How did we do it?

The idea for Forest Tots came about in a cafe garden back in September 2011. I was sat with Hen sipping a hot chocolate and watching three of our children playing cooperatively in a sand pit together. The sun was out and for once nobody was fighting!

Suddenly she announced "I've always thought about setting up an outdoor playgroup". Time stood still, and a lot of thoughts ran through my head very very fast. I knew that if I came clean about my own dream we would be in for months of hard work. Or I could keep quiet and everything would remain a dream. So I said "yeah me too" and the rest is history!!

We started meeting a couple of weeks later with a grand total of three families and kept the group really small for the rest of the Autumn term. It was an invaluable settling in period which allowed us to get to know the site, consolidate our ethos and spend many many evenings writing policies! We opened properly in January, and numbers have been increasing slowly ever since.

As Forest Tots gets better known, we are forever getting e-mails and Facebook enquiries asking us how we set about starting Forest Tots. In the last month we have answered four of these e-mails! So to save me time and energy I thought I'd pop it up for all to see. So here we are...the Forest Tots Top Tips for setting up an outdoor playgroup!

Find a friend to share the work with.
At times setting up the group has been time consuming. There have been long evenings pondering website wording, drafting grant applications and compiling safety policies. Having a good friend on board means you can both share the work load...and have fun whilst doing it. I had been pondering the idea of an outdoor playgroup for the best part of 5 years, but the ideas never got out the ground until there were three of us to spur each other on!

Find a site to run from.
It doesn't need to be big or particularly wild. We have an area of 'woodland' about the size of a large garden. In fact historically it was a small arboretum owned by the Forestry commission, so most the trees are non native.

The central part of our site in the snow.

We are very lucky to have both a stream and gravel bottomed pond to play in, but this in not essential. The most used land features of our Forest Garden are the stream and pond, the slopes (for climbing, sliding and rolling) and the trees (for supporting structures such as dens).

The stream.

To further enhance our site we have added things like our permanent den site and the mud kitchen. The very large black pipe belongs to the outdoor centre but our kids do use it occasionally to play in. Being able to leave some bits and pieces in situ will make life easier for you, but again is not essential. We have a small outdoor storage box in which we leave some of our 'toys' and resources. We also leave the mud kitchen set up along with our den.

I suspect that finding a site might be the hardest bit of the project for many new groups. We are in the grounds of an outdoor education centre, other places to try might be the Church (they often have secret parcels of land), large stately homes and estates, the grounds of care homes, or even just very large private gardens.

Public or Private?
It would be possible to run a group such as ours as an invite only group within an existing group of friends. From the outset we knew that we wanted something bigger than this. We wanted the group to become a meeting place for like minded parents. As a result we quickly realised that we would need to get insurance, to advertise and to make sure we can stay solvent (and therefore open!).

The chance to make new friends is an important part of Forest Tots.

If however you have a big enough group of like minded friends there is no reason you could not stay private and save yourself a lot of work!

In today's climate of growing litigation etc we felt more comfortable taking out insurance 'just in case'. We approached three insurance providers for quotes, Morten Michel, The Pre-school learning alliance, and Finance Re-direct, all of whom specialise in insurance for early years setting or community groups. There are no doubt many other out there is you search hard enough. Forest Tots have both public liability insurance and employers liability which enables us to take on (non parent) volunteers to help us. Some insurance firms might ask for certain experience within the team setting up the group, such as Forest Schools qualifications etc.

There has been some costs involved in setting up the group. In particular these were our insurance, some essential equipment (a hot water flask, cups and bowls for serving snacks, a first aid kit, advertising costs, a couple of toys and resources for the kids (buckets and cups for the stream for example) and a few waterproofs to loan to families without).

We were able to get a start up grant from our local Pre-school liaison body The Parent and Toddler Association. Other places to look might be the local (county or district) council who may have pots of money available for starting community groups. There are also lots of grant awarding bodies who may be able to help - your local council should keep a list of these. We also got a princely £280 from Waitrose in their Community Matters

We were extra fortunate in that our landlord has granted us a year rent free to allow us to get the group established. Covering rent from the outset would have made this group much harder to set up. However I do think it would be still possible - but much of the paper work and a big advertising campaign would need to be carried out in the lead up to a grand opening event, with the aim of getting enough people to cover rent from the start.

The Paperwork.
Initially we started out with the bare minimum of paperwork for the group. In fact originally it was just a risk assessment! However we soon learnt that if you are applying for grant money you need the works! So we now have a constitution, a health and safety policy, an equal opportunities policy, a child protection policy and a risk assessment! Many of these are available on line to copy or if you e-mail us and ask really nicely we might send you copies of ours!

We have also developed a welcome pack which we hand out to new families, along with a contact form for them to fill in, including an emergency contact person, and medical and dietary information. The welcome pack includes advice on the correct clothing, a behavioural code and advice on staying safe whilst at Forest Tots.

Whilst all of this paperwork took us quite a bit of time to compile, now it's done we shouldn't have to do anything more than amend and review these policies periodically.

Our constitution formalises us as a community group and we now meet at least once a term at a committee meeting (in the pub!) to decide on matters affecting the group, such as finding funding, what we want to spend the funding on, the future direction of the group etc.

We were very lucky that the three of us setting up the group (Hen, Debbie and I) had a very clear idea what our group was setting out to achieve and we all agreed on what this should be. In short we wanted our group to -

Be open to all local families with pre-school aged kids
Be largely free from 'toys'
Provide a place to meet others who love being outdoors
Become a place to share ideas and inspiration to get outdoors with a young family
To focus largely on 'free play' in the outdoors, with little structure or interference from adults to disrupt the children's ideas.
Be safe and yet provide a place for children to learn to take appropriate risks risks.
To run 'whatever the weather'. Some of our most memorable sessions have been in snow and extreme cold!

Your group might be entirely different with a completely different ethos and feeling! There are outdoor groups that run from suburban gardens and are much more like a classic toddler group...but outdoors. Searching the web and reading some of the blogs listed in the main blog sidebar should be a good starting point for inspiration and ideas. Pinterest is also a great place to search for and share inspiration.

Structured or Unstructured?
During the last  six months we have tried both structured sessions (with activities laid on and story time etc) and unstructured (where the kids get a completely free reign to play as they want).

Left to their own devises most kids end up in the stream!

 In general we now favour free play, however when it is very cold we offer more activities, mainly to keep the kids out the stream for as long as possible!

Making bird feeders to try and keep the
kids out the stream in cold weather!

Staying Solvent

Hen and I have spent many hours researching other groups on line. It seems there are three basic models to stay solvent...

  • Free sessions for families, funded by grants
  • Low cost sessions (£2-£3 approx per family) for families, run voluntarily with a high level of 'community' involvement (parents are expected to help out by tea making, bringing snacks etc)
  • More expensive sessions (£5 upwards to £10 in some cases per family), often commercially run with paid leaders etc.

We are in the second group - we charge £1 per person (babies under 1 are free) and aim to cover costs (rent, insurance, snacks, materials for activities). Some weeks we fail, others we make a tiny surplus. Hopefully over the course of a year this will all work out!

I don't believe there is a financially right way to run a group, it will mostly depend on where the group is, how much local families can afford or whether the leadership committee think they can apply for enough grant funding to keep afloat!

The great British weather!
Forest Tots is an entirely outdoor toddler group. And that means that we do meet in the rain/snow/fog etc etc. An important part of our group is trying to persuade other families that the 'great outdoors' is still 'great' even when the weather isn't!

We have some children's waterproofs to loan out to families that don't have any, along with a small selection of wellies and warm bits. We may purchase some adult sized kit in the future.

If your group is also intending to be all weather you might want to think about providing shelter of some sort. Maybe something as simple as a tarp between two trees, a tent, or some more permanent shelter.

We are really enjoying to having a campfire at each session, as it provides both physical and social warmth! Filling warm snacks and hot drinks also help to combat that cold damp feeling!

In conclusion
The first six months of setting up and running Forest Tots have been quite full on at times and the learning curve has been steep enough to need an ice axe to climb it! There have been long evenings sat round the computer drafting grant applications and discussing website text. There have been major frustrations at times, many many phone calls made whilst trying to keep toddlers quiet in the back ground and an awful lot of house work didn't get done because we have been too busy!

it has been amazing fun as well. The Forest Tots committee members have become better closer friends, and I for one have adapted the way I parent to include everyday outdoor play, as a result of the research we have read on the Internet and am now seeing real positive benefits in my own kids. The long evenings at the computer were massively improved with generous helpings of chocolate and much laughter amongst friends!

On top of this every Friday I get all warm and fuzzy feeling inside as I watch children from 10 plus families from all around this area come together to share something really special. We have made, and are always making more, new friends as a result of setting up our group.

Would we do it again even knowing all we do now?

YES YES and YES!!!