An outdoor nursery that’s thrown the health and safety rule book out of the window has receiving an ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted.
The nursery meets in a remote forest and has no running water or electricity, employing a back-to-nature approach to childcare.
The Elves and Fairies Woodland Nursery is seen by some as an antidote to so-called ‘cotton-wool’ culture.
The Dorset nursery adheres to the ethos of learning through nature.
Children aged as young as two get to grips with the great outdoors, clambering over trees, rolling around in the mud, sawing wood, chopping vegetables and cooking lunch on an open fire.
The group spend all day outside in the elements, with the pre-school adopting the motto ‘there is no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothing’.
In extreme and dangerous weather conditions, such as a gale, the children and adults will retreat to the nearby village hall.Owner Kirsteen Freer started the nursery in 2007 but it has only been fully outdoors for last six years.
She has five other members of staff look after up to a maximum of 12 children at a time.
An average day in the woods will see children sing camp songs around a campfire, build shelters, take part in nature crafts, splash in puddles and help chop vegetables for their lunch.
Maths often involves using collected sticks for counting and doing simple fractions while the children do leaf and bark rubbing for art. They also learn through copying rhyming patterns and identifying letters on signs.
If it rains the youngsters will be decked out in wellies, waterproof clothing and hats, and there are open-sided shelters to offer some protection from the elements.
They will generally be outside all day, even for a nap, and as well as growing their own herbs and vegetables, the children take part in creative pursuits like weaving and bread making.
Ofsted inspectors, who recently visited the nursery which is based in the grounds of Edmondsham House in the hamlet of Edmondsham, noted the children immersed themselves in learning by engaging with the natural woodland environment.
Mrs Freer, 57, said: ‘We believe that the closer to nature the children are the happier they will be and the more they will learn.
‘I grew up going on camping holidays, for walks and picnics and so did my children but I became aware there were quite a lot of children who didn’t have those experiences.
‘Many children are out of touch with the natural world as their lives mainly take place inside, surrounded by modern technology.
‘Our hope is that they will grow into teenagers and adults that aren’t easily bored and that appreciate what’s around them.
‘We only provide children with very simple things to play with and mainly they use what they find in the woods.
‘There’s steep banks and fallen trees for them to climb, we do leaf and bark rubbings, they spot things on our walks.
‘We also teach them lots of life skills that help them become really independent, even as young as two.
‘Parents are sometimes concerned their children won’t learn literacy and numeracy as well, but through the things we do they learn all the things needed for school.
‘When we collect sticks for the fire they count and measure them, in the food preparation they learn about shapes and length and count things like how many pieces of carrot they have.
‘Nurseries have got better at providing outdoor learning but there are not many that are outside all day.
‘The idea came from Scandanavia, outdoor nurseries are quite common there.’
The nursery, which costs £37.50 for a full day, is also cheaper than many of its indoor counterparts.
In rating it ‘outstanding’ the Ofsted inspectors said: ‘Children are highly motivated by the extremely exciting range of challenging learning experiences that staff provide.
‘They become immersed in learning as they explore, investigate and engage with the natural environment of the woodland.’
It praised the quality of teaching as ‘inspirational’ and said staff have an ‘outstanding knowledge of how to engage with children to support and challenge their learning’ and exceptionally high safety standards.
The report also said the children showed extremely high levels of confidence and independence and their ‘physical health and development benefit greatly from the vast range of opportunities to learn in the open air’.