New law aims to ease state’s child care shortages

Treva Lind

The Spokesman-Review

Preschool kids have a natural classroom in the outdoors to learn, from finding insects to creating art with pine cones. Now, more outside adventures can begin.

New legislation affecting child care in Washington became effective July 1. It includes authorizing the state Department of Children, Youth and Families to license outdoor, nature-based child care programs.

Also, the passage of Senate Bill 5151 means that child care providers won’t have to pay licensing fees for two years under as a state suspension through June 30, 2023, as operators recover from the pandemic’s financial hit.

Washington is now the first state in the nation to permanently license outdoor, nature-based child care for preschool and school-age children under the new law. It will allow for more programs that enroll preschool or school-age children, teach a nature-based curriculum and provide such learning experiences for at least half of the day.

Megan Benedict is co-owner of Into the Forest, a licensed Veradale center that incorporates outdoor learning. She says the new licensing option for nature programs gives more providers an ability to serve more children.

“In order to run it as an all-day day program, to give more families the option as a child care program, I’ll have to be licensed,” she said.

She said another challenge is hiring enough qualified teachers so she can increase capacity. As the licensing paperwork gets completed, she’ll continue to follow the pilot’s allowances of four hours of outdoor instruction.

Her program still has crafts, numbers, shapes, colors and typical preschool lessons, she said, but just taught in different ways to use the natural environment. Little Woodland Adventures runs in winter, too, with kids dressed appropriately, but they quickly shed extra layers as they’re moving, Benedict said.

Under the provision to suspend licensing fees, it applies to new applicants as well as licensed providers. A news release said the fee suspension “will remove a financial burden for child care providers and will help alleviate the child care shortage in many areas.”

That means child care providers — from those in private homes to large centers — won’t be required to pay the fees that range from $30 annually for a family home provider to hundreds for centers and school-age locations.

Additional child care legislation passed this year, including the Fair Start for Kids Act, signed May 7 by Gov. Jay Inslee, to provide new funding for child care and early learning.