Hackney People: Hayley Mitchell

Co-founder of Hackney's first outdoor nursery talks urban living, mud pies and the great outdoors

HAYLEY Mitchell, co-founder of Hackney’s first outdoor nursery, is making a mud pie. Around her, toddlers in full waterproofs are building dens, poking leaves with sticks and clambering across a fallen tree. It looks like a quintessentially rural scene. In fact, we are in Millfields Park, just a few yards away from the busy Chatsworth Road. 

“These are urban kids and this is only our second term,” says Hayley. “So it’s amazing to see the progress they’ve made. Initially, even the concept of getting muddy hands or walking on uneven terrain was a new sensory experience for some of them. One child refused to get out of the buggy at first, now he throws on his waterproofs and doesn’t look back.”

Founded last November, Free Range Urban Kids accepts children aged two to five and runs on Forest School principles, meaning the children are outdoors all the time, in all seasons, rain or shine. 

Fortunately, the site includes a small strip of woodland where the children are naturally sheltered from rain and wind. Tarpaulins are also strung between trees to cover specific areas where children can play musical instruments, make natural art with mud and leaves, or slurp warm drinks and homemade soup at snack and story time. 

“We plan activities for every session,” explains Hayley. Adding: “They respond to the season and environment. We’ve been learning lots about mushrooms recently, so the kids know they don’t just come from the supermarket. By week four, though, the kids were saying, ‘we want to build dens today! We want to climb trees!’

“It’s great when they want to take the lead. The increase in their confidence, calmness and creativity has been a real highlight.”

The sessions are run by a qualified primary school teacher and Forest School practitioner who are supported by a team of three. Currently, they welcome 12 children per two hour session. 

However, since 95 per cent of the children who have taken part in a trial session have subsequently signed up for a full term, Hayley and her co-founder Elizabeth Hassay plan to expand, offering full time childcare, five days a week, as soon as their Ofsted registration is complete.

“There are around 15,000 families with under fives in Hackney,” says Hayley. “City life is so exciting for kids, but they are also bombarded with noise and adverts… it can be overstimulating. 

“It’s great to get away for a couple of hours but not everyone knows about the extraordinary green spaces in Hackney. I’ve lived here for 15 years. But it wasn’t till I was pregnant with my son, who’s now three, that I started exploring and found Hackney Marshes, the Lee Valley, Wick Woodland, the filter beds… A dazzling range of biodiversity and it’s all on our doorstep.”

Wanting their own children to enjoy these natural resources, Elizabeth and Hayley began exploring the possibility of an outdoor nursery for Hackney’s under fives in 2013. 

She says: “We were blown away by the support. We worked with the Council to secure the site and they were really supportive. I did my Forest School training here in the borough and Hackney schools are really embracing the Forest School ethos.

“It’s been a wonderful start,” she says, smiling. “Soon, we’ll be opening full-time, and then we would love to find funding for low-income families. Inclusivity is central to Forest School’s principles. We have big plans.”