Update: Since this review was written, FRUK has received its Ofsted accreditation. It will be opening as a forest kindergarten in January 2016 – email email@example.com to register.
The practical info
Children aged three to five can be dropped off for a forest adventure that might include den building, mini-beast-hunting, foraging, wildlife spotting, singing and free play (tots aged two to three can attend with a parent). The idea is that the organisation will run as a 'forest school' or outdoor nursery, but until it gets its Ofsted regulation it's running morning and afternoon sessions on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays only.
You're welcome to book for single sessions but after a taster, block bookings of six to ten sessions are recommended. The autumn 2015 term runs Sept 3-Dec 18 (half-term Oct 26-30), Tue, Thur & Fri 10am-noon & 1pm-3pm.
Meet at South Millfields Park, near the basketball court, in the dog-free enclosure, by the fallen tree. Healthy drinks and snacks are provided.
My toddler son and I have chosen one of the coldest days of the year to try out Free Range Urban Kids, a new outdoor play session in Hackney. The appeal of a park-based playtime is clear, from immersing yourself in nature with activities like den building and foraging, to the touted benefits of strengthening kids' immune systems and providing some fun exercise.
My concerns about some of the more practical issues (What if it rains? What about pottying? And hand washing?) turn out to be mispalced, as everything is organised and planned for. (There is a tarpaulin and tree cover for rain, and if there is a situation of high winds which could lead to falling branches, back-up plans include the library or museums; there is an outdoor potty area behind a windbreaker; and a thermos of hot water for handwashing.)
If you're used to kids' classes like the stay-and-plays at children's centres (great though they are), then the professional standard of teaching here will be a pleasant surprise. Henry and Yvette, who led the session we tried out, are qualified primary school teachers, and it shows in their gentle engagement and patience with the children.
Initially, my little boy is perplexed by the lack of toys, but soon warms up to looking for mushrooms growing on trees and playing a game of hide-and-seek that does double duty by teaching kids to stay in contact if they happen to wander off. Ultimately though, we are defeated by the penetrating cold and a lack of suitable outdoor clothing. But that's ok, as Hayley and the staff operate a gentle, child-led policy – if children are uncomfortable to begin with, there is no pressure to push through for the sake of it. They understand that kids will be more receptive if allowed to go at their own pace, and that is borne out in the happily playing youngsters on the day who have had the benefit of several weeks' forest school experience.
Forest schools are a rapidly growing concern, with London centres including the North London Forest School Nursery, Highgate's Into the Woods, Wimbledon's Little Forest Folk and The Woodland Nursery in Greenwich.
FRUK co-founder Hayley Mitchell and her Danish business partner Lizzie Hassay were familiar with the concept, which is common in Germany and Scandinavia. 'I really wanted it for my son,' explains Hayley. Her now three-year-old 'felt hemmed in' during indoor play sessions, 'where there are so many toys to fight over. Here there is enough space for the children to have their own boundaries.' She set up the organisation based on 'a mother's intuition – you know they are happiest when they are in the park,' and has seen a positive progression in her little one since he has been attending the sessions.
It takes six to ten weeks to start to see the benefits of an outdoor education, so after an initial trial session, it is recommened to sign up for a course. The children in the class I attended, mostly junior veterans of the park system, certainly seemed at ease with the whole experience and were enjoying themselves immensely.
The week before, they had helped the park rangers to plant a row of trees. It's heartening to think of the pride they are bound to feel as they watch the seedlings grow with the seasons. If you do decide to join them, it's one of the more adventurous and worthwhile activities you could sign up for – just don't forget the snow boots.