Little Foxes Forest School is an outdoor nursery in a beautiful forest setting just a ten minute drive from central Bristol and catering for children aged 2.5 – 4 years old. Janie is one of the co-founders of the nursery. Janie has a background as a primary school teacher and has always had a passion for outdoor learning, being Head of Outdoor Learning in a previous teaching position. When Janie’s own children were young, she took them to a ‘wonderful local forest playgroup’ which was run by mother and daughter team, Lizzie and Julie, who are also co-founders of Little Foxes. It was at this time that Janie heard about a preschool in London that spent the whole day outdoors. Janie and Lizzie were inspired by this and in July 2017 the pair met to discuss the prospect of doing something similar and within three months the nursery was up and running, oversubscribed and with a waiting list. This popularity meant that they had to rapidly expand, they now have sixteen members of staff and cater for eighty families each week at the nursery.
Janie recognises the great importance of children being able to spend time outdoors, having noticed ‘the joy it brings children and the impact it has on behaviour’ Janie describes how their setting has ‘really low conflict issues at the preschool. We notice, if we have to go indoors due to adverse weather, the conflict resolution incidences go up’. The effect of being outside means that ‘children are really calm, they have loads of space, able to pootle around in their own area. of the woods, playing and engaged’. The freedom and space that is offered children at Little Foxes enable children to be themselves ‘the setting lends itself to the boisterous child, if they want to spend their time running around, stick in hand, shouting, go for it, because we’ve got the whole woods. There are rules about keeping sticks below the knees, but children learn that very quickly and off they go.’ Janie explains that these children don’t have behavioural issues ‘they’re young, they just need that space to move, to explore and play and more often than not by the time it’s time to go to school they’ve calmed and are ready for that’. Janie strongly believes that being outside makes children ‘happy and healthier’.
Little Foxes embrace outdoor learning and all that comes with it, the positive effect on everyone’s mental health and how children’s physical health is strengthened from being outside ‘our children are physically incredibly healthy, we do an inordinate amount of walking and also the very nature of our set up facilitates the need for greater resilience and independence. We really encourage an ethos of independence and because they are out in all weathers, thick and thin, they are so resilient!’
Little Foxes believe that the health benefits of spending time outside are huge and have stayed open throughout the pandemic ‘We think outside is better, whether there is a pandemic or not. It’s proven that the virus is less transmissible outdoors. We have been open throughout; I think our parents had faith in us’. As a result of covid, adaptations have had to be made, with the large cohort being split into three bubbles and using different areas of the woods, but Little Foxes have remained positive ‘I actually prefer it, the staff found they were having greater interactions with the children. We have changed the food, instead of the food being cooked on the fire every day which took staff out, we have a food coordinator who brings the food in. But we still have cooking weeks every six weeks where they still have a whole week of cooking on the fires and doing it themselves. It works really well.’
Janie’s enthusiasm for life outdoors is inspirational and she is keen to encourage others to do the same ‘I feel parents should be outdoors with their children all of the time’. Her advice to parents who are keen to get outside with their children is to invest in the suitable clothing ‘Get the right kit’ parents pay a registration fee when enrolling their children at Little Foxes and as part of that receive a set of ‘finest Scandinavian waterproof outerwear because without that and if children aren’t safe and warm and content, they can’t have fun in the woods. So, we would strongly urge anyone thinking about getting outdoors to invest in a good pair of thermal wellies, some high quality, full length waterproofs and that is the key to unlocking it really, then the world is your oyster. They can go from having a walk where you’re feeling anxious about puddles and mud to having a walk where the children can really be free to have fun and that’s liberating for grown ups as well.’. Janie also suggests that people should be aware of the old adage that ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing’ and following on from this Janie suggests people should just get outside as ‘the weather often looks worse through a window’.
It is clear that Little Foxes runs really well and Janie’s top tips would be to get organised ‘one of the biggest boundaries to traditional settings getting outdoors is that transition, getting them in all of their clobber, so perhaps ask parents to bring them already clobbered up. Just get some systems in place to make it worth your while and don’t be afraid to go out for long periods of time. Embrace it for longer periods and make the most of it.’.
Janie has many fond memories of Little Foxes nursery including a time after a heavy snowfall when ‘we had the most magical day, a day where planning goes out of the window, we packed buttons and carrots and the sledges and just had the most beautiful morning with our children, sledging and making snowmen. Other things that make me really happy for Little Foxes is that we do a wonderful sports day every year on the meadow. We do welly wanging, hat bag, baby race, running races. It’s just a wonderful annual event where we get everyone together outdoors for a celebration. The children make their own medals, we get some hazel and a bow saw and the children saw their own discs, thread them and stamp them with the fox, which makes it all the more special. At the end of the day they are all presented with the medal that they have sawn themselves with the bow saw.’
It is clear that Janie has found her dream vocation, her love for all things outside is so obvious and she exudes enthusiasm when describing how much the children benefit from being outside ‘the awe and wonder they have over the smallest of things. Seeing them explore using all of their sense, being able to really explore, having a great time and they were playing, but learning so much. It’s the magic it brings. We are so lucky to live here with such distinct season, the magic never ends. The wonder and magic of it all, especially with children of this age.’ The pandemic has done nothing to curb Janie’s enthusiasm ‘With all of this pandemic and doom and gloom, it’s an absolute delight to be able to go to work and spend time with these children who are so happy and carefree’.