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Tiny Trees: Outdoor preschool planting new “seeds” this fall.

Posted by Deborah Drake
Photo by Merrill Images.

 “Tiny Trees makes preschool affordable by eliminating the cost of building, renovating and maintaining a child care facility. We break down the schoolhouse walls and take the classroom outdoors. That means instead of spending a huge amount on bricks and mortar we spend money on what matters: hiring and supporting great teachers.”

When Tiny Trees Founder, Andrew Jay delivered his Final Showdown pitch in 2014, Tiny Trees Preschool was an idea. Fast forward to today and you’ll find Tiny Trees Preschools in four neighborhood parks, with three more opening this fall, and in Fall of 2018.

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Photo by Merrill Images.

Tiny Trees continues to expand as it serves more preschoolers in parks in and around Seattle and instills in them appreciation for the natural world as the classroom it is, and a love of learning–grounded in play.

Andrew Jay: Founder. Teacher. Camp Counselor.

Ask most any teacher and they will tell you there are those great teachers who inspired them. Andrew had some in Middle and High School. Then, the experience of being a camp counselor for 3 years impacted his teaching style when he became an educator.

“As a camp counselor, I learned how to use fun, play, and humor as a tool for learning. It’s one of the great benefits of being a camp counselor, and you look at some of the great classroom teachers, they started as camp counselors.”

Before launching Tiny Trees, Andrew Jay taught in schools for 10 years, then went through leadership school, and also worked for Outward Bound and YMCA. “I realized that I love solving big problems. I love helping teachers make sure they have the tools and resources and support they need.”

In 2014 after winning the SVP Fast Pitch Business Plan Competition, with a clear vision and new advocates in his corner, Andrew took the leap and left the security of his teaching work to give Tiny Trees 100% of his time and energy.

“It was a heady time because it takes a lot of courage to quit one’s job and take on a startup. Winning SVP Fast Pitch was the affirmation that I needed to do that.”

For Andrew Jay, the greatest value of SVP Fast Pitch was the coaching, the encouragement, and the support throughout the process.

“I really used our coach and pulled as much of the wisdom and the value from the coaching process as I could and that really helped Tiny Trees create our name, our brand, and our ideas. My coach was amazing. There are so many generous people who give their time and if you are able to activate that, it’s a valuable experience.”

“It is an enduring blessing for an organization and a young idea.” ~Andrew Jay on the SVP Fast Pitch program experience.

Winning SVP Fast Pitch was a gift that kept on giving. Tiny Trees gained new fans and supporters, and some even expressed interest in joining their Founding Board.

You had me at “Charlie.”

Andrew Jay began his 2014 pitch with a memorable invitation for the McCaw Hall audience, “Meet Charlie. She’s 16 months old and she loves toys, naming things, and getting messy with food.” Behind him the image of the adorable Charlie, the youngest of the founding team—instantly won the heart of the audience. Charlie’s loving parents Teddy and Annie were like so many young working parents–in search of childcare that is convenient, affordable, and high-quality.

The reality: it’s difficult to find in urban areas (like Seattle) where real estate development is pushing out affordable childcare options. The Tiny Trees solution of an outdoor preschool using the community park spaces is simple, economical, and a proven model for developing healthy, happy learners well-primed for Kindergarten.

A week after the 2014 Showdown, the City of Seattle passed a universal preschool initiative giving $11,000 to the lowest-income children to be spent at preschools like Tiny Trees.

An update on Charlie (because you know you want to know).

Andrew shared, “Charlie is now 4-1/2 and starting her second and final year at Tiny Trees. She’s built a great community of friends. She has grown in her ability to talk about her emotions, loves to climb trees, explore the forest, and she really loves all the edible plants in the park she is in. She enjoys eating a lot of raspberries and blackberries and other stuff in the garden.  She’s really into that!”

Will Charlie always love the outdoors? Might she pursue a career in STEM? Or biology or teaching? As she ages, Teddy, Annie, and Charlie can report on what it has been like to be a part of the organization from its inception.

After SVP Fast Pitch Andrew devoted himself full-time to launching Tiny Trees, and it took a year to set up the agreement with and become a provider for the City of Seattle Universal Preschool. Starting in September 2016 there were 6 outdoor classrooms with 165 children attending preschool daily. 46% received support in the form of financial assistance or free tuition; and 50%+ paid full tuition.

“The idea of having mixed income and integrated classrooms were realized in the first year thanks to the financial assistance available through the partnership with and support from the City of Seattle and the Universal Preschool Program.”

Full-time outdoor preschools, like Tiny Trees, are a solution that is a triple blessing for the children, their parents, and the communities they are located in.

Photo by Merrill Images.

Tiny Trees is opening 3 new classrooms in 2017; Olympic Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle; Cougar Mountain at the Red Town Trailhead between South Bellevue and Issaquah; and Big Finn Park between Bothell and Kirkland. This fall student roll grows to 265 students – and ½ the students will receive financial assistance.

Rooted into the Tiny Trees mission, is a model grounded in being a culturally diverse education experience for students and families. Andrew reports, “It’s been interesting to see the model come to fruition with the diversity we were hoping for from the start.”

The City of Seattle’s Universal Preschool program increased its support by 150%, making Tiny Trees able to offer more tuition assistance to families. Three of four of the original parks have families with children who are receiving free tuition because of the City of Seattle’s preschool program.

The wait list for Tiny Trees is evidence that the solution they offer is wanted and deserves more support at the local and state level. Seattle’s Universal Preschool Initiative was a great start. All the established parks filled within days of registration opening and promptly had waiting lists. Olympic Sculpture Park in downtown Seattle and Big Finn Hill Park between Bothell and Kirkland had only a few openings at the time of this story.

Then, on May 4, 2017, Washington became the first state in the country to license outdoor preschools when Governor Jay Inslee signed into law SB 5357, a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sen. Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas Island), to create a pilot that will develop and evaluate health & safety rules for the growing number of outdoor preschools in Washington.

“Tiny Trees is able to meet this pressing need for families for affordable childcare and give a child the best start to their education experience; and we are also able to meet the demand for giving children early education that is high quality and joyful as well. Tiny Trees also comes with an outdoor experience that develops in young children an appreciation for the natural elements of the world they occupy.”

Full-time outdoor preschools, like Tiny Trees, are a solution that is a triple blessing for the children, their parents, and the communities they are located in. Photo by Merrill Images.

Making good use of green spaces and strengthening community.

Tiny Trees intentionally chooses new locations that give access to a diverse group of families. Rainier Beach, Beacon Hill, and the Southwest Seattle outdoor schools were purposely chosen because they wanted to give those communities convenient access to the Tiny Trees experience for their children.

“We wanted to be local and easily accessible for high need communities. For example, we are at Jefferson Park, where the families of Beacon Hill already have a relationship with the park that we occupy. In some cases, they have been bringing their children to the park since they were toddlers, and they feel comfortable having their children attend school at that same park.”

Monday through Friday, Tiny Trees brings a joyful presence to a park that is typically empty during the middle of the day. As Andrew Jay explained, “Come evening, families and communities that use them also and can engage with our classroom areas in the park.”

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Photo by Merrill Images.

For example, one Saturday at Jefferson Park, the Polynesian community was having a cricket match on the field and there were probably 100 families watching four cricket matches. At the same time, there were a dozen children in the classroom. That kind of thing can happen because Tiny Trees brought those elements to the park.

How far do families go for a Tiny Trees preschool experience? Andrew shared that, “One family moved from North Seattle to Belltown, just so they could be close to the new Tiny Trees Olympic Sculpture Park to open this fall. We’ve heard the stories of people driving long distances to give their kids the Tiny Trees experience, but it’s humbling to know that someone moved their entire household for the sake of proximity to one of our outdoor schools.”

Tiny Trees as a social enterprise that creates good jobs too.  These days, Tiny Trees has a teaching staff of 22 in addition to a support staff of 8 plus 5 part-time substitute teachers. Tiny Trees is doing far more than educating preschoolers through outdoor classrooms. They are creating full-time jobs in education with benefits in the greater Seattle area. The combination of meeting community need and community demand makes for a powerful narrative as Tiny Trees plans for expansion of its program reach and identifies potential new sites.

Tiny Trees has an ability to respond to demand and community need by activating green spaces such as parks and turning them into learning spaces, bringing high-quality yet affordable preschools to urban areas, making expansion easy and sustainable.

For the present, Tiny Trees is focused on Seattle and can see the model working in other cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Denver, for example. Where housing prices are booming, Tiny Trees can be a very timely remedy that adds support for those families that are looking for affordable childcare and preschool.

According to KidsCount.org, in WA 60% of children don’t attend preschool because their families can’t afford, don’t know about it, or don’t have access.

“As an organization, we value the opportunity to scale a good idea. Tiny Trees is an opportunity to scale a good idea to help a lot of children who aren’t getting help anywhere else. As a teacher, you want to know your impact is helping a young person’s life. It’s about scaling that good idea and it’s about helping as many young people as I can.”

August is a busy month with onboarding new teachers and then it’s back to school at the park!

Tiny Trees students playing under a cedar tree using their imaginations.

Tiny Trees isn’t one long recess, it’s the best of both aspects of a meaningful education. Learning while playing, and being outdoors. Photo by Merrill Images.

How can you support Tiny Trees?

Support Tiny Trees by being at their Fundraising Luncheon as a guest, sponsor, or as a table champion on October 27th at the Museum of Flight from 11:30am-1:15pm. To encourage families to attend, there will be free childcare for children 2+ and babes in laps are welcome for children under two years old. Early bird ticket deadline ends Sept 13th. Allies and individual donors wanted!

There are other ways you can bring your time, talents, and treasures to Tiny Trees too. If you want to be inspired watch what goes on at West Seattle’s Camp Long!

And, how often when asked what was your favorite part of school, did you answer, “Recess!”?

Take note and stay tuned. This is the second of a new series on SVP Fast Pitch Innovator Updates. More progress reports to come on SVP Fast Pitch Innovators doing GREAT work still in all parts of the Greater Puget Sound. Got an update on your organization as the alum you are? We’d love to hear from you.

Final Showdown, tickets will be on sale 9/5.  Set your calendar now with a reminder!