New Vashon outdoor school highlights need for affordable childcare

“If you can create a foundation for kids socially, emotionally, they’re going to be so much better off.”

At an expansive outdoor school east of uptown Vashon Island, kids are banging pots and pans, digging sand and dirt, and making homes for fairies.

That kind of experiential, self-guided play is all part of the plan at Island Outdoor School, founder and director TJ Moore says. The “outdoor nature-based” school includes no fully enclosed buildings; aside from a few gazebos, the kids there are never under a roof.

Hundreds of kids on Vashon have already experienced renowned nature-focused and entirely or mostly outdoor schools and programs, including the internationally acclaimed, five-acre Cedarsong Nature School (now branched off as the Huckleberry Kids Nature School), started by educator Erin Kenny; the nonprofit Vashon Green School; the Vashon Art and Nature School; Caterpillar Farm; and the Vashon Wilderness Program.

While outdoor education is nothing new to the island, Island Outdoor School, which opened in August, is the first and so far only to secure licensing under a new certification enshrined in state law in 2021 as an “outdoor nature-based” childcare provider on Vashon.

That licensure means families can acquire state subsidies to send their kids to Island Outdoor School, helping put a dent in the skyrocketing cost of childcare.

Moore, a former behavior support specialist at the Vashon School District, specialized in social-emotional learning and said that remains his primary goal in serving kids at Island Outdoor School. (Moore also has experience working with youth who have developmental disabilities or autism.)

“That’s a big part of this age,” he said. “It’s a big part of developing from birth to five, and if you can create a foundation for kids socially, emotionally, they’re going to be so much better off.”

Learning outside the box

Moore and his wife Mattie Blevens, who works for ski gear company Helly Hansen, have lived on the property for two years, in a home uphill from the play area.

Moore started the 2.66 acre Island Outdoor School in August. It’s licensed for up to 12 kids and currently operates with 11, serving primarily three and four-year-olds. It’s licensed for ages 2.5 to 7.

The curriculum is “play-based” and partially inspired by the Reggio Emilia approach, a pedagogy that gives kids some control over their learning and encourages them to build relationships with other kids and express themselves freely, Moore said. Island Outdoor School also blends in more traditional planned educational activities.

“I love watching them learning new skills,” Moore said. “Some of them, when they started here, could barely sit on a balance bike. And within two or three weeks, they were zipping down the hill and cruising.”

Island Outdoor School is open five days per week and mostly follows the Vashon School District schedule; Moore said he plans to hold summer camps, too.

On a typical day, kids play with sport balls and tools, forage, play in the garden, navigate leaf mazes, lie about in hammocks, build things using their imagination, join together for snacks and storytelling, music and other group activities, and leave for home by 3 p.m.

“(We’re) play-based, child-led, very inquiry-based,” Moore said.

Island Outdoor School employs one full time teacher, Megan Damofle, and around three substitutes. They bring in guest teachers when needed.

Damofle has worked at wilderness schools, including as a lead instructor, and took a step back from wilderness education after having a child of her own.

Having her daughter and volunteering at her preschool expanded Damofle’s interest in early childhood education, and she moved to Vashon when her daughter was five to enroll her at the Vashon Green School. Damofle has also worked at other preschools on the Island, and in the Vashon School District as a paraeducator.

Childcare may not be cheap, but the Vashon community has proven to be there for her, Damofle said.

“I’ve been a single mom for the last six years … raising my daughter out here, I don’t think I would pick any other place to be a single parent, because there’s so much community here,” Damofle said. “… I feel like people have each other’s back a little bit more.”

Island Outdoor School is child-led and expansive, and that gives kids room to play and process their feelings, Damofle said.

“I find that having a lot of outdoor space, and most of the time being outside, the kids have more breathing room,” she said. “There’s just not a lot of conflict. Things happen, but they’re not on top of each other. … They can really take a break.”

Access to help

Blevens and Moore’s children — a 2.5-year-old named Leland, and a baby, Miles, about four months old — were a large part of why Island Outdoor School exists.

Moore wanted a way to spend time with his kids and, like many parents, a solution to the high cost of childcare.

“We had a nanny, and we loved her,” Moore said. “She was fantastic. … [But] that was, like, $1600 a month, minimum. And then we were going to have another kid. So we’re talking a minimum of $3,000 a month.”

Then the idea struck — they had a big outdoor space close to the town core, and an island that needed more childcare. They could start their own preschool, and in finding a way to spend time with their kids, also build a business and a source of childcare for others on the island.

The timing was fortuitous, because in 2021, Washington became the first state in the U.S. to permanently license “outdoor nature-based” childcare for preschoolers and school-age kids. (Cedarsong Nature School was one of the participants in the program’s pilot phase.)

“The (nature-based) programs that are running on Vashon Island are steeped in history,” said state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) childcare deputy senior administrator Debbie Groff, who oversees the outdoor nature-based licensing process.

Many of those outdoor-based island programs run under an exemption to require a child care license, Grof said, and Island Outdoor School is unique among them because it is licensed with the DCYF. That means Island Outdoor School can operate up to 10 hours per day, though the school runs for only six hours daily currently — giving working parents more flexibility. (Exempt programs can only operate up to four hours daily.)

It also means Island Outdoor School can receive subsidies through the Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) and participate in the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP).

Licensed childcare programs aren’t inherently any better or worse than license-exempt providers; the decision to seek licensure is up to each provider, Grof said.

“There’s no knock against it,” she said. “That’s why that list of exemptions lists in Washington State, so that you can provide different styles of childcare without requiring a license.”

Moore sets the monthly price for a child at Island Outdoor School at $1,300 per month, but through the WCCC, a family can end up paying only between zero and $165 per month, Moore said, depending on their income.

“That feels really, really good because I know that preschool is outrageously expensive for most families,” Damofle said.

Childcare costs rising

A report released this summer by the The Annie E. Casey Foundation, a youth well-being nonprofit, found that childcare costs have increased by 220% since 1990. In Washington, the average annual cost of center-based child care for toddlers is $14,355, or more than $1,000 per month; that cost is higher in King County and the Seattle metro area.

Vashon’s need — and what can be done to fill it — will be studied this year thanks to Vashon Youth and Family Services (VYFS).

VYFS fundraising and communications manager Tiffany Schira wrote a successful grant application for a $53,200 state Department of Commerce award recently to expand childcare services at VYFS. That grant will fund a VYFS project this year to study and survey childcare needs on the island, and develop a plan to increase childcare capacity, such as through Island Outdoor School.

“We’re super supportive of TJ and that program,” Schira said. “And we wish them great success. It’s a really neat program.”

Aside from availability, Schira said, affordability is the main reason Vashon residents can’t find childcare or manage a tricky off-island childcare commute. Care for babies and toddlers is particularly sparse, she said, and VYFS’ Vashon Kids program is the only service for kids open before and after school hours.

And the system overall would benefit from greater state or federal funding to boost pay and incentives for childcare workers, she said.

“It’s a low paying position, with usually no benefits, and it’s usually women or vulnerable communities that provide childcare,” Schira said. “And it’s one of the most important times developmentally for kids and babies to have social interactions and good supports.”

Families interested in Island Outdoor School can inquire about openings by emailing TJ Moore at