In this classroom, located just east of and along the shores of Hood Canal, branches and leaves and trees themselves become instruments of education.
Based at Kitsap Memorial Park, organizers of Magnolia Forest Preschool have hosted summer camps, preschool and some grade-level classes for youths in the Kitsap County area.
This fall, school co-owners Brandy Boyd and Jenny Stokes look to bring a preschool to Sequim.
Boyd and Stokes will offer preschool services for youths of 2-and-half to 5 years of age, with up to 18 youths being guided by four teachers at one time, based at Sequim Bay State Park, starting in September.
“We believe that children learn best through play,” Stokes said.
The school operates 9 a.m.-1 p.m., with one group of 18 youths meeting Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and a second set on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The preschool is designed to run through June, offering children opportunities to learn and play in the woods at the state park in all weather: sun, rain, snow, warm and cold (barring high winds or other extreme weather).
“Children play, learn boundaries — both physical and social — grow in confidence, and become self-starters,” school representatives note on the school’s website. “Children in this environment learn that there are different ways of solving problems and they develop their critical thinking skills daily.”
Boyd and Stokes said they were already looking at opening some sort of education offerings in the Sequim area prior to the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic. The health crisis only furthered the pair’s interest in providing peninsula families another option for preschool activities.
“(We) really felt the need was great right now to make it happen,” Boyd said.
The school, Boyd said, is a healthy option for families who are wary about putting children in an indoor class right now.
And while the school is based on the Forest Schools Training model from Archimedes Earth Ltd. in the United Kingdom and somewhat rooted in early childhood research by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky— known for his “zone of proximal development,” or the distance between what a student can do on their own versus what they can do with support of someone more knowledgeable about the activity — Boyd and Stokes have modified their philosophy a bit.
In the Magnolia Forest Preschool model, Boyd said, “children mainly play with the materials they find.”
Teachers value symbolic thinking, she said, and want youths to play with object that are “loose parts” and don’t necessarily have a designed intent.
“(They’ll) pretend a stick is whatever it needs to be when they play,” Boyd said.
“(Students are) always pushing boundaries and testing the limits; what we do is make sure they are free and safe to challenge themselves.”
The multi-age model, Stokes said, fits well, as 5-year-olds often offer support and insight to their younger counterparts. In an example, Stokes said a 4-year-old wanted to climb a tree stump but couldn’t figure out how. A fellow student, nearly 6, gave instructions on how it could be done. The younger student learned a skill, Stokes said, while the elder learns empathy.
“They grow in that way,” she said.
Known in full as Magnolia Forest Preschool Natural Child Life Preserve, the school will have a site director and three staff teachers on site each day. The school has a commercial permit to operate at the state park, meaning they pack in and pack out all equipment each day, and students are to leave tools of learning — branches, leaves and stones — at the site.
The school will use a lesser-used group campsite at Sequim Bay State Park, Boyd said, which has a pavilion and direct access to the beach.
“It’s really perfect for us,” she said.
The school will follow the state-mandate guidelines specific to outdoor preschools, with regulations for class sizes, face coverings, hand-washing and for temperature and health questionnaires for students before they leave their vehicle
Boyd, the school’s co-owner and administrative director, has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Grove City College, with a concentration in math and science. She taught high school science at a private school in Ohio and is earning her master’s degree from the University of Washington in library and information science.
Stokes has a master’s degree in early childhood and curriculum and instruction from Concordia University and a bachelor’s degree in art education (pre K-12) from Baylor University. She began her teaching career 24 years ago and has since taught ages pre-school through college in Arkansas, Texas and Washington state.
Magnolia Forest Preschool has campuses now in Sequim, Kitsap Memorial Park, Sharman Hill in Poulsbo and Edmonds’ Yost Park.
For more about the schools Sequim Bay campus, see magnoliaforestpreschool.com/campuses/sequim-bay.