Hidden deep in Nowton Park is Redwoods Forest Preschool – Suffolk's first fully outdoor preschool
If you go down to the woods today, you might not be in for a big surprise.
Because hidden deep in Nowton Park is a rather special preschool – although you could struggle to find it.
The only clue to Redwoods Forest Preschool’s location is a carved wooden sign saying ‘forest school’ – and that is just how managing director Christine Oliver prefers it.
Behind that gate is a muddy haven for children. Think Famous Five. Think singing round the campfire. Think good old-fashioned childhood activities, the likes of which are scarcer with every passing year.
Since it opened in 2017, children aged two-and-a-half to five attending Redwoods have been experiencing an ‘outdoor preschool of the highest quality’, according to Ofsted.
It is the brainchild of former childminder Christine. After living on a farm for many years, she was intrigued by the forest school idea and the concept of education in a natural environment.
When a Bury St Edmunds childminding group she was a part of was offered a healthy living grant, she suggested running an outdoors-based toddler group. The grant enabled her to undertake forest school training and to run the group for two years.
“As a result of that group, I got this idea to make it into an Ofsted registered setting,” said Christine.
Keen to provide a preschool with an abundance of hands-on experiences and opportunities to explore the natural world, Christine needed to find a suitable location.
Luckily, Christine had developed good relationships with Nowton Park’s rangers while running the toddler group. When she told them about her preschool dream and the search for a piece of land which could be fenced off, they told her ‘there’s this area which might be suitable’.
“It had been left to become overgrown, but I could see the potential,” said Christine.
Now, that little corner of Nowton Park houses a teepee, trails, campfire, outdoor toilet facilities and plenty of natural learning opportunities.
Redwoods is Suffolk’s first fully outdoor preschool, based on the premise nature is the best classroom.
Most sessions involve an adventure out in Nowton Park, while base camp is a secure space where ‘children can relax’. A campfire is lit there, used not only for warmth but for preparing healthy snacks.
Activities are planned around individual needs and interests, while during every session there is circle time, with singing, story and a chat.
And what are the benefits for youngsters?
“We are in a fantastic location. We have woods, meadows, a maze, lakes, wildlife and more,” said Christine.
“There is a lot of excelling in learning here. There are no restrictions in movement. Children’s physical development is off the chart. It builds independence, confidence... and then we have got that resource – the natural resource – which we all had as children but unfortunately less so these days, with children living and learning in confined spaces.”
Sensory experiences are available at every turn, with children in control and able to ‘do all the things that are natural for them’.
“ I am a firm believer that this is a good way for children to thrive,” said Christine.
One of the striking things about Redwoods is how calm and peaceful it feels, unlike the noise and bustle you might expect at a preschool. This could be particularly beneficial for children with sensory issues, said Christine.
“We have had children with autism and we have found that some children need to get away from each other, they need somewhere there isn’t too much noise or sound. Nursery can be too much for some children. Here, it is really calm,” she said.
“If a child is having a bad day they will take themselves off. Nature is a good healer. Nature helps them to be themselves.
“We live in an over-stimulating society. Taking children out where there is none of that is almost like when we have some quiet time as an adult to recharge our batteries.”
Like other preschools, Redwoods follows the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework set out by Government.
However, unlike some settings it runs much lower ratios of children to staff than the official recommendations, to allow for closer supervision.
There are no conventional toys or props at Redwoods, encouraging children to use whatever they find to stimulate creative play.
“They have to be more creative to do that,” said Christine.
“We are very child-led. If they have an interest we will bring that out. We use tools as well – they get that opportunity to have some responsibility.
“They climb trees. But you will find that it is maybe the children who haven’t been able to climb trees are the ones doing risky things, while the children here have learned to gradually build up.”
Redwoods is ‘quite strict’ with its dress code. But it needs to be.
“If children have their basic needs met they’ll be much happier,” said Christine. “In winter, they have to be wearing thermals.”
They also need to arrive with at least one complete change of clothing, including socks and gloves, as they can get wet and muddy.
At this time of year, children will be wearing a thermal base layer, a long-sleeved top and warm trousers, a fleece jumper, warm hat and snood, waterproof dungarees, waterproof and lined boots and a waterproof and warm coat.
The school endeavours to go ahead whatever the weather, however it does have to abandon an average of two sessions a year, usually due to gale force winds or snow.
“It’s usually because the staff can’t get here due to the roads, and in that situation we would have to cancel,” said Christine.
Meanwhile, plans are in place for a new outdoor winter structure to replace the ageing teepee, with fund-raising and grant applications under way.
The new temporary structure would have a door and two windows, with a log burner to provide a warm and dry space for winter months.
“During winter, children can get a bit cold when they are sitting down for lunch and not running around,” said Christine. “The new winter structure will help them to last the day.”
Suffolk county councillor Karen Soons visited Redwoods for an insight into the forest school, but soon found herself roped into pushing a wheelbarrow around base camp during some creative play.
She said: “Forest schools build resilience and confidence and encourage children to to keep active as they grow up.
“Seeing this is a delight. I’d like to see this model running in other schools. Getting dirty and playing within a natural environment can only be a positive.”
For more information, go to www.suffolkforestpreschool.co.uk
n Redwoods will launch a Forest Fun Club club in January, on Fridays from 4.30pm, for six-12 year-olds. Campfire cooking, play and forest skills will be on offer.
To book, email firstname.lastname@example.org