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