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Licensing ONBs

An Outdoor
ECE License?

Participants from many areas of outdoor education in early childhood joined a Licensing Working Group in 2022.  In 2024 they partnered with Senator Janice Marchman,  (also a teacher with a background in early childhood and Reggio Emilia) to help develop a new, full-day, Outdoor Nature-Based (ONB) 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 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 could 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 many working families. We believe that education should be equitable, 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 Colorado Pilot

In winter of 2017, a CO Outdoor Nature-Based (ONB) license pilot was created.  The pilot ultimately included a single program, though other programs requested to join (and were denied).  Update: May 2024 - There has been no summary or presentation of data collected by CDEC, or a timeline and plan regarding the creation of an ONB license based on the pilot outcomes. 

The Colorado Collective for Nature-Based Early Education has been collecting data on over 20  existing ONB programs in Colorado since September 2023.  We supported ONB legislation that passed in May 2024 to create an ONB Preschool License.  We  have shared the data with legislators with plans to make it publicly accessible and usable in outdoor nature-based preschool programs.

The Licenses in WA & Beyond

In 2017, Washington State conducted an Outdoor Nature-Based 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 Nature-Based Child Care 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 legislative session. Other ONB preschool programs in North America and beyond can be viewed in this map

in CO

Winter 2017

First Colorado Pilot

A Colorado Outdoor Nature-Based (ONB) license pilot was created. (Details summarized above.) 

August 2022

CDEC Working Group


After several cease and desist letters from CDEC to several safe and legal programs 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 develop meaningful data on ONB programs across the state. 

November 2022

CDEC Working Group

Changes Course

CDEC changed course and said a full-day license is not possible without extra funding and legislative support to hire more licensing specialists.

The Working Group, with the help of this Collective, developed a survey to gauge interest in a half-day license option. The survey results showed:

With a 1:6 ratio - 307-343 year-round spots and 40 additional summer spots would be created.  Eleven unique programs supported this option. 

With a 1:5 ratio 125 year-round spots would be created.  
4 providers said they would use this license type if it is the only one available. 

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).

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. One goal was for a bill can be drafted, co-sponsored, and passed, to enable a full-day ONB to be funded and further developed.  Another goal was to create potential for a more collaborative role from CDEC licensing specialists, trained in ONB pedagogy and dynamic benefit/risk assessment, and 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

February 2023

The CDEC drafted a rules package for a half-day licensed option, which would require 1:5 ratios, and an emergency shelter building. This was titled a "hybrid license" because it paired pieces of traditional Colorado licensing with possible new ideas.  The Working Group collaborated with CDEC to review and engage in revisions with the proposed rule.

CDEC Working Group

Half-Day Rule Set


Jan. 22 - SB24-078 (Outdoor Nature-Based Preschool Programs) Bill was introduced in the Colorado Senate.

Feb 5 - The Bill passed out of the Senate Education Committee 5:2 with bi-partisan support and headed to Appropriations and then the House. Here is the recorded session with ONB testimony starting at 2:44:07.  There was diverse testimony in support of the bill from parents, occupational therapists, program directors, director of licensing of CDEC and kids from ONB programs who “STOLE the show!”

Senator Janice Marchman is the Prime Sponsor along with co-sponsors Senator Priola and Representatives Joseph and McLachlan.  Senator Marchman said "“By allowing ONBs to operate full-day programs, we can create job opportunities, make ONBs more accessible to working families, and ensure kids get the quality education they deserve.”

Senator Priola agreed and said, “I’m glad to see Senate Bill 78 move forward, as it would ensure universal safety standards at outdoor nature based schools and break down barriers for working families who want to access this type of education,” said Priola. “With this bill, we can get outdoor nature preschools licensed as child care centers, and increase access to unique early childhood education options for Coloradans.” 

April 26 -  Bill passed the Senate 26 to 9 with bi-partisan support.  (It passed unanimously in the Senate Appropriations Committee)

May 7 - Bill passed the House 53 to 10 and plans are that it will be signed by the Governor in a public bill signing at an ONB preschool in the next few month.


June - A half-day "hybrid" ONB license is still not available nor has CDEC promulgated rules for that license type.  The CO Collective Legislative Sub-committee (composed of of practitioners, parents and other community supporters from across the state) partnered for the last 18 months with 3015 Policy to create and introduce SB 24-078. Now that it has passed, it gives direction to CDEC to hire ONB licensing specialists and create a full-day "true" ONB license that does not require a building by December 31, 2025. 

CO Collective:

Legislative Sub-Committee

Want to hear updates about this work?

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