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Originally published Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 10:01 PM

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Outdoor preschool takes root on Vashon Island

A preschool on Vashon Island is held completely outdoors, rain or shine, and it's so popular that it has a waiting list.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Indian plum. Huckleberry leaves. Tips of ferns. Cedar bark. Salal leaves. Douglas fir buds. Miner's lettuce.

All put in a Thermos of hot water brought to the remote site by teacher Erin Kenny.

This is tea, which the preschoolers will drink at snack time.

That these youngsters, ages 3 to 5, can identify the plants and know which are edible may seem incredible. But not to Kenny, who created Cedarsong Nature Preschool two years ago.

It's completely outdoors. The school's motto: "Children cannot bounce off the walls if we take away the walls."

The Vashon Island school is so popular it has a waiting list. Only once in the two years Kenny has run the school has a class gone indoors. That was in the middle of the winter last year, when the snow was so deep the kids escaped into the library.

School has never been canceled. The kids come equipped with their raincoats, mittens and rubber "muck" boots — better for playing in the mud puddle.

When she began her preschool, Kenny, an attorney, opened it two days a week. Now it's four days, and next year it'll be five because the program is so popular.

"I am passionate about spending time in nature," said Kenny, who received her law degree from the University of Washington but believes her true calling is the outdoors. She used to run a nature camp, and the preschool seemed a natural extension. She also runs camps in the summer.

Kenny said her all-outdoor preschool is the only one in the state and could be the only one in the Northwest. While they are popular in Europe as Forest Kindergartens, Kenny said it's hard to convince American parents that their children can be outside for hours. In the rain.

She limits admission to seven kids, all age 3 to 5.

"When kids spend their time in nature, they pride themselves about how much they know," said Kenny, who owns the 5-acre property where she runs her school. "Children need to be immersed in nature. They're loving it."

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It's filled with trees, where she's hung decorations so the kids can find their private forts or hideaways. In the middle is a huge mud puddle, where the kids can spend hours concocting make-believe dishes such as "blood soup."

They nibble on the plants they know are edible, including cedar bark, which is a good immune booster, Kenny said.

"This is forest candy," says Lorelei Fitterer, 4, holding up a bud from a Douglas fir. "These are little buds you can eat."

"And why do lilies turn yellow?" Kenny prods.

"They're decomposing," says Lorelei, a big word coming out of a little mouth.

"And what do leaves do?" Kenny asks another child.

"They turn sunlight into sugar," says Lola Dammann, 4.

"And what do bugs do in the winter?"

"They hibernate," says Lola.

Kenny leads her troop on a walk through the woods, singing the songs she's crafted for the children, like "Ring Around the Trees." She has no lesson plans beyond simply introducing the children to nature.

She reaches down and picks up a cone from the forest floor. "What is this?" she asks. "It's Doug fir," says Boots Van Spronsen, 5, without hesitation. Boots was born with a palsy, which makes his left side weak. But at Cedarsong, he grips tree limbs with his left hand.

"He's come so far," said his mother, Shelley Van Spronsen. "When he's doing something physically stimulating in the natural environment, he's great. My son started learning about plants and I would get panicky when he would eat something. I'd look it up and Boots was always right."

She said she hesitated about sending her son to preschool, so when she heard about Cedarsong she tried to find "dirt" on Kenny. There wasn't any, so she enrolled him and has never regretted it.

"He tells me what things are," Van Spronsen said. "He sings songs about condensation evaporation. He just loves it."

Kenny, who has lived on Vashon for 12 years, spent 10 years at a wilderness hot springs in the Cascades, where she would take people on walks and talk about plants. She said she was a lawyer for four years before deciding she needed to be outdoors.

She charges by the day: A child who comes one day a week pays $100 a month; three days costs $300 a month. The school is open from 9 a.m. to noon.

Kenny funds scholarships at Cedarsong by using the plants at the site to make and sell herbal remedies.

"We stress individual empowerment and group bonding," said Kenny, who has four ironclad rules: no hitting, no pushing, no grabbing and no name-calling.

She tells parents two other rules: "We will hug your kid. We will hold your kid."

Beulah Ellison-Taylor, 3, clutches a salal leaf. "This is a lollipop," she announces.

A worm crawls under a piece of bark. "What happened to it?" prods Kenny. "It's camouflaged," says Lorelei. Boots grabs a huckleberry leaf and swallows it whole.

Kenny shakes her head. "The words these kids know."

On cold days they'll build campfires and pop popcorn over the flames. At snack time she'll slice celery and slather it with peanut butter.

"I feel so passionate about kids being outdoors," said Kenny. "In American culture, people don't spend a lot of time outdoors."

Lola's dad, F.L. Dammann, said he was attracted to Cedarsong because he enjoys nature and wanted a preschool that encouraged play and imagination and wasn't too structured.

"I was turned off by the 'power preschools' that prepare you for college on day one," he said. "Last year we dropped Lola off and, oh my God, what are we doing? It was 28 degrees and pouring rain, and she had a great time. It has a profound effect on how she deals with things. It really helped level her out."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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