LONDON – In the heart of north London lies the ancient Queens Wood, a green forest hidden away in a metropolis of more than 8 million residents. The sounds of the city seem to fade away as a group of children plays in a mud kitchen, pretending to prepare food and saw wood.
These aren't toddlers on a play date — it's an unusual outdoor nursery school, the first of its kind in London, following a trend in Scandinavia, Germany and Scotland. It allows local children to learn, and let their imagination run free, completely surrounded by nature.
"I knew it would be a really great environment for him and great for him to have focused time outdoors with teachers who are trained in forest school ideology." said Zoe Slotover, as she dropped off her 2-year-old son Hector.
The "Into the Woods" nursery was opened in April by primary school teacher Emma Shaw for children from two-and-a-half to five years in age. She said the natural environment works wonders.
"Children learn through movement and from doing things," she said. "So everything is practical and hands on outside, so the learning comes a lot more naturally as we don't have to set up opportunities for them to problem solve and risk take because they are all here and they can set their own challenges, which boosts their self-esteem."
Each morning a group of children gather at the Queens Wood camp, which the nursery team prepares each morning before the children arrive. A circle of logs provides a place to gather for snacks, stories and songs. The mud kitchen provides an opportunity to make a proper mess and have a sensory experience, a rope swing provides some excitement and a challenge, and several tents are set up for naps and washing up.
In a clearing in the woods, a fallen tree trunk can be transformed by imagination into a rocket train, calling at the beach and the moon, with leaves for tickets.
A 2-year-old, Matilda, finds a stick — but in her mind it's not a stick. It's a wand. She says she is a magic fairy who can fly. Then suddenly the stick has become a drum stick, and a gnarled tree stump her drum. She taps away contentedly, the rhythm all her own.
Experts call this "child-led learning" — the child finds an object, uses creativity to explore the world, imagination in full flight. The children, who wear fluorescent reflective vests, are encouraged to use items they find in the woods like leaves, conkers and sticks to count and draw.
Forest schools are increasing in popularity in the United Kingdom, with many schools offering short courses for children to spend time outdoors, building dens, climbing trees and exploring.
University of Reading Professor Helen Bilton, who advocates more outdoor play, said the benefits are clear.
"In terms of health it is to do with exercise, and things like that, but in terms of education it is to do with cognitive development, linguistic development, social, emotional," she said. "It covers the lot."