Tiny Trees Preschool
We use licensed, outdoor classrooms in city parks to make a high quality preschool education affordable for all families.
Name or Organization
Tiny Trees Preschool
12 locations in Seattle & Western WA State. Seeking to replicate this model regionally & nationally.
What is your stage of development?
Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD
What is the stage of your proposal?
Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.
Tiny Trees opened 4 outdoor preschools in low-income neighborhoods of Seattle in September of 2016. This video shows Tiny Trees from a child's perspective during the middle of the wettest winter in Seattle history.
Katie's family recives free tuition through the Seattle Preschool Program, the City of Seattle's Universal Preschool Initiative. Tiny Trees has worked hard to meet the quality standards to be a provider for this program. Our success during our pilot year has shown that an outdoor preschool can provide just as high quality of an education as an indoor school.
Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)
60% of children in Washington State do not attend preschool. They enter kindergarten two years behind their peers and most will never catch up.
Tiny Trees Preschool is a game changer for families who cannot afford or access quality preschool. Recently a preschool with 10 indoor classrooms opened in Seattle. It cost $15 million dollars and took 8 years to build. In comparison, Tiny Trees opened 10 outdoor classrooms in city parks for a total cost of $440,000. It took us 2 years to build.
Select an Innovation Target
Service: A new or enhanced service that creates value for end beneficiaries.
Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)
Tiny Trees Preschool gives children a quality education and a joyful, nature rich childhood: one full of play, exploration and wonder. By creating vibrant, outdoor classrooms in Seattle, King County, and Washington State Parks, Tiny Trees eliminates the cost of a brick and mortar facility. This makes preschool affordable and accessible to all families and allows us to invest in what really matters: empowering great teachers.
In the last two years Tiny Trees has grown from a start-up with a $120,000 annual budget and 2 staff to a school with 34 full-time educators, a $1.6 million budget, and a waiting list of 4,000+ families. In September of 2018 Tiny Trees will double in size again, with 7 additional locations opening across Western Washington, helping over 200 more children a day. This is a pivotal time for Tiny Trees, when a strategic investment could be high impact, taking an innovative, and proven concept to scale across the Pacific Northwest, the Western United States & Canada, and beyond.
This rapid growth is rooted in one simple fact: Parents and families are thirsty for both affordable preschool and a nature rich environment for their child. Since Tiny Trees opened in 2016 we have received over 5,000 applications. 84% of families who apply do not get in and remain on our waiting list. Despite exponential growth we need help to scale quickly enough to meet this demand.
More at TinyTrees.org or Tiny Trees Preschool on Facebook.
What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)
Tiny Trees is a bold and innovative response to a critical problem: childcare is expensive. In Seattle, families spend $12,000-$26,000 a year on full-day preschool. That is more than tuition at the University of Washington and only slightly less than housing. These soaring costs lead to women (and increasingly men) dropping out of the workforce during their most productive years, add significant financial anxiety to the stresses of parenthood, and disproportionately impacts low-income families.
Explain your idea (5000 characters)
In October of 2014 Tiny Trees Preschool won Social Venture Partners’ Fast Pitch competition for best non-profit start up. At the time, the dream of affordable, nature rich, outdoor preschool was just that – a dream. It became a reality in September 2016, when Tiny Trees opened preschools in four city parks in low income neighborhoods across Seattle, followed by 3 more schools in September, 2017. Now every day, in all weather, 260 children attend joyfully muddy classes, learning the social, emotional, and academic skills for a lifetime of success while enjoying a glorious childhood: one full of play, adventure, and wonder in the natural world.
Tiny Trees won Social Venture Partner's Fast Pitch competition for best non-profit start up in October of 2014. This provided the initial seed capital to create and test the concept.
Tiny Trees opened 4 outdoor preschools in low-income neighborhoods of Seattle in September of 2016. This video shows Tiny Trees from a child's perspective during the middle of the wettest winter in Seattle history. This shows the idea we are looking to scale.
Tiny Trees is a bold and innovative response to a critical problem: childcare is expensive. In Seattle, families spend $12,000-$26,000 a year on full-day preschool. That is more than tuition at the University of Washington and only slightly less than housing. These soaring costs lead to women (and increasingly men) dropping out of the workforce during their most productive years, adds significant financial anxiety to the stresses of parenthood, and disproportionately impacts low-income families and communities of color, with 60% Washington’s children entering kindergarten 2 years behind their peers (Kidscount.org). See TinyTrees.org for more information.
As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Tiny Trees is leading the movement for affordable, high quality preschool. By building outdoor classrooms in city parks, Tiny Trees eliminates the brick and mortar facility, cutting operating costs by 25% and capital/start-up costs by 80%. This allows us to:
• Keep tuition prices low and offer financial assistance or free tuition to 46% of families. Children also receive free meals & outdoor clothing and equipment.
• Invest in what really matters: great teachers. All of our teachers have four-year degrees; 25% have a Master’s degree. All teachers receive 26 days of professional development per year, are full-time employees with medical and retirement benefits, and are paid above market rate.
• Replicate and grow easily with low start-up costs & a financial model where each school is sustained on tuition and government grants for children in poverty.
The best part is that Tiny Trees gives children a vibrant, mud puddle splashing, sand castle building, & creepy crawly catching childhood: one full of hands-on learning, exploration, and wonder in the natural world. Our children have inherited a planet facing significant ecological challenges and their generation will need capable, emotionally intelligent, and creative conservation leaders. Tiny Trees Preschool presents a solution – daily, intimate exploration of the natural world by children from diverse backgrounds during their most formative years.
Who benefits? (1500 characters)
By making preschool accessible for all families we create diverse, integrated classrooms where children learn how to communicate and empathize across difference.
* 264 children attend daily.
* 35% identify as families of color.
* An additional 18% identify as white but list a cultural identify or county of origin other than American (Asian, Native American, African, European, etc.)
* 22% of families speak a language other than English at home.
* 31 different languages are spoken at home
* 46% of families receive free or reduced tuition
Tiny Trees has built a culturally responsive organization from the ground up. 40% of board members and 60% of our leadership team identify as people of color. We also have increased our capacity to empower Spanish speaking families with an admission office, family engagement officer, and teaching teams that are fluent in Spanish and English. The result is a mixed-income, culturally rich classroom that is affordable for all families.
What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)
We know that a high quality, preschool education is one of the best investments you can make in a child's future. The problem is that preschool is expensive. For example, prior to Tiny Trees our founder (Charlie, who is 4 years old) was on the waiting list for 5 schools in South Seattle. They ranged from $12,000-$19,000 a year. More than tuition at the University of Washington. That means if student loans were available for preschool Charlie could have entered Kindergarten with over $57,000 of debt!
Charlie's solution is Tiny Trees where she is finishing her 2nd year. By not paying for the cost of a brick & concrete building, and all of the staff position associated with maintaining a building (receptionists, janitor, etc), Charlie's family is able to pay a fraction of the cost, while receiving the same high quality education.
The impact for Charlie will be life long. Affordable preschool means her family can make the investments in her future that she deserves. The emotional and socials skills that come from preschool means Charlie will succeed in Kindergarten, is more likely to graduate from high school, and lead a happy and productive life. And the childhood outdoors means Charlie will hold life long joyful memories of natural and wild spaces, that she will develop the grit and resilience to thrive in the face of adversity, and that she will develop a physically active lifestyle and less likely to develop diabetes, be overweight, or face other health challenges.
How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)
By building outdoor classrooms in city parks, Tiny Trees eliminates the brick and mortar facility, cutting operating costs by 25% and capital/start-up costs by 80%. This allows us to keep prices low and offer free & discounted tuition.
In addition to financial assistance offered by Tiny Trees we now are a provider of free tuition for low income families through the Seattle Preschool Program (City of Seattle). This is possible thanks to legislation we helped pass in April, 2017 that has created licensing rules for outdoor preschools (schools with no building). This means Tiny Trees is also the first outdoor preschool in the county to provide full day classes - a must for low income, working families.
By scaling this idea regionally and nationally Tiny Trees can help thousands of low-income children at a fraction of the cost needed to open and operate comparable, indoor preschools.
Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)
Tiny Trees Preschool is a game changing innovation. Recently a preschool with 10 indoor classrooms opened in Seattle. It cost $15 million dollars and took 8 years to build. In comparison, Tiny Trees opened 10 outdoor classrooms in city parks for a total cost of $440,000. It took us 2 years to build. This means Tiny Trees Preschool is easily scalable, able to serve thousands more children for a fraction of the cost of traditional brick and mortar preschools.
Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)
Tiny Trees is a game changer for families. By building outdoor classrooms in city parks, Tiny Trees eliminates the brick and mortar facility, cutting capital/start-up costs by 80-90%. This means Tiny Trees can grow quickly, helping reach a significant number of low-income children and high need families. For example, recently a preschool with 10 indoor classrooms opened in Seattle. It cost $15 million dollars and took 8 years to build. In comparison, Tiny Trees opened 10 outdoor classrooms in city parks for a total cost of $440,000. It took us 2 years to build.
Tiny Trees has grown exponentially since we opened our doors in 2016 and continue to be wildly popular, with a waiting list of over 4,000+ families. New schools require a small amount of capital to start. They are then sustained on tuition and government subsidies for low income children.
With a $1 million dollar innovation prize, Tiny Trees would bring affordable preschool to families across the United States and Canada.
Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)
Our track record of success:
• Built a broad movement of passionate families. Over 3,500 families have applied to join the Tiny Trees wait list. To put that in perspective the US Census found only 12,000 preschool age children in the City of Seattle.
• Successfully partnered with the Seattle Preschool Program – Pathway to provide free tuition to low-income families. In recognition of our performance our contract was increased 150%.
• Successfully partnered with Seattle Parks and Recreation to open four outdoor preschools helping 165 children a day.
• Passed legislation to create licensing rules for outdoor preschools. In our first year, Tiny Trees successfully passed bills in both the WA State House and the Senate, with bi-partisan support. New licensing rules allow outdoor preschools to provide full day care, important for working families.
• Successfully partnered with King County Parks to open 2 outdoor preschools in 2017 and 3 more in 2018.
• Built a culturally responsive organization. 30% of our teachers are teachers of color and two of our locations have bi-lingual teaching teams. 44% of our board of directors are people of color. All staff receive anti-bias training and work to build culturally responsive classrooms that reflect the community they are a part of.
• Built a team of highly qualified and capable teachers: All our teachers have four-year degrees; 25% have a Master’s degree. All teachers receive 26 days of professional development per year, are full-time employees with medical and retirement benefits, and are paid above market rate.
• Built an effective school-family partnership: 98% of eligible families chose to return for a second year.
• Winner of Social Venture Partners Fast Pitch Competition.
• Winner of Sustainable Seattle Leadership Award.
• Winner of Washington Women's Foundation Award.
Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)
Business viability has been tested through two financial years. Both years Tiny Trees has doubled in size and served twice as many children as the year before.
This rapid growth is rooted in one simple fact: Parents and families are thirsty for both affordable preschool and a nature rich environment for their child. Since Tiny Trees opened in 2016 we have received over 5,000 applications. 84% of families who apply do not get in and remain on our waiting list.
Opening a new school requires fundraising to start (access to capital). Once open, Tiny Trees Preschools are sustained on earned income (tuition) and government tuition waivers for low-income children (city, state, federal/headstart).
As a 501c3 non-profit Tiny Trees has limited access to capital. Winning this prize would help attract the institutional and individual philanthropists needed to bring this idea to scale across the country.
HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)
Big and little humans are central to the design of each of our outdoor preschools. Outdoor preschools are built from natural materials including logs and wood chips re-purposed from fallen trees in the park. Children and adults walk through the classroom area before it is built and help brainstorm ideas and show what natural features children are excited about (usually by climbing, jumping, or running around them). Children and families then help build the classroom during a volunteer work party, with support from our parks and recreation staff partners. Families then attend a parent orientation and open house prior to the school year where they can provide feedback on the space. Teachers and volunteers then adapt the space as needed during the school year in response to seasonal changes and the interest of the children/students.
Children using the natural features and weather in a park to create a muddy, playful learning space.
Tiny Trees follows the High Scope curriculum, which is evidenced based and used by many Head Start preschools. This is an example of one of our learning stations that uses logs cut from fallen trees in the park.
A child's view of outdoor preschool at Tiny Trees Cougar Mountain. Children and families helped design and build the outdoor classroom, which embraces the natural features of this historical site (this park is a restored (and safe) coal mine).
Tell us more about you (3000 characters)
1. Outdoor preschools are a proven concept that originated in Denmark, Sweden, & Finland (three countries where it can get really cold!). Also known as Forest Kindergartens, outdoor preschools had shown to meet great academic, health, and social & emotional outcomes. I was inspired by the documentary School's Out (https://vimeo.com/32463946), which highlights a publicly funded outdoor preschool in Switzerland. After learning about outdoor preschools I dug into the financials of the model and realize the potential to increase access by taking a proven idea to scale. In my market research I also learned that preschools are like coffee shops, you want to go to one in your neighborhood. Thus the focus on multiple locations, primarily in low-income neighborhoods of Seattle.
2. As an individual change maker I want to make the biggest impact I can for our community. Early childhood has the highest return on investment of my time and my impact. Most importantly, it is joyful work helping children learn, grow and thrive. Especially in an outdoor setting.
As a non-profit professional who has previously taken a good idea to scale nationally I also am attracted to how the early childhood space is ripe for distribution. Thousands of preschools have opened in Washington State in the last 20 years, most with long waiting lists. Many of them would like to expand to help all the children who need their services. The problem, however, is most (especially non-profits) cannot access the capital needed to build new indoor schools in a hot real estate market. Tiny Trees removes this barrier, and provides a market based solution to a critical problem.
3. I am a non-profit professional with 15 years of education experience. Prior to Tiny Trees I started BOLD - Boys Outdoor Leadership Development - for the YMCA. After a successful Seattle launch I replicated the program nationally at YMCAs in 12 states, helping over 6,000 young people a year.
Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)
Yes! We are seeking passionate change makers to join our board. Specific skills we are looking for are here: https://tinytrees.org/2017/07/21/casting-call-new-board-members/
As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)
A few people we’re looking for:
A connector who can use relationship skills to rally new supporters.
A champion who can mobilize support from corporate partners.
A foundation employee who can help us navigate institutional giving.
An executive who can leverage their leadership skills for a cause.
A party host who cultivates joyful gatherings and loves to plan events.
A philanthropist who wishes to super-charge an organization.
A really famous person. Or a puppy. We love puppies.
Would you like mentoring support?
If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)
Executive coaching, specifically leading staff through change & growth.
Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?
Yes, share my contact information
[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).
Chief Executive Officer
A non-profit professional with 15 years of education experience Andrew built Tiny Trees Preschool from an idea to an organization with 34 full time staff helping 265 children daily. Previously, he led YMCA BOLD & GOLD from a small program serving 30 kids a year to a national organization helping 6,000 young people a year develop leadership & life skills on wilderness expeditions.
Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)
I received mentorship and support from Isabelle Hau, including:
• How to lead a quickly growing organization through change.
• Highlighting how Tiny Trees impacts families by creating access to affordable education in local parks and green spaces in their neighborhood.
• Highlighting our rapid growth and expansion due to the demand from families for affordable, nature rich education.
• Shared more evidence on outcomes and impact.
• Highlighted the exponential impact of funding at this stage in our life cycle - how it will help Tiny Trees scale and serve thousands of kids in the long run.
Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)
This idea has received a lot of comments and suggestions from the prize community (See below). The biggest refinement was on how to scale rapidly outside of the Pacific Northwest by using local group of volunteers to organize the community support for a Tiny Trees expansion in their neighborhood. Allies have reached our from Colorado, Los Angeles, Mexico, Portland and other cities as part of this prize, looking to help Tiny Trees replicate this model. The mentorship I continue to receive through Isabelle has been particularly helpful, especially with her perspective as an impact investor who has helped take good ideas to scale on a regional and national level.