All through the dark days of winter, the beginning of a new outdoor playschool took shape on Vashon with pictures posted on Facebook to prove it: two women — with a little help from others — felling trees, hewing logs for a classroom and building play structures suitable for children and adults alike.
Now, hundreds of hours of labor later, Isabelle’s Playschool is open, offering camps for children up to age 10 this summer and preschool for children up to age 5 this fall. The school is nestled in a clearing on 20 acres of private property near the Tahlequah “Y.” There, young children are spending their summer days walking in the woods, making art projects in an open air log structure, picking food from the garden and playing on the structures built from logs that came from the land. The teacher, Isabelle Porter, is a certified early childhood educator who worked for two years at the former Vashon Children’s Center, a licensed daycare that closed early last year. The land belongs to Amanda Lawson, who created the center. It was these two women who spent the winter and spring building this school, quite literally from the ground up.
“This was our dream,” Porter said recently, as she looked over the school’s land, with a fort, play area with sand 2 feet deep — for excellent digging — and greens growing in the garden.
Porter graduated from Vashon High School in 2015, but met Lawson when she was 16: Lawson hired Porter to care for her young children while she worked on creating the Vashon Children’s Center. Once the center opened, Porter worked there after school, moving up over time from being an assistant, to the lead toddler teacher, to serving as the program supervisor. She had planned on heading off to a California maritime academy after she graduated, but those plans changed once she started at the center.
“I just decided I didn’t want to leave,” she said.
Instead, she earned her associate degree in early childhood education with a special needs emphasis at Tacoma Community College.
Lawson and Porter say they were happy with Vashon Children’s Center, but felt constrained by state licensing requirements, and both say they wanted nature to be more part of the program. In fact, Lawson said her longtime dream has been an outdoor forest school with a farm, with children milking cows and goats and checking for eggs. With her husband Chris — and with her dream in mind — she bought the 20 acres of land when she was running the Vashon’s Children’s Center.
“That was my hope for the property at the time, to one day have a school out here and have a barn with all the animals — to have what we had in town but with nature and farm animals,” she said.
After the Vashon Children’s Center closed, both women took some time off. Then last November, around the Thanksgiving dinner table, they say they decided to proceed with their dream.
They drew a lot of inspiration from outdoor preschools in Europe, Porter said, and built their school, buying as little as possible and using materials — wood and rock — from the land. They relied on an excavator for some projects and a portable saw mill, but hand scraped the logs they thinned from the property.
“We could do one per day when we started, and we could do 13 per day by the end,” Porter said.
Lawson’s daughters, Allie, age 6, and Ella, 4, spent their days there as the school took shape, playing on the land and warming themselves when necessary at a bonfire. The women worked throughout the winter and spring, and in late June held an open house for what Porter calls her play-based, child-centered, interest-led program. The summer camps filled nearly to capacity quickly, but the preschool still has some openings.
With the school up and running, Lawson said the roles she and Porter have now are like their roles at the Vashon Children’s Center, with Lawson in the backrground in a supportive role while Porter works with the children.
At the end of a busy summer camp day earlier this month, the program — and school itself — received good reviews from the children, who happily showed a guest around the property and some of their favorite places, including clearings made in the bushes by deer and a water play area.
A mother of two of the children attending, Callie Buse, said the first day she picked up her kids, ages 3 and 5, her son starting crying, saying he wanted to stay at the school forever.
The family moved from West Seattle to Vashon so the children could live more connected to nature, Buse added.
“I have been telling everyone how much fun they have here,” she said.
As Porter settles in to the new school, she is quick to say the highlight has been working with the kids. She recounted how one girl, covered in paint, told her, “I like that you never say no.”
It is a principle she likes to follow — within reason.
“If something will not harm anyone or the environment, why say no?” she said. “Adults have childhood amnesia.”
Sounding much like Erin Kenny, who started the first outdoor “forest kindergarten” on Vashon and is now renowned in the field, Porter said, “I really think kids can be outside all day. They just need better clothes.”
Despite that, plans are in place for a log classroom, with a wood stove, pillows, blankets, books and puzzles.
Lawson said she would start that project soon, to complete it before the rain returns. She won’t stop there.
“I am still working toward that goal of a farm. I cannot wait to get a barn done,” she said.
But even without the barn and its animals, Porter says the school is good now.
“It’s better than I imagined it would be, and I imagined something pretty great,” she said.
For more information about the school, see Isabelle’s Playschool on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.