I am not exaggerating when I say that I actually ran in the door to write this. I feel overwhelmed with excitement that I’m not quite sure where to start. So I’ll start from the beginning. Little Forest Folk was established in January 2015 by husband and wife duo James and Leanna Barrett. They met in Africa while running a safari lodge and have settled in London with their children. Little Forest Folk has sites in Wimbledon and Chiswick – Fulham opened just this week (in October 2016). It is the first totally outdoor nursery to be opened in London.
Children can attend full days from 7.45am-6pm (on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays) or sessional days from 9.30am-3.30pm (Monday to Friday), 51 weeks of the year. Full day children are dropped at Cuckoo Hibou in Parsons Green where breakfast is served, then everyone boards to bus to Bishop’s Park. The full day children meet the sessional children at the gates to the park at 9.30, and walk in to the site. Sessional children are collected from the park gates at 3.30pm and full day children are taken back to Cuckoo Hibou where they can continue with activities, eat supper and be collected anytime up to 6pm. For working parents, this is about as good as it gets!
The tour met at the gates to the park, and as we began our 5-minute walk to the nursery site, the first few drops of rain began to fall. Lil (our wonderful tour guide and head of expansion for Little Forest Folk) said: “Lesson 1: There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. According to her, weather is the number 1 concern with prospective parents. But there is nothing at all to be concerned about she says: “we just put our hoods up and carry on”. And proper hoods they are too – Children are kitted out in tried and tested waterproofs made by Swedish company, Didrikson's, so no one is getting cold and wet here.
Before the visit (and having not visited a Forest school before), I was trying to imagine what the setting would look like. In my head, it was just children running around a field and I wasn’t sure I would know when I’d reached the site. How wrong I was. On arrival at base camp, colorful canopies, a fantastic climbing tree and a log circle greeted me. Think Glastonbury for toddlers! While there is no fence or obvious boundary, there are areas with different activities for children to choose, or indeed, just explore nature around the site. There are no tables or book corners, but instead an incredible suspended tent where children were enjoying a literacy activity. Unlike conventional nurseries, there are no scheduled ‘lesson times’ and it was clear that teachers incorporate literacy and numeracy (and for that matter, all of the EYFS framework) into the environment and the children’s daily activities. Physical development is a given here and at the end of each day you will have delightfully tired toddlers (with very strong legs from learning to cope with walking on uneven ground!). Brilliant.
What about the loos? Nappy changing has it’s own personal tent and a very smart chemical loo is housed in another. With very a cool hand washing station too (to the tune of a suspended bottle with a squeezy ball that releases water).
And as is always the case with me, it doesn’t take long for me to suss out the menu. Food is home-cooked and nutritious (and vegetarian for safety reasons) – the schools have their own chef, Becky. Soups and stews in winter and picnics in summer. Yum. The school says that there isn’t really any dietary requirement that they can’t cater for. Snacks and lunch are eaten round the log circle each day. Children enjoy a cookery class every week.
Safety is of course another big concern of parents when faced with an unfenced area – but there is genuinely no need. All teachers have walkie talkies, they do head counts every 10 minutes, there is no lone working (staff must always be in sight of at least one other teacher), children’s colour-coded waterproofs and high-vis jackets allow teachers to identify boundaries based on age. Also, the are large rainbow tassles that mark the boundaries of the site, often set set by children themselves (the theory is if they set the boundaries, they are less likely to push them) and a set of “Forest Rules” laid out every morning with the children (my personal favourite is “no licking or picking”!). And if that wasn’t reassuring enough, the high staff ratio is always 1 teacher for every 4 children (it can legally be 1:13 for children over the age of 3). Lastly, I’m always one to rejoice at the sight of male teachers in the Early Years - maybe it’s the great outdoors, because out of 5 teachers, 3 are men at the Fulham site.
Now, I know you are thinking: how does this nursery prepare children for the 4+ assessments? I asked, and they said that they don’t. However, I don’t believe this one bit. While they don’t prepare specifically, the intrinsic nature of the school prepares children in probably the most exemplary way I have seen. Social and communication skills? Tick. Sharing and caring? Tick. Inquisitiveness and readiness to learn? Tick. Understanding of the world around them? Massive Tick. I’m not sure you can be more prepared than that. If worksheets are your thing – this nursery is not for you.
I was genuinely quite emotional on leaving this nursery – this is the best example I have seen in London’s schools of giving childhood back to children. Leanne and James should be mightily proud of themselves. And to top it off, Ofsted rated the Wimbledon nursery ‘Outstanding’ in all areas (Fulham and Chiswick are yet to be rated). This is a total triumph of a nursery.