All-outdoor school set to welcome first classes in Maple Valley

Sarah Schumacher is busy this summer preparing to open Maple Valley’s first all-outdoor school for young children, a program she said is the first of its kind in Southeast King County.

Sarah Schumacher is busy this summer preparing to open Maple Valley’s first all-outdoor school for young children, a program she said is the first of its kind in Southeast King County.

Schumacher is the co-founder and president of Playful Hearts, a Maple Valley-based nonprofit dedicated to connecting young children to nature. This fall they’ll be launching the Little Sparrows all-outdoor preschool at Lake Wilderness Arboretum.

“The children will get to climb and get muddy and do things that children do well,” Schumacher said.

And, yes, that’s all-outdoors for the duration of the 10-month program.

“The proper gear is really important,” Schumacher said with a laugh. “Rain boots will be on every teacher and child and parent.”

The famous weather reputation of Seattle aside, Schumacher believes in letting children be children, and Playful Hearts’ educational philosophy is one that is inspired by well known models including Waldorf and Montessori schools.

“I would say that our approach is a blending of earth-based, Waldorf-inspired, and using a lot of the Montessori tools,” Schumacher said.

Along that vein, Schumacher said the school is seeking an official affiliation with WECAN, the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America. WECAN states its mission as, “to foster a new cultural impulse for the work with the young child from pre-birth to age seven,” and as, “committed to protecting and nurturing childhood as a foundation for renewing human culture.”

A typical day will be structured around a “rhythm” and be full of activities and classroom chores, such as filling bird feeders and watering plants side-by-side with teachers and parent volunteers, capitalizing on a young child’s desire to imitate the adults in their life.

“They need rhythms of rest and play,” Schumacher said. “It’s predictable. When children come into routine it feels good and adults are the same way.”

There will also be a lot of playtime and exploration on the 42-acre classroom that is the arboretum, along with singing that will weave throughout the three hour classes.

The teaching focuses on encouraging the young students to explore and is tailored to where their attention goes on any given day, the lesson coming from what the teachers and parents observe on any given day.

“We call that emergent learning,” Schumacher explained. “There’s less stress on curriculum and more time to just play.”

Schumacher lives just outside Maple Valley, near Lake Sawyer in unincorporated Kent, and said she was driven to create Playful Hearts and Little Sparrows because she couldn’t find a program close to home that fit what she wanted for her own young children. She was inspired by seeing her daughter play outside and by memories of her own childhood, as well as an all-outdoor kindergarten on Vashon Island.

“It was so appealing to me personally, but also as an educator,” Schumacher said of the other school.

Schumacher began working in early childhood education in the mid ‘90s and, more and more, she saw that young children were, as she described it, “all over the place.”

“It’s almost like they’re over stimulated by all the adult world throws at them,” Schumacher explained. “What children really want to do is play.”

Schumacher has a master’s degree in psychodynamic neuroscience, “which really just means my master’s degree is in child development,” she said with a laugh. She also holds a graduate certificate in infant mental development.

Once she became a parent herself, and her oldest began approaching preschool age, she started dreaming about the school she hoped to open, then talking about it. As word spread so did enthusiasm for the idea. Schumacher said that within two weeks of opening registration the classes were full for this coming fall and a wait list has started.

“It’s really exciting but it’s really motivating,” Schumacher said.

The school will have a 1-to-5 teacher to child ratio, along with two additional parent volunteers, for a total of four adults and a maximum of 12 children per class.

“Safety is important in this type of program,” Schumacher said.

When Schumacher looks to the years ahead, she envisions a “sustainable community of parents that want to help each other and their children.”

Another goal for the program is to reduce anxiety and stress of parents and their young children.

“School preparedness is such a focus right now and it’s creating so much anxiety and stress,” Schumacher said. “I hope this can be that balance of simplicity and beauty and play and letting children develop at their own pace, and develop a relationship early on with nature.”