preschools have adopted a non-expulsion policy. A non-expulsion policy reads something like this: Our school is a non-expulsion program. We believe that children have the best chance of success if they stay in school. Our educators use best practices to support children’s behavior and safety and work closely with families to support each individual child in their participation in our program.
It is necessary to explicitly publish how behavior is handled and to articulate steps when grievances, challenges, or safety issues occur. It is important to continue to grow our skill set and partner with families and with other agencies, when possible, to offer supports.
Preventing Inequitable Expulsion & Displacement
Here are some recommendations on how to equitably address “fit” in outdoor & nature-based early learning settings:
The students who are being pushed out are the ones who need outdoor and nature-based preschool the most.
Outdoor and nature-based schools must very carefully consider how we help children succeed and stay in our programs. We hold a significant space in the intersection of access to nature and early education, both of which are critical to later in life success. Instead of whether a child is a good “fit” for our programs, we must carefully build our programs for the children in our community, for their families, for their needs. Perhaps it means running alongside children like this, even if they seem to be running away.
Kenny, E.K. (2013). Forest Kindergartens: The Cedarsong Way. Vashon, WA: Cedarsong Nature School.
Stegelin, D.A. (2018). Preschool suspension and expulsion: Defining the issues. Institute for Child Success. Retrieved from: https://www.instituteforchildsuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/ICS-2018-PreschoolSuspensionBrief-WEB.pdf
Zero to Three (2019). Preventing expulsion from preschool and childcare. Retrieved from: https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/series/preventing-expulsion-from-preschool-and-child-care
Institute Early Childhood Health and Wellness (2019). Understanding and eliminating expulsion in early childhood programs. Retrieved from: https://eclkc.ohs.acf.hhs.gov/publication/understanding-eliminating-expulsion-early-childhood-programs
NPR (2016). Bias Isn't Just A Police Problem, It's A Preschool Problem. Let's Talk (Youtube). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watchtime_continue=12&v=ucEAcIMkS0c&feature=emb_logo
Rachel Franz (she/her) is an early childhood consultant and trainer focusing on equitable access to nature and screen-free solutions. She is the National Screen-Free Week Outreach Coordinator and an advocate for mentally healthy, playful childhoods. From 2016-2019, she served as Lead Teacher & Director of Education at Tiny Trees Preschool and has participated in the Outdoor Preschool Advisory Group for the WA State Licensing Pilot. Rachel is a proud member of the WANPA Advisory Board.