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A mum has revealed she drives 44 miles a day so her son Jake can attend the Nature Nursery at Marwell Zoo, where the day includes visiting the tigers, learning about snow leopards and exploring the South Downs.
The nursery attracted a high level of interest when it opened in September last year, with 38 children starting on the first day and 140 people applying for 12 jobs.
Marwell Zoo Nursery was set up by Alex Shepherd, a qualified Montessori teacher, and Ben Walliman, a primary school teacher, and is the fourth in the chain of Kids Love Nature nurseries.
They set up the nurseries as they said: “No one really knows what the children of today will need to thrive in the future. Our world is advancing more rapidly than ever before - technologically, economically, and socially - so who's to say that the jobs our children are being prepared for will even be around when they're old enough to do them.”
Aim to make every day 'extraordinary'
Consequently, they feel that an “evolved, integrated approach to early years is needed to make the best of the future for everyone” with their mission “to make every day extraordinary for as many children” as they can.
All four of the nurseries use an approach based on Montessori, Forest School, and Reggio Emilia philosophies.
This ethos for children to interact more closely with nature, take risks and learn independence, is increasingly popular with parents and has led to Sam Baddams changing her mindset on nurseries.
Up till now, she has kept her children at home until they started school. But when she found out about the Marwell zoo nursery, she enrolled Jake, saying: “I want my children to enjoy playing in the rain! None of this, ‘Oh it's raining we best stay in’. The whole of our world’s nature is there for enjoying and exploring. As this was the only nursery offering teaching about the world around us, rather than being stuck in a classroom, we decided that even though it's a 22 mile round trip (I do that twice a session once for drop off and once for pick up) it was worth it!”
The nursery is situated next to the penguin and giraffe enclosures within Marwell Zoo. The nursery has two classrooms, an art studio as well as a nature room and a music room. There is also more than an acre of outdoor play area with a sandpit, pond, vegetable garden, water play area and mud kitchen.
Twice daily, groups of children head into the zoo for mini-zoologist sessions where they learn all about the animals, their habitats and the importance of the conservation projects undertaken by Marwell Wildlife.
They also take part in Nature School sessions in the nearby forest involving den building, mini-beast hunting and making fires.
Mr Shepherd reveals that the “parents were very excited when the Marwell Nursery opened. The local community has a real love of Marwell as it is more than just a wildlife park.
“At Marwell Zoo, we pay for their education officer to work with the children every day. She has an MA in zoology and does 20 hours with the children a week. They are learning about the conservation work that Marwell does. We also take the children out on the South Downs so they are also experiencing native habitats.”
Took three years to set up nursery
Setting up the zoo nursery was a lengthy process, which took three years and lots of meetings.
“We approached the zoo and suggested the idea of having a nursery in the zoo. Initially we met the board at the zoo and explained our vision, what we thought the early years experience should be and how important the first years are. They were so supportive of what we are trying to achieve and wanted a collaborative approach.”
Marwell Zoo runs educational programmes for schools so Kids Love Nature have integrated the zoo’s health and safety policy into their own. “We are heavily risk assessed but we don’t believe it should stop us doing anything,” says Mr Shepherd.
“This is such a unique experience for children to have. The children were so excited on their first day at the nursery. They were saying ‘my nursery has a tiger’. They have settled in beautifully. We find the animals they see feature in their artwork and play. We have an art room influenced by Reggio where they can collaborate on large scale art.
“The inside of the nursery is just as important to us as the outside. Our furniture is handmade, we have indoor plants and it is beautiful and spacious.
“Their day could be about learning, about the snow leopard or sliding down a muddy bank or baking bread. We are all about being child-led.”
A baby hippo was born at the zoo recently and the children have been fascinated by it. The giraffes are also very popular as their enclosure has been constructed in such a way that the children are able to get very close to them.
Seeing tigers and hippos has become 'their normal life'
“The best thing,” said Mr Shepherd, “is seeing how excited the children are to be there. It is incredible that this has become their normal life as they develop a love of nature and conservation. The children just love being there.”
Mr Shepherd who has been working in the early years since he was 22, also runs three Montessori schools with his wife Helen.
He and Ben Walliman set up their first Nature Nursery in Avon Heath, Dorset, in 2012. It was the first UK nursery to be situated in a country park and partners with the countryside rangers, who work with the children for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon during ‘Explorer Sessions’.
They also run a Nature Nursery in Swanage which is on the Jurassic coast with a panoramic view of the sea as well as one in Lymington set in woodland with its own farm.
Marwell Zoo Nursery hasn’t been inspected by Ofsted yet, but the other three have been rated Outstanding
“Each of our nurseries have large outdoor spaces and we also have beautiful classrooms with big creative spaces inside as well.
“The big difference with our nurseries is that they aren’t just doing forest school once a week. They are doing it every day.”
Offering children these kind of early years experiences is crucial, according to Mr Shepherd.
His view is supported by Tim Gill, an expert in child play, who says: “Climbing a tree – working out how to start, testing for strength, feeling how the breeze in your face also sways the branches underfoot, glimpsing the changing vista through the leaves, dreaming about being king or queen of the jungle, shouting to your friends below once you’ve got as high as you dare – is an immersive, 360-degree experience that virtual or indoor settings simply cannot compare with.”
It is vital children experience the natural world
For Mr Shepherd, the message is clear, “we need to make sure children are getting the chance to experience the natural world. We need to offer them the opportunity to climb trees, build dens, and learn the names of the many birds, flowers, trees and bugs that they spot during their adventures.
“We need to give them time to gaze at the clouds, and feel the sun, the rain and the wind on their faces. It is these experiences that will enable children to solve problems, take appropriate risks, learn about the importance of taking care of the environment, and to enjoy the sense of peace that comes from connecting to the natural world.”
You can find out more about Kids Love Nature nurseries at www.kidslovenature.co.uk/