Ever wondered what it takes to manage a setting awarded Preschool of the Year?
Luckily, we know someone who does. Julie White runs Nature to Nurture in Liverpool, recently voted as the best preschool in the whole of the UK. Her outdoor nursery is truly revolutionary, and her personal journey incredibly inspiring.
We talk about how she went from running a nursery with the smallest yard space in Merseyside, to running a forest school with no indoor building space whatsoever.
Start at the very beginning…
“10 years ago, I used to manage a setting which had the smallest yard space in Merseyside,” Julie tells me, over the phone from her house in that very same county today. “There was no grass, no greenery, and on every side was a terraced house,” Julie explains. It wasn’t exactly the best environment for young children to be developing in.
As luck would have it, Julie was able to use her university course to make a real change. “We went continual indoor/outdoor. With two rooms feeding directly onto the outdoor space, we could let all the children spend more time outside”. With regular day trips out to the local forest and a huge change in focus, they saw a real difference.
“We measured the children’s well-being using the Leuven Wellbeing Scale. They moved from a two to a five just because of the deep level learning that was going on in this new outdoor space.” Julie explains. Not only did they improve the lives of these children, but they were awarded Highly Commended at the annual Nursery World Awards. And Julie knew she was onto something.
A bump in the road
But it wasn’t plain sailing. Not long after that, Julie had to take a long period off from the nursery. With Degenerative Osteoarthritis in her hip taking her mobility away, she needed to have an urgent hip replacement.
“What that time off did for me was slow me right down. It was the best thing that could possibly have happened to me, that hip replacement,” says Julie. She started taking regular walks in the local forest and, over a few months, all the work she’d done before started to click into place.
She took her mother out with her on occasion, showing her around the forest that was becoming a huge part of her daily life. “I’m going to work in this forest one day mum,” she said.
Just the beginning
This is when Julie came up with the concept of Nature to Nurture. “I would use nature to nurture people’s wellbeing, and ultimately, that’s what I started off doing,” Julie explains. From birthday parties and family sessions to begin with, she moved into parent and toddler sessions which was when her vision for what would become Nature to Nurture really started to take place.
“We didn’t have a building, we didn’t have any indoor space or anything. I really wondered if Ofsted would go for it, but they did, and that’s when Nature to Nurture really began.”
Fridays just weren’t working
Even from the beginning, Julie and her team were struck with a pretty standard problem for nurseries of every size.
“We really found that the need just wasn’t there and so I thought, why not look for another way to use those sessions?” Julie tells me. They saw it as an opportunity to run different types of sessions, school groups, training for other settings, and her all-important parent and toddler sessions.
“For us, those parents and toddler sessions are crucial. Because parents who are interested but aren’t quite ready to commit to full joining up can try it out. They just need a bit of persuasion.” Julie explains. It certainly seems to work for Julie, with almost every parent who comes to these sessions choosing to sign up full-time.
The Nature to Nurture philosophy
From here, Julie was convinced that they needed to be more than just another ordinary outdoor provision. “I made a point of being more than just an outdoor nursery that played in the forest,” she says. Forest Bathing, Schumann Resonance, the concept of Flow – day to day life and planning at the nursery is informed by countless hours of research and education by Julie and her team.
“I’m going to prove that the outdoors is the most optimal environment for early years children,” Julie announces. And there are plans afoot. In conjunction with Hope University, they’re setting out to establish how the outdoors is affecting social relationships, physical development and cortisol levels in children. Julie is pretty sure that she already knows the answer…
Why Forest Schools make a difference
“When you strip it all back to basics, the benefits really start to speak for themselves,” Julie explains. “We don’t use any resources, we just use what’s in the forest around the children. That helps children to become free thinkers and creative with their ideas.” Without an iPad in sight, Julie thinks that the instant gratification is removed and children learn to think differently avoiding the behaviour that comes with boredom for many young children.
“We are not doing well at looking after the wellbeing of children in this country. I think that’s why there’s such a big push for forest schooling. It reduces behavioural problems, SEN is reduced, children are happy and staff are happier. I think that’s where the big push comes from.”
Running such an ambitious nursery…
“It’s taken me 14 months to get myself out of the day to day running of the nursery,” Julie explains,“I know that I can’t run the business, be in it and still try and push it forward – it’ll just be static.”
This is certainly a brave move, but Julie understands that for the nursery to succeed, it needs to be able to succeed without her. That way, she’s able to look down from a different perspective and really make the changes that matter.
Running a childcare business in the current climate is no easy feat for any provider either. “The introduction of the 30 hours has been difficult at Nature to Nurture, because like elsewhere the money is just dreadful,” Julie tells me. But surprisingly, running a setting like hers does have some advantages when it comes to the finances.
The overheads for a forest school provision are actually relatively low. No electricity, no gas, or expensive resources mean that Jule can invest money back into the things she knows will make a difference to the lives of children. Health and safety support, HR support, and wellbeing support for all the children help to make it a truly extraordinary environment for young minds to develop, and at their own pace too.
And the EYFS?
If you’ve ever wondered how these outdoor nurseries manage to comply with the EYFS, then you’re not alone. But like everything else at this groundbreaking nursery, Julie and her team find creative approaches to make it work for them.
“We implement the EYFS very creatively, all based around the natural environment. We leave phonics and things like that until the very last term when we know that their physical development is ready to handle more complex mental challenges. If you get them ready physically, everything will fall into place.”
They bring parents in to help contribute to the technology side of the EYFS, as they have no computers onsite, and they’re even developing a special environmental framework that interweaves the EYFS, Fundamental British Values and a number of interconnecting eco-themes. “Our children are going to be looking after our planet long into the future,” Julie explains, “and they are going to need to be responsible citizens. That’s why having an environmentally sustainable development approach is important to us too.”
Rewarding hard work
In 2017, all this good work was recognised, when Nature to Nurture was awarded Pre-School of the year at the Nursery World Awards. “That award I got that night, it was very very emotional,” Julie says, “it was validation for me that I was on the right path.”
The judges said that Nature to Nurture ‘stood out with its clear vision of pedagogy’ and was a ‘wonderful practice’. So does Julie have any plans to take it indoors anytime soon?
“Don’t get me wrong, there are some days when it’s brutal in the winter when it’s cold and it’s been raining all day. But the children tend to just crack on with it, and so do we. I suppose every job in the world has its good days or its bad days, but now when I’m in the office I find it very draining, I always leave with a headache. I would never go back to working inside again.”
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