WildRoots Play: Nature Playgroup Start-up and Advocacy Work

WildRoots Play is a non-profit organization with a mission to create a community where children and families can nurture connections, holistic development, and stewardship of the Earth through immersion in nature and play.  Our programs follow a nature playgroup format, gathering for approximately 3 hours on a regular basis (at least once per week) with children and their caregivers.  We begin our time together by cultivating community through shared singing, dancing, and oral storytelling, and then children are encouraged to engage in child-led play in our natural setting.  Facilitators prepare some aspects of the environment with open-ended materials and play provocations, based on the observed interests and stages of the group.  Children are also able to explore the seasonal rhythms and natural experiences unfolding around them.  Children are given the time and space for a variety of types of play, supporting their holistic growth across developmental domains, all while building a strong connection with nature.  During our time together, caregivers are supported within a village, sharing conversation, learning to step back and observe play, and taking some time for themselves to reconnect with the natural world.

WildRoots Play was founded by Ashley and Anneke, mothers and early childhood professionals who are caring for young children full time at home.  Our individual dreams to begin a nature play program/preschool began long before we met or became parents.  As we shifted into our new roles as mothers, we found ourselves with infants and toddlers during the height of the pandemic, feeling more isolated than we ever could have imagined.  This is when we met, playing in the woods, and we shared our visions for the next few years.  From there, we knew we had to build what we had needed all along, and what our community was missing on a broader scale.  WildRoots Play was born.  We chose to become a non-profit corporation in order to emphasize our mission at the forefront of our work – play and connections to nature to benefit children and our planet both now and in the future.  We believe that children need to play outside and form a bond with nature in order to love it enough to become stewards of the Earth.  We are strong advocates of play and the rights and inherent capabilities of young children.  

Project Overview

A starter set of field guides for our program, purchased secondhand.

WildRoots Play was awarded this Mini Grant for our nature playgroup start-up costs, including advocacy for best practices in our work with families and young children.  Our project goals have encompassed building a digital presence (website and social media) and fulfilling town permitting requirements to operate on our site.  We also chose to utilize a small portion of the grant award for purchase of a second-hand starter set of natural field guides.

Our project goals align with the principle goals of Defending the Early Years (DEY), including grassroots advocacy at our local level for developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood settings.  We view this advocacy as part of our mission, and it’s why we are choosing to step outside of the box of traditional programming for young children.  Instead, our work promotes a kind of early childhood experience that fiercely upholds the value of play and child-led learning. 

After submitting some initial information to the town about our plans, we learned that we needed to get town approval through a permit process in order to operate on the private land we are using for our programs.  This application process includes a fee, as well as supporting documentation regarding our plans and details about our site.

The second major element of our start-up plan has been building our website and social media accounts.  Having a digital presence is important to us because it will ensure a larger audience learns about our programs and can access information about our unique approach, along with supporting research about best practices in the field of early childhood education.  This will be a key piece in our advocacy within the community and beyond.  Starting a website brings with it some initial and annual costs, in the form of purchasing and maintaining the domain names and website building tools.  Social media is free of charge, but we have decided to invest in Canva Pro, which comes with access to marketing and branding tools.  This will enable us to streamline our social media posts and our website style, and ultimately will cost us less to learn to do it ourselves than to hire a marketing professional.

Achievements and Outcomes

We have begun our work on our website, having purchased our domain names and a website building platform through GoDaddy.  This has been an easier process than we anticipated, in terms of the technology, although it is still quite time-consuming to craft the layout and written components in just the right ways.  We will incorporate our session bookings into our site and have it connected to our social media accounts (Instagram and Facebook).  On social media, we will provide bite-sized pieces of research, inspirational quotes, and photos of children engaged in nature play.  We have been using the tools provided through Canva Pro to create a logo and coordinate the style of our website with our social media accounts.  We will be using social media platforms to draw engagement with our website, and as a form of advocacy.  We will be ready to launch our website soon, pending further edits and finalization of some details about our starting dates.

We are in the final stages of preparing our application for the town permit needed to operate on our site.  Once submitted, we will need to wait for approval prior to setting our official launch date.  We had planned to begin our programs in the fall of 2023, but have ultimately had to postpone our opening date until the spring of 2024.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

A portion of our site, with our camping hammocks in place.

We have already learned so much!  Starting our business has been a journey filled with unexpected bumps in the road, and a few detours.  We know that this is all part of the process, and we acknowledge how challenging this can feel at times.  Our biggest challenge so far has been the unanticipated shift we had to make this fall, when we found out that we did in fact need a permit to operate on the private land we are using for our programs.  We had explored this question early on with the town, and received false information at that time.  We believe that there was a misunderstanding about our plans.  We have been learning that forging our own unconventional path forward comes with a lot of advocacy for our vision, since the “nature playgroup” format isn’t something people have much familiarity with yet in our region of the world.  Upon meeting with a town representative and learning what we needed to do in order to use the property, we began the process to secure a permit.  We will be at the mercy of the flow of town operations once we submit all of the necessary paperwork for our application.  Not knowing when we will be able to officially begin WildRoots Play sessions is frustrating, and discouraging.  We want to start sharing what we have been so lovingly and tirelessly working towards.  Now, we have the winter to continue to get things in place, and we are eager to finally open our “doors” in the spring instead.

Next Steps or Future Plans

Our next steps include finishing our permit application and waiting for the town to approve it.  Once this process has been completed, and we are able to officially operate our playgroups, we will set an opening date, launch our website, and begin to advertise within our community.  We have discussed promoting our programs by offering free pop-up nature play sessions at our local libraries or at our site.  We plan to utilize these types of gatherings to advocate for our work and help more families understand the value in nature play.  

Once we have a start date, we will need to reach out to our insurance company and finalize our insurance plan.  This will be a significant upfront cost, something we will need to prioritize budgeting for this winter.  

A few other items on our to-do list are building our mud kitchen and playhouse from recycled pallets, and filling our extra large sand area with sand.  We also have a lot of policies and procedures to complete, including Risk Benefit Analyses for each type of  play children will be encountering at our programs.  This is for insurance purposes.

Acknowledgments and Gratitude

We are both incredibly grateful to DEY for this Mini Grant.  We were overjoyed when we found out that we had been awarded it, as DEY has had such an impact within the field of early childhood education.  We feel so honored to be a part of the important work we are all doing on behalf of young children.  

Since we both have single-income families with a limited budget for starting this business, we knew that we’d need external financial support for reaching our goals.  Our partners fully support our dreams, but the financial aspects of starting a business can be intimidating.  With this grant award, we were able to relieve some of the pressure that our start-up costs have been putting on our personal finances.  We have been able to apply this award to some of the significant fees involved in starting our program.

We sincerely thank your organization for your support.