Outdoor preschools may provide additional health benefits to their young students, including lifelong connection with nature and lowered rates of obesity. A Washington State University study will probe these ideas by studying students at a Seattle preschool.

SEATTLE, Wash. – As preschoolers across the nation head into classroom buildings for the start of the school year, more than 300 Seattle area children enrolled in the Tiny Trees Preschool will get to spend their time learning outside—rain or shine. Part of a growing trend toward nature-based early learning, outdoor preschools could very well hold the key to combatting childhood obesity. It’s why one Washington State University Health Sciences researcher is partnering with Tiny Trees to study the impact of an outdoor preschool model on children’s health outcomes.

“One third of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese,” said Amber Fyfe-Johnson, a researcher in the WSU Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health and an assistant research professor in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. “And those who become overweight or obese in childhood are very likely to stay on that trajectory through their adult lives, increasing their risk of heart disease—the nation’s leading cause of death—and other health issues later in life.”

Though genetics and where a child lives play a role, up to 90 percent of childhood obesity can be explained by lifestyle factors such as physical activity, which is what piqued Fyfe-Johnson’s interest in outdoor preschools. She noted that previous studies have suggested that kids are twice as physically active outside as they are inside, even when they have open play areas and opportunities for active play while indoors. However, more data are needed to get legislators, educators, and parents on board to change policies about outdoor time in childhood, which she said is critical for childhood health and is disappearing from preschool- and elementary school environments.

Supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health and the George B. Storer Foundation, Fyfe-Johnson is embarking on a five-year project to measure physical activity, body mass index, sleep, and gut microbiome—microorganisms that live in the digestive track—in 200 children. Half of the children will be enrolled at Tiny Trees, while the other half will be children who are on the school’s waitlist and enrolled in a more traditional preschool setting.

The largest outdoor preschool in the country, Tiny Trees runs 12 open-air classrooms located in nine public parks spread out across Seattle’s King County, where kids are engaged in a play-based curriculum that has them learning while they explore the natural world around them.

Fyfe-Johnson will follow each child for two years, collecting data at the beginning and end of each academic year. In addition to comparing data across the two groups, she will also conduct cost-benefit and cost effectiveness analyses to help determine the feasibility and sustainability of the outdoor preschool model.

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