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The founder of an outdoor nursery in London praised by Sir David Attenborough for reconnecting children with nature, has revealed her plans to open a chain of outdoor nurseries in the capital.
Little Forest Folk in Wimbledon, was opened in January 2015 by Leanna and James Barrett, who were concerned that children particularly in cities are living an increasingly sedentary and indoor lifestyle.
Ms Barrett says: “We now live locally in Raynes Park but spent our childhoods in carefree outdoor environments. It was the sort of time when you could leave the house after breakfast and not return until it was nearly dark, and only then because you were hungry!
“We met in the Kalahari desert in Botswana whilst living under canvas and managing a safari lodge and are now parents ourselves. We are saddened by the lack of opportunities for young kids to be outdoors playing freely in the fresh air and decided to do something about it. We want to give children the opportunity for a direct and regular avenue to nature and the joy of unrestrained childhood.”
Little Forest Folk in Wimbledon, South West London close to Fishponds Wood Nature Reserve, which offers childcare for children aged two to five years old, has proved to be very popular.
In just under a year, the nursery has gone from 10 children to being almost full by September with 120 children and an extensive waiting list,
With this early success, the pair now hope to take over Chiswick Children's Centre which is under threat of closure, and turn that into an outdoor nursery. They plan to open more outdoor nurseries in the capital from as early as next year.
Sir David Attenborough
Earlier this year, the nursery even received a letter of support from TV presenter and conservationist, Sir David Attenborough who said: "Dear Leanna, I am delighted to know that your Little Forest Folk nursery is proving such a success. Congratulations! I have no doubt whatsoever that the children when they look back in later life, will realise how valuable and important their time with you has been."
He added: “The wild world is becoming so remote to children that they miss out – and an interest in the natural world doesn’t grow as it should. Nobody is going to protect the natural world unless they understand it.”
The registered nursery premises is the 19th Wimbledon Scout Hut, while the outdoor setting is located within Fishponds Wood Nature Reserve which contains an eight meter geodesic dome for shelter where children can play and learn within nature. The setting is a secure, woodland meadow with grassland, woods and marshes with a range of wildlife including rabbits, squirrels, moles, frogs, birds and insects.
“Our nursery is child-led and play-based so with activities often being left up to the children’s imaginations we can have some incredibly inspired games. We have resources that we use every day such as the mud kitchen, rope play, tree climbing, exploring the forest, bug hunts, arts and crafts.
“We obviously have access to the usual nursery areas such as a book corner (ours is a tent), we have an ‘imagination tree’ where incredible role play happens. We have a ‘swamp’ where there is a lot of dinosaur action and often take advantage of using our technology based items such as cameras for nature walks and recordable devices to create forest treasure hunts,” says Ms Barrett.
Speaking about the cost of running the nursery, she says: “We have limited domestic costs but it’s important to us to offer a magical and inspirational play-based learning experience for our children. Due to this we operate on a ratio of 1:4 children for all age groups and tend to hire more experienced staff than would be present in a conventional nursery so in fact our costs due to our staffing requirements are significantly higher than other nurseries. Sadly this outweighs the savings in domestic costs but is worth it for the experience we offer.”
“We want to provide a well-rounded learning experience so obviously have to buy some resources, but we constantly work to keep them within the framework of our ethos of play in the natural world.
“We use tree slices instead of plastic bricks for example and have chalk tree stumps for drawing on in addition to just paper. We make sure we always cover the seven areas of learning (and more). When we do feel the need to buy a resource to extend learning that we cannot find a way to do using forest materials, we try to keep it as natural as possible – such as our soon to be introduced beautiful outdoor wooden robot.
’The wild world is becoming so remote to children that they miss out’
“It’s incredibly hard work with challenging logistics and is an expensive way to run a nursery, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling and so worthwhile to see the sheer joy the children experience when they play outdoors all day and how much learning happens without them even realising it.”
Activities at Little Forest Folk are tailored around the outdoor space, where children are encouraged to be active and explore and although almost entirely based outdoors, the children are suitable dressed to ensure they are protected against the elements.
Ms Barrett added: “In the event that the children were uncomfortable in the rain or any other type of weather, we do have a nine metre geodesic dome that the children can use for shelter but they generally prefer to continue to play outdoors. They are far less bothered by bad weather than adults. We often put tarps up high in the treeline on really wet days so the children can continue their play without interruption.”
The nursery offers carefully planned meals, prepared by Leanna Barrett, who is a trained chef – in her home featuring locally and seasonally sourced ingredients, without hidden sugars and salt often found in processed meals and snacks.
One in three children are obese or overweight when they leave school
Recent reports have highlighted the need for a change in attitudes towards both education, nutrition and exercise with current figures suggesting one in three children are obese or overweight when they leave school. While it was reported recently that children aged three to five who had no access to gardens to play in were more than two-fifths more likely to be overweight or obese by the age of seven.
Ms Barrett is extremely passionate about children living an active and outdoors lifestyle where they also eat homemade and unprocessed healthy food.
She says: “I don’t however judge parents as I know every parent is doing the best they can for their child. We are lucky to live in a world where we have easy access to research and news, which can help us understand the best ways to bring up, feed and educate our children. All we can do then as parents is do our best to make that happen. I’m as guilty as the next mum of the occasional fish finger dinner but am trying my best.
“I don’t think you can pin the current child obesity problem down to any one factor. It’s a combination of factors that sadly all accumulate to create a difficult environment in which for children to thrive.
“There are many factors that are sadly combining to create a very sedentary and indoors lifestyle for children which along with a tendency for both adults and children these days to eat more processed food is creating a lifestyle which is sadly very conducive to obesity problems.”
“We are busier parents than ever with many families having both parents working, we live in an age where technology is convenient and ever present with its temptations, due to constant news stories that are made available to us, many parents are concerned with stranger danger so have curtailed their children’s access to unsupervised play.”