Highway Farm and Little Explorers Outdoor Pre-School

29 October 2014 · 7 comments

in Developing School Grounds & Outdoor Spaces, Early Years Outdoors, Outdoor Play, Technologies

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Do you ever visit a place and the moment you arrive, a tingle of excitement runs down your spine? This happened to me at Highway Farm. Every tree planted, every stake hammered into the ground and every feature created  is part of the never-ending story of how this remarkable setting has grown and evolved over the years. 

Highway teen shelter

The fire pit for the older children. It’s their space.

Highway Farm was established in 2006 by Martin Besford and his business partner Jane Neill. They bought the 1.5 acre site and built up an outdoor activity centre offering residential and day activities. It was essentially an open windswept field. Over the years, the focus has changed in line with the interests of Martin and Jane. They began a holiday club which developed the playwork and the recognition that children being actively involved in creating and shaping the cultural as well as physical landscape was highly empowering for all. From this, an after school club grew and over time, the residential and outdoor adventure aspects of the centre became steadily more play-focused. Indeed, most of the staff have a play work as well as an early years qualification.

Highway children structure

The Look Out! Made by the primary school children

Four years ago, Martin watched a YouTube video of a Norwegian Outdoor Nursery. When he saw this, he knew immediately that Highway Farm had the capacity to develop outdoor pre-school provision. By this time, he was married to an Early Years teacher and they had two young children of their own.

Highway Construction Site

The construction site! Dig in, around and between the tyres.

Starting up an outdoor pre-school is no small feat. Even in this day and age, where the concept of outdoor nurseries is widely-known, it is the early years equivalent of being a plumber who comes into your house and immediately turns the water on at high pressure to find out where the weak points are in the system. The reason is simple. Our inspectorate systems are designed to measure, assess and advise on indoor places. Transferring regulations outside requires a level of flexibility, adaptability and creativity which can test even the nicest inspector’s ability to interpret and apply in an outdoor context.

Highway Fire

The pre-school campfire is in its own wee fenced off space. When the gate is closed, no access allowed. Children can visit every day.

The other challenge is confronting myths about learning. Outdoor play still suffers from the perception that children are “running around” rather than learning, which certainly is not the situation here. The Little Explorers Outdoor Pre-School has yet to have its first full-blown Ofsted Inspection and how the place will be perceived is an unknown quantity. However, in the 5 hours I spent there, it was a pleasure to witness children who were highly engaged and clearly learning through their play, interested in the world around them and physically up for lots of climbing, pulling, running, balancing and other active play. It was a happy and productive place. The centre offers a balance of free play and focused learning activities. The children were keen to participate in the adult-led activities, not least down to the positive and respectful relationships the staff had developed with the children.

Highway train

An impromptu train is leaving for the seaside!

The set up at Highway Farm is quite unique.  It reflects the interests, generosity and enthusiasm of the children, staff, parents and wider community involved in the daily, seasonal and annual activities. Indeed, the holiday club is continuing to extend its age-range as the older children – now 15yr olds – keep wanting to come back year-on-year.

The legacy of outdoor adventurous activities can be seen in various ways. Aside from a fleet of canoes near the entrance, there’s an archery shed and team building-type features dotted around the site. Overlayering the traditional outdoor pursuits are lots of structures which clearly have been built by the children, for the children, reminiscent of an adventure playground. Then to top it all off, there are creative and beautiful finishing touches, such as the gateways, the new pre-school shed being built and so much more. As with many enchanting places, it is the continuous, long-term attention to detail that seems to set it apart from the run-of-the-mill settings.

Highway primary space

A snapshot of the after-school and holiday club outdoor space

The site is small but feels much larger owning to how the space has been divided up. At the entrance is the official designated building with running water, flush toilets and other facilities required by any nursery. The children gather here in the morning and late afternoon. Outwith these times they are outside playing on-site.

The largest area is mainly used by the primary and older children during the after-school and holiday clubs and their high level of ownership is reflected in touches such as the laying down of a pipe – a self-imposed digging limit in the mud area.

Highway Mud

The children didn’t want to dig into the mud kitchen and archery area

On Friday mornings, a parent and toddler club runs out of another fenced off-area of the grounds. This is a popular community group and many children move on to the Little Explorers nursery when they reach the age of 3. Close by is a community growing area. Jane and Martin realised that many parents wanted to garden with their children but lacked the time, space or capacity to do so.

Highway parent garden

Small raised beds are easier to manage by families. This used to be a huge bean tipi last year!

The outdoor pre-school has its own entrance and separate space. It is a rabbit-warren of paths, shelters, miniature gardens and playspaces. At child-level it seems huge! Talking of rabbits, there are a couple in a roomy hut and lots of hens safely penned up in a large run.

Highway hen house

A five-star hen house

One blog post does not do this pre-school justice. Over the forthcoming months I will be blogging about different aspects of their provision – mainly to do with the physical features as I loved the stories, creativity and attention to detail around their development.  Martin has been a guest blogger on Kierna Corr’s Learning for Life blog earlier this year. This is worth a read as it gives you an extra flavour of this healthy, happy, creative centre where learning happens outside, everyday, all-year round through play-based experiences .

Highway Sandpit

The sandpit is situated beside the construction site, near to water and the “Bear’s Lair” shack.

Many thanks to Jane, Martin and all the staff and children at Little Explorers. I felt genuinely welcomed by all.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Lesley October 29, 2014 at 10:53

Thank you for sharing your visit. Highway Farm has such a wonderful story that keeps building each day. Martin and his team are such an inspiration.


Juliet Robertson October 29, 2014 at 11:07

Hi Lesley – This blog post really only skims the surface. I hope further posts will articulate further what Little Explorers and Highway Farm are all about.


Lesley October 29, 2014 at 11:29

Really looking forward to each new post! Thank you.


Kierna October 29, 2014 at 18:05

oh thank you so much for this post, I can’t wait to visit & see it for myself but in the meantime this post & the future ones will help me imagine I have been!


Juliet Robertson October 29, 2014 at 20:28

I think you would really enjoy the place – it’s very unique.


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