Little Forest Folk operates out of a leased wooded area in Wimbledon – it now has 109 children on its books and a waiting list of 170 families.
The social enterprise is planning to open two more nurseries - Chiswick on 11 April, and Wandsworth, soon after. Both the staff and children will be fully mobile, visiting different outdoor areas everyday, including Royal Botanical Kew Gardens, Chiswick House and Gardens, and Gunnersbury Common.
Little Forest Folk's founder Leanna Barrett said, ‘My husband and I set up the nursery because we both grew up in the countryside playing outside, and from six months we would see our daughter Ella crawling to the door to get out. Obviously we were terrified, but it’s just been a phenomenon. The gamble has worked as we now have 170 families on our waiting list.'
‘We decided the new settings should be nomadic as the children most enjoy going on adventures in the wider Wimbledon reserve. So we will take all our gear with us; tepee, toilet tent and resources and go to a different green space everyday.
‘My dream would be to revolutionise early education in the UK. Our children are incredibly creative and resourceful, and they don’t get bored. They can make a game up from a couple of sticks. They are only restricted by their minds not their environment. It is much more collaborative and social, even the two-year-olds bounce ideas off each other.
‘Parents are blown away when they come to see the nursery, saying it’s so beautiful. But I always say it’s not rocket science, it’s just children playing outside and our role is resisting the urge to direct and overstimulate them.’
Little Forest Folk's expansion has been made possible by winning the Big Venture Challenge 2015. The scheme is run by social investors UnLtd, an organisation which supports social entrepreneurs.
Ms Barrett added, ‘They have helped us find investors, and with legal advice and marketing. They’ve been mentors to us and we couldn’t have done it without them. We are a social enterprise - from the beginning we wanted children from lower income backgrounds to benefit too. So profits from childcare from 85 per cent of the children go towards free places for 15 per cent of the children.’
The rise of forest school
Other outdoor nurseries in London include The Woodland Nursery in Blackheath, set up by two childminders and graded Outstanding by Ofsted, and Into The Woods Nursery in Highgate, which has been running since 2013.
The profile of forest schooling is also on the rise with The Kindergarten’s recent expansion. The nursery group has opened three new nurseries since October - Mouse House Kindergarten in SW6, Pooh Corner Holland Park W14 and Pooh Corner Kensington W8 - taking its number to 14.
The group has a dedicated forest school co-ordinator and over-threes travel to Wimbledon Common by bus once a week for a whole day of outdoor activities. The under-threes go to their local park or common.
Founder Carol Evelegh said, ‘Every single child adores it. The children don’t notice the cold, they are rolling down the hills, feeling the mud with their wellies. We very much follow the interests of the children and in fact many children who indoors may be more shy and reserved, outside become much more confident. Their problem-solving skills come out, how are we going to get across this big puddle, how will we lift this log?
‘Just the questions they ask are amazing, you can see being outside brings the children’s curiosity alive.’