Windy Willows Daycare has a street address, washrooms, naptime space and all the trappings of a typical daycare – but the children there are rarely inside those four walls. Instead, the little tykes from two and a half to four years old, can usually be found across the street in what they call “the forest.”

On a map, Hoffman Park looks like any other green space in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, but the sprawling park is full of old-growth trees, ferns, logs and stumps that provide ample space for little minds to let their imaginations run free.

When visited by CTV News, one youngster was mixing “cupcake batter” in the rainwater collected in the bowl of an old stump with pine needles for sprinkles. Another scrawled elaborate designs for a park-wide slide she hoped to build. Several boys recounted vivid stories of the squirrels and birds they’d come to know in their time there.

"We have an emergent curriculum,” explained co-founder Danielle Elder.

“We use our surroundings and we do a lot of things that are sensory, so a lot of gardening, a lot of working with our hands. We have a lot of people interested in what we're doing because it's not the same as what a child would learn, typically."

Windy Willows co-founder Bev Moulds told CTV News the wait list for their centre is so long, they’re considering opening a new location if they can find the appropriate green space nearby. Manicured parks don’t pass their test, since Moulds and Elder prefer the creative stimulus only wild foliage and forest creatures can provide.

Elder cautions the daycare may not be suitable for all families, largely based on how comfortable parents are with sending their kids outdoors in all weather conditions.

“We’re outside all the time,” stressed Elder.

“Sometimes, parents think we're not outside in the winter time, but we are outside in the wintertime, all the time. There's too much learning to happen to be inside too much. We stay inside when it’s very windy for safety reasons, but even if it’s raining or freezing, we’ll go outside – just not as long.”

The children do come inside for naptime every day, with a lunch break held under tents in the centre’s private back yard.

The rules are very clear on what the children must wear in order to participate in Windy Willows’ emergent programming: rain suits, rubber boots, toques and gloves adorned each of the tiny tots scampering amongst the trees.

And the children all responded quickly when they heard the clear notes of a flute Elder blew, summoning them to storytime. Another staffer read from a book about a grumpy black bear.

A handful of other facilities in Metro Vancouver offer similar programs, which focus on fresh air and exploring nature. Elder says the children respond to the outdoors in very tangible ways.

“So many kids just come out of their shells,” she said.

“With this much open space, we have the capacity for them to self-regulate and be able to breathe and separate themselves if they need to.”

A few kids distanced themselves from the group for a few minutes, alone with their thoughts and taking a moment to themselves.

Minutes later, they were back in the fray, taking up a newly created game with their friends.