HAMPDEN, Maine — Many parents question how to get their kids safe when going back to school.
One Hampden woman found a solution in Hampden by opening a preschool that keeps kids outside.
About a month ago, Anna Wardwell opened Little Learners Homestead at her house. She is fully certified and her curriculum is based on learning in the dirt, with animals, in the woods, with plants, and when it snows, learning to enjoy the flakes.
Wardewell cooks three meals with the kids for them to learn the cycles of the earth, where food comes from, and how to prepare it.
"I think this is such an important age because they learn so much through experience and through hands-on actual exploration. They really guide the learning when we are out in the woods. I just let them explore and follow their lead and it's amazing what they find." Wardwell said.
Wardwell is helping fill a need of childcare that the entire state is facing, according to Tara Williams, executive director at the Maine Association for the Education of your Children.
"In our area, there is definitely more pre-school-aged kids than spots available for child care," Wardwell said.
The outdoor, farm, and food-based type of preschool, is for students ages 3 to 6.
"We cook outside, we eat outside, we play in the woods, say hi to the animals, take care of the animals, and maybe do a little garden task," Wardwell said.
State survey data from the Maine Association for the Education of Young Children reports this year alone, 136 licensed child care programs closed in Maine.
Williams said federal money has prevented even more child care centers in Maine from closing. She said staffing shortages, low wages, and a "broken market" mean that public investment is needed for this sector to recover and rebuild.
"Most families in Maine are already paying more really than they can afford and some can't even get access to childcare because they can't afford it," Williams said.
In Maine, 85% of child care centers are experiencing a staffing shortage.
Williams is hoping congress approves president Biden's "Build Back Better" spending package So no parent pays more than 7% of their income on child care."
Maine's speaker of the house Ryan Fecteau is putting the weight of his office behind a push for Congress to approve the package. The democrat from Biddeford said he wants to see more federal funding for child care, as more parents try to get back into the workforce.
Fecteau said 26% of Maine children live in what is called "Child Care Deserts." Here, there are three children for every open slot at a daycare center nearby.
"Across this nation, it will give American families the opportunity to succeed in the 21st-century by investing in this critical building block upon which other parts of our economy depend," he said.
Fecteau said "Child Care Deserts" are most prominent in more rural areas of the state, especially in Maine's second congressional district.
"Kids just learn from doing and being a part of the experience and food is so important to me," Wardwell said.
Little Learners Homestead in Hampden is accepting five more kids for this fall. Tuition costs $275 a week and it includes three meals and a full day of outdoor activities from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.