The great outdoors solve preschool’s pandemic dilemma


St. Andrew Preschool in East Vancouver holding two classes a day, completely outside

VANCOUVER — Rain or shine, toasty or chilly, St. Andrew Preschool is open for learning and excitement in the great outdoors. 

The preschool attached to the church of the same name, has been operating for a while now with at least 45 minutes of classes held outside in the fields, the playground and sand play area. With the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, they decided to expand outdoor time. 

A preschooler rides a bike along the small path encircling the outdoor playground at St. Andrew Preschool in Vancouver. Photo by Jacob Granneman
A preschooler rides a bike along the small path encircling the outdoor playground at St. Andrew Preschool in Vancouver. Photo by Jacob Granneman

“Fully outdoor preschool has definitely been a learning process for us,” said Preschool Director Kimbree Brown. “I would say we are still very much in that process. We are a Nature Explorer certified preschool. So we’ve always really valued nature education.”

Though the fall weather is taking a turn towards dreary, you would never know it talking to the children at St. Andrew. They race, they jump and craft artwork. They imagine they are on a bus, on a farm and even in the Jurassic Period. Old tires rolling down the slopes bring tons of fun, and an outdoor play-kitchen seems as exciting as a four star restaurant to them. 

Across the now expanded outdoor acreage at the church, the school has implemented many amenities to allow children to continue attending during the fall and winter months. 

Portable outdoor sinks, large tents, outdoor space heaters, winter clothes, and of course snacks and hand sanitizer are just a few of the modifications and upgrades made to take St. Andrew into the outside world.

A preschool student interacts with a special garden plot known as “The Jungle” where children learn about plants and wildlife. Photo by Jacob Granneman
A preschool student interacts with a special garden plot known as “The Jungle” where children learn about plants and wildlife. Photo by Jacob Granneman

Being outdoors has been shown to lessen the likelihood of virus transmission, and the staff at St. Andrew is coupling that with optional masks for children and required masks for themselves. Temperature checks and at-home health screenings are also being accomplished with the help of parents. 

“We’ve implemented … ways to kind of use or embrace the weather in the children’s curriculum,” Brown said. “So say, watching what raindrops do to paint to make art or jumping in puddles and measuring how big the splash is. As a staff we spent a lot of time kind of being creative and brainstorming and helping each other. Celebrating the creative ideas and successes and also being able to bolster each other up when something felt like it didn’t work, or it was a tough day.”

The school is currently cycling through two three-hour classes each day, with each nearly at capacity. During the average day, which right now is chilly with intermittent drizzling rain, students spend time under the tent classroom for snacks and story time. Later on they have free time in the fields and then more time in the playground and sand area. 

Everything from an outdoor xylophone, to tricycles, to impromptu teeter-totters and even a miniature creek powered by a hand pump are part of the outdoor landscape. 

One student expressed particular excitement with what is known as “The Jungle.” The imagination inspired world is actually a small, raised garden plot with exotic looking plants in it. The student said it was where his dinosaurs lived. 

“It’s been really rewarding to see kids enjoy building relationships with each other, really engaging and learning all of those important skills,” Brown said. “Being able to watch that every day has been really rewarding. And families have just been so flexible, and so creative with us, and so understanding. That has been really rewarding as well.” 

Another student at St. Andrew organizes gourds during October, while the school does fully outdoor education during COVID-19. Photo by Jacob Granneman
Another student at St. Andrew organizes gourds during October, while the school does fully outdoor education during COVID-19. Photo by Jacob Granneman

Brown explained that St. Andrew routinely partners with area food pantries and clothing drives to help the families that work with them, and that the school is always looking for new partnerships in the community.

The outdoor style is something new for the school, and they are certainly taking note of what works and what doesn’t to see how to adapt and manage the program, Brown explained. 

The school is looking at possibly adding some more capacity for classes, but is closely following CDC guidelines as well, and taking the process slowly to find the most effective way forward. 

“We’ve thought about curriculum in a different way and thought about child development in a different way that we may not have, had we not been forced into the situation,” Brown added. “So we’ve tried to see that as a real kind of growing and positive opportunity for us as well.”

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About The Author

Jacob Granneman is a filmmaker and writer from Clark County. He is a graduate of WSU Pullman’s Edward R. Murrow College where he studied journalism and media production. He has produced documentary stories all over the Pacific Northwest and abroad in Argentina. He has won a regional Emmy and Mark of Excellence award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his film work. His passions range from sharing the love of Jesus, to cinematography, to going on adventures in the most beautiful place on earth, i.e. his backyard. He lives with his wife and son in Vancouver, WA. Proverbs 16:3

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