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Unique on-farm nursery allows babies and toddlers to learn about the countryside

Husband and wife team Steph and Mark Pybus are creating unique experiences to nurture and educate babies and toddlers about the rich diversity present in their countryside. 


Growing up on a farm is an experience like no other. Whether farming with a newborn or part of a busy rabble, many will remember childhood memories against the backdrop of a farm with huge fondness and nostalgia.


Wishing to replicate this for the next generation is Steph and Mark Pybus, of Crabtree Hall, near Bedale, North Yorkshire, who have established what they believe is the UK’s first farm school nursery – not a forest school or a traditional nursery, but a unique concept in early years childcare.


Steph began to dream of creating her nursery in 2012. A mother of six, textile designer and farmer’s wife, she wanted a nursery that offered her children the same healthy, outdoor lifestyle they led at home.


Unable to find this nearby, she sold her textiles business and set about creating the farm school against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Dales. Her vision was the classic rural idyll.


“I wanted to create a world in which children were free to roam fields, groom ponies, feed sheep, collect eggs, dabble in ponds, climb over logs and hitch a ride home for lunch in a tractor,” she says. “A world of good old-fashioned fresh air, exercise and quite a lot of mud.”



She established Mini Explorers in 2012 with four children – two of her own and two of a friend’s – and seven carers.


“When Mini Explorers opened, there weren’t many nurseries doing outdoor education,” she adds.


“People were suspicious about how you could be outdoor and play-led and still prepare children for school.


“At the beginning it was slow, but it grew rapidly. We soon added a baby room called Hoppity Hares, and last September we expanded again with a dedicated pre-walkers baby room, Baby Bunnies. All our children are given daily opportunities to explore the farm and the countryside around us, and learn about food production, animal welfare and farming.


“There’s something special about having a small child who is confident about walking up to an animal and treating it with kindness and empathy.


“Last week, we took 24 pre-school children out to see lambs being born. You could hear a pin drop as they watched the mothers lick them dry.”


The nursery is situated on a 105-hectare (260-acre) working arable farm and within this, the children’s world comprises animals, machinery, paddocks and polytunnels, ponds and fields.


“We believe in the importance of exposing children to the natural world, to grow their confidence, further their understanding of the world, assist in their cognitive and physical development, and improve health and well-being,” adds Steph.


“Many of our activities are child-led. If our babies are enjoying watching a combine harvester cut corn, or our toddlers want to stop and turn a fallen tree into a spaceship, then this is what we’ll do.


“The benefits of outdoor learning are many. It’s been shown to increase self-esteem, confidence and emotional intelligence. This has a positive impact on a child’s ability to concentrate and learn, which is important for our ‘soon-to-be-at-big-school’ pre-schoolers.”


Mark can often be found striding out across the fields, closely followed by a group of toddlers.

“He introduces the children to all aspects of his work, from ploughing and crop rotation to drilling and harvesting,” Steph adds.


“And then there are the tractors and the big, noisy farm machines.


Who doesn’t like a big blue tractor?”


For Mark, whose family have farmed locally for 450 years, the nursery is about helping nurture farming and the countryside for years to come.


“It’s important to me we hand on our knowledge and expertise to the next generation, and teach them to love and care for the countryside. I like to think we’re setting children off on their educational journey in the best way possible,” he says.


As well as learning about arable crops and animals, the children grow their own fruit, vegetables and herbs in the polytunnels and the nursery gardens.


“This is hands on and very muddy,” Steph says. “The children love the growing process, from planting, watering and propagating, to harvesting, cooking and eating.”


Interacting with animals is another key part of the experience, and the couple have ponies, sheep, goats, fish, rabbits, chickens, alpacas, guinea pigs, dogs, bearded dragons and hamsters.


“They are transfixed by new life coming onto the farm,” adds Steph.


“There’s lambing in spring, egg-hatching in summer, and the odd baby boom when we miss-sex our hamsters. The benefits of children interacting with animals from an early age are well documented.”


When it comes to health, safety and hygiene, there is no cutting corners, as Steph explains.


“Farms are working environments and all our outdoor activities are overseen by trained childcare practitioners and specialist teachers.


“We encourage exploration, but there will always be someone to step in when safety’s at risk.


“Animal interaction is always closely supervised, and only the most docile of characters take up residence on the farm. All our childcare practitioners are fully paediatric first-aid trained, and hand washing and cleanliness after animal handling and outdoor activity is part of our daily routine.


“We link all our learning to the national EYFS framework, but at the heart of our nursery’s ethos is the belief young children benefit in ways that are almost immeasurable from carefree fun and adventure in the great outdoors.”

Creating the right environment


THE Pybuses have converted stables to provide a series of separate areas:


  • Baby Bunnies (0-2 years) has a sensory focus and Hoppity Hares (0-2 pre-walkers) has a nursery gym to encourage babies to develop gross motor skills. Dream coracles allow them to crawl inside for a sleep, and a sheltered baby garden enables outdoor access.
  • The Dalmatian Room (2-3 years) evolves to reflect the seasons and the interests of the toddlers. There is a reading corner, role play areas, a ‘messy materials’ water table and even resident bearded dragons.
  • The Labrador Room (pre-school 3 years plus) is a stimulating environment designed to prepare children for life beyond nursery. Pre-schoolers can re-live their farmyard adventures and dream up new ones through role play, messy play, investigation, construction and more. Resources are placed on open shelves to allow children independent access. A snug with a hearth and cushions accommodates story time, music and group activities.
  • Outdoors, the veranda offers a sheltered outdoor space. The orchard features a sandpit, grassland, apple trees and rabbits. The paddock includes kitchen gardens and polytunnels, rare-breed chickens and a mud kitchen. The children also have access to 105ha (260 acres) of farmland and a menagerie of animals including sheep, alpacas, ponies and goats.

Leanring advantages

THE children’s learning is linked to the national Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework.


Steph says: “A huge amount of what our children take away from the farm isn’t found in any classroom curriculum. Our carers and child-development specialists are always finding new and creative ways to align the opportunities available on the farm with key areas of learning identified by EYFS guidelines.”


  • Communication and language: “A walk is a chance to interpret and imitate noises on the farm, from birdsong and animal calls, to buckets clattering, wind whistling and leaves whispering.”
  • Physical development: “The farm offers endless opportunities to develop fine and gross motor skills and improve coordination, dexterity, mobility and confidence.They could be racing through fields, throwing and catching leaves, carrying feed and hay, building towers or planting seeds.”
  • Personal, social and emotional development: “Teamwork is important, whether we’re taking turns to brush a pony or gathering apples to bake with. The children learn to remain calm and quiet around animals - a great skill which helps them develop self-control, compassion and behavioural awareness.”
  • Literacy: “We practice mark-making with sticks in the mud, drawing up plans for model-making in the sandpit or going on a letter hunt around the farm. During quiet time, we share story books and songs, or make up our own.”
  • Maths: “We work maths into activities, from filling buckets of apples to learn about capacity, to weighing out animal feed or guessing the depth of a puddle. Lining up pea pods to compare length and estimate how many peas are inside is a living, breathing maths lesson.”
  • Understanding the world:
  • “Watching the life-cycle of crops, vegetables and animals gives meaning to the concepts of time and development. Discovering a natural wonder like a spider’s web or a brightly coloured leaf leads the children to ask questions and engage in the world around them.”
  • Expressive arts and design:
  • “Squishing blackberries and painting with the juices, acting out a nativity play in the hay barn, singing and dancing in the rain, creating musical instruments from old material on the farm; we’re never short of inspiration.”
  • Creative thinking: “From working out how to keep the sheep in the paddock to deciding which animals to feed next, creative and lateral thinking are essential farm skills. Resilience and positivity is ingrained in our children. If your first seeds don’t germinate, have another go.”
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