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Licensing ONBs

What about an Outdoor Nature-Based ECE License?

Participants from many areas of Outdoor Education in Early Childhood joined a Licensing Working Group in 2022 to help CDEC develop a new, full-day, Outdoor Preschool License. This Collective is developing a multi-layered approach to ensuring this work continues through various pathways, as an ONB license would support programs, increase access to high-quality ECE, and to develop meaningful data on our programs across the state.

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According to Natural Start Alliance, there are 585 Nature-Based preschools operating across the United States, with 31 housed in CO. Several states are now working on an Outdoor Preschool license or other way to have ONBs as part of their system. 

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Why Does a License Matter?

A pathway to licensure for nature-based education:

Ensures high quality programs with consistent reporting and safety requirements

Right now, schools are operating under waivers and exemption statuses. With a licensure option, programs wanting to facilitate nature-based education in a fully outdoor setting will be streamlined. Licensed programs receive routine audits conducted by state licensing specialist to ensure programs are meeting quality standards and following best practices

Increases Access and Equity

Licensure also means streamlining applications for subsidizes services should the families want to pursue that option. Without a pathway to licensure, nature-based programs are not accessible to working families. We believe that education should be accessible and a large component of that is making it accessible to parents and guardians.

Opens up job opportunities, helps small businesses and increases childcare capacity in Colorado.

Licensure would give increased opportunity for more practitioners who are passionate about nature-based education to open programs, with a viable business plan, thereby reducing the state's deficit in the number of available childcare and early education programs.


The First Pilot in CO

In winter of 2017, a CO Outdoor Nature-Based (ONB) license pilot was created.  Since the creation of the pilot, other programs have requested to join and have been denied access. The pilot ultimately included a single program, and as of February 2024 there has been no summary of data collected, or a timeline and plan regarding the creation of an ONB license based on the pilot outcomes. 

The Licenses in WA & Beyond

In 2017, Washington State conducted an Outdoor Preschool Pilot which ran from 2017-2021. After completing the four year study, which included more than 14 programs, Washington created the Washington Touchstone Standards and implemented a permanent Outdoor Preschool license. Washington opted for a large-scale grant program that paired with local school districts, which is currently not part of what the Colorado Collective is seeking this session.

in CO

Winter 2017

First Colorado Pilot

In winter of 2017, a CO Outdoor Nature-Based license pilot was created by the Office of Early Childhood now the Colorado Department of Early Childhood CDEC. The pilot included a single program and as of February 2024 there has been no summary of data collected or a timeline and plan regarding the creation of an Outdoor Nature-Based license. Since the creation of the pilot, several programs have requested to join and have been denied access. 

August 2022

CDEC Working Group


After several cease and desist letters from CDEC to several safe and legal program statewide, parents began writing letters to the Director of CDEC urging them to allow ONB's to continue operating and create a pathway for licensure.  CDEC responded by bringing together participants from many areas of Outdoor Education in Early Childhood to form a Licensing Working Group to help CDEC develop a new, full-day, Outdoor Preschool License. This was intended to enable programs to operate with increased capacity, choose to participate in UPK in 2023, and to develop meaningful data on ONB programs across the state. 

January 2023

This CO Collective for Nature Based Early Education formed a sub-committee of parents, ONB practitioners and community advocates from across the state to work on introducing legislation. If a bill can be drafted, co-sponsored, and passed, then it would enable a full day ONB to be funded and developed further.  It would also create potential for a more collaborative role from CDEC licensing specialists trained in ONB pedagogy and dynamic benefit risk assessment able to navigate unique site specific safety plans that vary from place to place and program to program.  This would be possible by funding positions and training for state agencies that truly support ONB preschools.

CO Collective:

Legislative Sub-Committee

November 2022

CDEC Working Group

Changes Course

The Working Group developed a survey, with the help of this collective, to gather data on programs' interest in a half-day instead of a full day license. The survey results show: With a 1:6 ratio 307-343 year round spots would be created and 40 additional summer spots would be created.  11 unique programs support this option.  With a 1:5 ratio 125 year round spots would be created.   4 providers said they would use a half-day 1:5 license type if it is the only one available. That is 4 of the same 11 that said they would prefer the 1:6 and understand it to be safe as per four years of research in Washington State from 2017-2021. CDEC committed to pursuing a half-day license in 2023 with ratios limited to 1:5, with a revisit to the data for a full-day option (dependent on legislative support).

February 2023

The CDEC is drafting a rules package for a hybrid (meaning a buiilding is still required) half-day license option, which will require 1:5 ratios, and an emergency shelter building (does not have to be a child care facility). the Working Group will review and engage in revisions with the proposed rule set once it is released.

CDEC Working Group

Half-Day Rule Set

February 2024

A half day hybrid ONB license is still not available nor has CDEC promulgated rules for that license type.  Senator Janice Marchman tours several ONB programs in the state and becomes prime sponsor and champion for an ONB bill The CO Collective legislative sub-committee of practitioners, parents and other community supporters from across the state partnered for the last year with 3015 Policy to create and introduce SB 24-078. If this bill can be passed then it give direction to CDEC to create a full day true ONB license that does not require a building by December 31, 2025.  Senator Janice Marchman is the Prime Sponsor along with co-sponsors Senator Priola and Representatives Joseph and McLachlan.  Senator Marchman says "BY ALLOWING ONBS TO OPERATE FULL-DAY PROGRAMS, WE WILL CREATE JOB OPPORTUNITIES, MAKE ONBS MORE ACCESSIBLE TO WORKING FAMILIES, AND ENSURE KIDS GET THE QUALITY EDUCATION THEY DESERVE”  The bill would enable this work to be funded and developed further.  Made possible with trained ONB licensing specialists for CDEC who understand dynamic benefit risk assessment and the holistic benefits of ONB preschools.  These new licensing specialists would support writing of rules that allow current ONB Preschools to operate full day programs with support for more tuition supports and increase access to low and middle income families as well as support new ONBs to develop.

CO Collective:

Legislative Sub-Committee

Want to hear updates about this work?

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