Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
As we busily wade through endless emails, drive madly from one place to another, check off task after task, event after event that we’ve put on our calendars, sometimes it can be days, weeks, even months before we actually take a moment to pause, to reflect, to just BE.
And as much as we may see this within our own lives, we may not realize how much this is affecting the lives of our children as well — in school and in life in general.
“Kids should feel that learning is fun, that they are good at it,” Colleen Smith believes. “And as parents and teachers, we should believe more in the inherent value of play, because these hands-on experiences help children to grow and learn, as well as refine skills such as problem solving, persistence, invention and initiative.”
It was that line of thinking that inspired her to start Sol Shine Nature Preschool, which operates at the Yakima Area Arboretum.
Growing up in Selah, Smith was given a lot of time for free play, to use her imagination while playing outside with her brothers.
“My parents created a really good foundation for my love and passion for being outside,” she said.
After graduating from Selah High School, Smith went to the University of Montana in Missoula, where she snowboarded and climbed in her free time as she earned her BA in biology.
Upon graduation, she began working as a guide for Missoula Outdoor Adventures. It was there that she realized the path she had chosen for herself was no longer the direction she wanted to continue.
“When you see that light click with kids, when they are able to try a sport for the first time or make some different connections — I quickly learned how rewarding working with kids is,” Smith said. “And I was hooked.”
Switching gears from going into medicine to going into teaching, Smith started a residency-based master’s in teaching program through Heritage University. Along with all of the other students in the program, she was placed in classrooms in areas of high need, where students were behind grade level standards.
After graduating from the 18-month program, Smith was hired to teach fifth-grade math and science in the Selah School District. At the end of her second year of teaching, she met Pat, now her husband, at Bale Breaker. After a romance based upon a love for children, the outdoors (and each other of course!), they were married.
During her third year of teaching at Selah, Smith began to wonder how she could give kids a stronger foundation in the natural sciences while at the same time helping them develop a strong set of social/emotional skills to be better prepared for kindergarten.
Although she loved working for Selah, she knew that she had to make a change — she had to follow her heart in the direction it was leading her.
Taking time off after having their son, Luke, she began to plan Sol Shine while teaching yoga classes around the valley. When Luke was a year old, Smith began the teacher training program at Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon Island, the first forest kindergarten school in the United States.
Upon graduating as a certified forest kindergarten teacher, Smith made her dream become a reality by opening up Sol Shine in August 2019. Now she runs the school and teaches there, because in her eyes, that firsthand experience with children learning in nature is where the biggest reward is.
In March of 2020, the Smiths’ daughter, Keira, was born, adding another daughter (and sister!) to their tribe — Caroline, 10, lives with the couple part time as well. But being a mom of three won’t stop Smith from continuing to follow and add to her dreams.
“Right now, with a young family, I have a responsibility to raise children who will (hopefully) become kind, contributing members of our society,” she said. “As any parent would say, this is a huge, sometimes daunting, and seemingly impossible task. But I feel strongly that while I do my best as a mom, I can also help, even if in a small way, by giving other parents in our community another option for preschool.
“As my own children grow and I have more time, I have plans to broaden Sol Shine and find ways to make it a more accessible option for families.”
The happiness one can get from just sitting in a field of wildflowers, from standing on a mountain as the snow lightly falls into your hand, or watching the sun slowly rise on the horizon as it paints the sky the most vivid colors you could ever imagine … it truly is endless. Discovery, wonder, imagination, love, passion — all of these can be found by spending time in nature, by stepping away from our schedules, from our phones, from the expectations we have set for ourselves.
“Nature is an ideal classroom — it’s always changing and it’s fascinating to everyone in different ways,” Smith said. “I encourage everyone to plan some unstructured play time in nature no matter your age. It can be as easy as 30 minutes at the nearest city park or something bigger, like a multi-day trip at a national park. If you have children, let them take the lead. It doesn’t matter where you go, as long as you’re in nature, the benefits will quickly become apparent.
“The important part is to put away your phone and let your curiosity guide you.”