Feature Story

June 2020

Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels

Ask the Experts: Using Masks in Nature-Based Programs

Natural Start Staff

As nature-based early education programs are reopening, the Natural Start Alliance has been getting a lot of questions about how to use masks effectively. 

The CDC has released considerations for childcare & K-12 programs and the American Camp Association has provided guidelines for camps that both recommend the use of masks by staff. Recommendations and state requirements vary about whether and how children should be masked while in school. But there are many questions about how to do this effectively, practically, and in ways that support children's development.

We reached out to the Natural Start community to hear from programs that have either remained open during the pandemic, have recently reopened, or are planning to open in the next two weeks to find out more about how nature-based early learning programs are using masks and what they’ve learned that may help guide similar programs. 

Will Smith Zoo School in San Antonio, TX reopened in mid-May, Wind Ridge Schoolhouse in Duluth, MN reopened in early May, Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Milwaukee, WI is planning to reopen on June 8, and Annette’s Preschool in Hinesburg, VT remained open throughout the pandemic to serve children of essential workers.

We also spoke with ONE Forest School in Huddleston, VA which has remained open throughout the pandemic and has opted not to use masks. ONE Forest School is a 100% outdoor program (and therefore not able to be licensed in the state of Virginia) with 12 students enrolled. Catherine Eubanks, Director and Founder of ONE Forest School, mentioned that when they communicated their decision to operate relatively unchanged to parents, parents were very supportive and no families have removed their child from the program as a result of their policies. ONE Forest School was recently featured in the Washington Post.


What is your policy on wearing masks? 


Masks are optional for all staff, but the staff is required to wear them when they cannot social distance from other adults (staff meetings, etc.). Children can wear masks, but none of them do. We just ask that they have Velcro to ensure they are not choking hazards. Two kids wear them around their necks, perhaps a security thing, which is fine.

Amanda McMickle, Director, Will Smith Zoo School (San Antonio, TX)

Right now, our programming is 100% outdoors, save individual trips inside to use the bathroom. At this point, only teachers are wearing masks when they are within 6 to 8 feet of children or families. As the weather turns colder here in Duluth, the children will wear masks inside. We are looking at different design styles and leaning towards a thin tube style face mask. Children here are used to wearing face masks to protect from the winter cold and we think they will be able to manage this type of style most independently. 

Laura Whittaker, Wind Ridge Schoolhouse (Duluth, MN)

Wearing a face mask will be mandatory for all adults during pick up and drop off and whenever physical distancing is not possible. This includes staff, parents, caregivers, and anyone using the trails and public spaces. Preschool campers will not be required to wear a face mask while playing and hiking outdoors. The chance of them mishandling or discarding the masks while they play increases, rather than decreases, the risk of spreading illness. Licensing guidelines do not recommend the use of face masks with this age group while they are being physically active outdoors. In the case of inclement weather, all children will need to wear a face mask while sheltering indoors. Children are required to come to camp with a face mask (regardless of the weather) which will be stored in their personal bag or backpack until needed. 

Catherine Koons-Hubbard, Director, Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool (Milwaukee, WI)

All adults in our program will wear facial coverings during the day. While outside and distanced 6 ft we allow them to be removed but at the ready to put on so that teachers can get exposure to the fresh air, children can see their smiling faces, and adults can participate in activities that promote aerobic activity and physical movement. Children are not required to wear facial coverings.

Andrea Sambrook, Director/Owner, Annette's Preschool (Hinesburg, VT)


What kinds of things did you consider in coming up with your policy on masks?


We followed the guidance of our state licensing agency.

Amanda McMickle, Director, Will Smith Zoo School (San Antonio, TX)

It is a balance between risk and promoting the healthy development of children. Young children rely on facial expressions to understand communication, to grow their empathy of how others are feeling, and to communicate themselves. When we are outside, with plenty of space and open-air, the risk for transmission is lower so the children are not wearing masks. However when we need to go inside for warm-ups, the children will likely wear masks because they will be in closer proximity.

Laura Whittaker, Wind Ridge Schoolhouse (Duluth, MN)

Our additional summer camp practices and policies were developed under the new COVID-19 preschool licensing protocol from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families and recommendations from the American Camp Association. Our 2020 Summer Camp policies have also been reviewed by the North Shore Health Department.

Catherine Koons-Hubbard, Director, Schlitz Audubon Nature Preschool (Milwaukee, WI)

For children their developmental level was the driving factor. Touching fabric coverings, sucking on them, removing them, dropping them on the floor and laying them on surfaces would spread droplets faster and more extensively than their own mouths ever could on a typical day. We believe that the health screenings we are doing will need to be sufficient to exclude ill children, and that masks present more opportunity for spread than not wearing them. For adults, this was one of the few "musts" that the VT Dept of Health published. We began wearing them as a provider open for essential care and so 2 teachers and I were able to practice and learn from those weeks and share with the team prior to re-opening.

Andrea Sambrook, Director/Owner, Annette's Preschool (Hinesburg, VT)


How did you introduce masks to children to get them comfortable? 

We made custom masks for those greeting kids. They have smiles sewn on them to look happy and welcoming.

Amanda McMickle, Director, Will Smith Zoo School (San Antonio, TX)

To prepare children for their teachers wearing masks, we sent home a video so the children can see the teachers in their mask before arriving at nature preschool. During the video we explain some of the other changes the children and families might notice and demonstrate that we look and sound a little different now with our masks on. In the video we also focus on what will be the same: play, friendship, song. Most of the children adjusted comfortably to teachers in masks. For those that were a little uncertain, we played “guess my face.” The teacher would make a face under her mask, and then the child would copy the face that they thought she was sharing on his own. Then the teacher would lift up the mask and reveal her face below. In child-led nature-based programs, teachers are often stepped back in observation mode. From there, they are 6 to 8 feet back from the children and can have their masks down and their faces open to share expressions.

Laura Whittaker, Wind Ridge Schoolhouse (Duluth, MN)

Children 0-5 are not required to wear masks. We are offering it as an option for children ages 5-8 in our summer camps and when taking short bus trips in our van to a second campus site. We created a social story for our families prior to arriving at school with pictures of our staff wearing masks with a thumbs up. We wear photos of ourselves on clips or lanyards so the children can see our faces and we hold up the pictures upon greeting for the first time. We use fun fabric to style up our masks to be interesting to kids and as the director who does the screening, I find fun fabric each day and ask the children if they are sure it's really me if I've got watermelons on my cheeks (fabric pattern).

Andrea Sambrook, Director/Owner, Annette's Preschool (Hinesburg, VT)


Do you have any suggestions or advice to share regarding mask use based on your experiences?


The kids and parents loved the smiles we had sewn on our masks. Ensuring that children who wear masks have break-away binding like Velcro so they do not become choking hazards are a must.

Amanda McMickle, Director, Will Smith Zoo School (San Antonio, TX)

I was worried about wearing a mask while teaching. However, generally speaking, the benefits of offering children time and space for nature play have far outweighed the new COVID-19 precautions. And, I feel safer to offer a closer, nurturing connection when it is needed while wearing a mask. The children have adjusted to my mask-wearing, and it does not feel like a barrier to our relationship. It has been so uplifting to again watch the children’s joy, imagination, and play. 

Laura Whittaker, Wind Ridge Schoolhouse (Duluth, MN)

I purchased 100 masks so my team each would have 4. Be sure that the design fits your face and is not too tight. Three-ply jersey knit seemed like a good idea in chilly spring, but they are proving to be a little hot in summer. Choose white muslin or cloth and ask teachers to decorate them. Some teachers asked their own children to decorate them for them at work. One child said "Everyone is going to miss your smile, so I'll make you a new one!"

Andrea Sambrook, Director/Owner, Annette's Preschool (Hinesburg, VT)



We want to thank Amanda McMickle, Laura Whittaker, Catherine Koons-Hubbard, Andrea Sambrook, and Catherine Eubanks for sharing their policies and experiences with Natural Start Alliance members. 

If you have questions, you can contact us at info@naturalstart.org


More Resources: Forums and Folders

Join us on Thursday, June 11, at 12 pm ET/9 am PT for a forum on reopening nature-based programs. Two preschool directors, Amanda McMickle of Will Smith Zoo School and Andrea Sambrook of Annette’s Preschool, will provide short presentations on their current program operations, followed by time for questions and small group discussions. 


Register for the Planning for Reopening Forum


In addition, we’ve responded to your requests for a way to share reopening plans, policies, and resources with other nature-based early childhood professionals in a new COVID-19 Resources Google Folder. Check it out here, and please feel free to and any resources you care to share.