Little Forest Folk is London’s first full-time forest nursery, opened with the aim of creating a world in which children are inspired by nature to live a simple and naturally healthy lifestyle, breaking away from screen or plastic toy-based playtime to improve physical and mental health.
From 9am to 4pm, five days a week and 51 weeks a year, children and staff at the five Little Forest Folk nurseries in the capital spend their days outdoors whatever the weather. Children climb trees, run on uneven ground, dig holes, search for insects, laugh, talk and collaborate while learning compassion for the world and respect for nature and each other. The nursery believes ‘teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable for the child as the caterpillar’, and promotes play in a way that is dedicated to promoting health and well-being for all children and staff.
The fitness levels of children at the nursery improve within weeks of joining. They have more stamina and higher fitness and become physically stronger with better co-ordination skills. Their gross motor skills are enhanced by their jumping, balancing and den-building, while their fine motor skills are practised when they take tweezers out to go minibeast-hunting, or thread string around sticks to do arts and crafts. Their health improves due to both the levels of physical activity and the time spent in the fresh air.
The nursery cares for several children with behavioural issues, SEN requirements and low levels of physical fitness and co-ordination, all of whom have benefited from the access to an outdoor learning environment.
The nursery monitors all children’s sense of well-being regularly, using the Leuven scale, and reflects daily with the children on their time in the forest. All Little Forest Folk staff schedule ten minutes of mindfulness and meditation into their daily routine with the children to enhance their own well-being while modelling to the children, and to reinforce and sustain good mental health.
One parent says, ‘Little Forest Folk answered our prayers. What really excites me is how my kids’ brains will develop differently as a result of this experience. It will really shape who they will become.’
Families at Little Forest Folk regularly report their children are independent, confident, motivated, resilient, compassionate and empathetic. The five settings aim to provide not only an environment for children to grow and thrive now, but also building blocks for self-awareness and an understanding of the world which will allow them to focus on the importance of a healthy lifestyle throughout their lives.
A parent comments, ‘I am just over the moon that we have this brilliant opportunity right here on our doorsteps. I only wish they had LFF for grown-ups too – I’d sign up!’
Joint winner - London Borough of Newham, Outdoors and Active
In response to the high levels of child obesity across the borough, Outdoors and Active was a council-funded project aimed at promoting a better understanding of the importance of physicality in the developing child in order to improve health and well-being. The project explored high-quality physicality, how to plan for it and what outdoor spaces can offer to make practitioners, parents and children more active and aware of the wide range of outdoor resources available in Newham.
Participants including childminders and their Early Education practitioners (formerly childminder co-ordinators), practitioners from PVI settings and Foundation Stage teachers from schools undertook a programme of activities such as workshops, visits to one another’s settings and to local parks, as well as an eight-month action research assignment, led by Julie Mountain and in consultation with Jan White.
Using Ms White’s core text Every Child A Mover, the roles of the practitioner and parent were highlighted as key components of the successful development of a child’s physicality and love of the outdoors.
Early Education practitioners supported childminders to come together in small groups and explore the parks and recreational spaces Newham has to offer. Childminders were supported in trying the risk benefit approach to help children build their confidence in their physicality and to trust their own judgements. Using the trees, shrubs, park furniture and play equipment, children were able to explore all aspects of their physicality, including strength, resilience, stamina, agility, flexibility and co-ordination, as well as using their sixth sense, proprioception, to navigate obstacles and one another.
The use of an action research paradigm helped to capture outcomes and monitor improvements and changes in a targeted way to enhance reflective practice. Outcomes were observed on an individual setting and a sector-level basis. Data showed there was a 55 per cent increase in physically active play, a 62 per cent increase in the use of existing resources and 42 per cent more activity deemed as involving physicality and joyfulness.
As a result of the project, legacy materials were produced which have generated interest from two other London boroughs and one council in the North of England. Project leaders will work with Tower Hamlets and Greenwich to share and disseminate outcomes, a short book has been produced outlining the project and providing guidance on carrying out a small action research project, and Nursery World featured a four-part series on the project, written by Ms Mountain.
One childminder commented that the project has had an impact on the language she uses, that she now spends more time setting up opportunities in the outdoor space, and has developed her mud kitchen with the children.
A practitioner reported that being involved in the project has made her and her team realise that children need to be outside whatever the weather. She added that children are calmer, more focused and able to concentrate for longer periods of time, and there is now less illness and more imaginative play going on.
Dandelion Education, ‘Feel well, Think well, Learn well’, Norfolk
Dandelion was founded by two former teachers with 35 collective years’ experience in state education, who felt the system was failing to nurture a love of learning and feared for the emotional and mental well-being of children.
They decided to set up Dandelion, founded on the belief that if children feel well emotionally, they will think well, and therefore learn well.
The main focus is to develop emotional literacy and aid mental well-being in young children, principally through the use of Philosophy 4 Children. As a Forest School, Dandelion has been selected by the local authority as a setting demonstrating best practice for physical development, and will feature in a case study to be shared across Norfolk.
Bertram Nursery Group, Physical Development Stars Network
George Perkins Day Nursery, Building Healthy Lives, Birmingham
Open to early years settings, services and projects that have worked to improve the physical health and/or emotional well-being of children, families and staff