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No walls, no classrooms: London's first forest nursery school lets kids learn in the woods

In this photo taken Tuesday, July 8, 2014, children play at the "Into the Woods" outdoor children's nursery in Queen's Wood, in the Highgate area of north 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. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

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.

The children attending the London school wear fluorescent reflective vests and are encouraged to use items they find in the woods like leaves, seeds and sticks to count and draw. The children will go out in most weather, except for high winds.

"In very cold weather the children will be dressed up warmly and remain active," the nursery's website says. "We do have the option of going indoors, with plenty of space to play and learn. But yes, mostly we will be outdoors."

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."

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