Edinburgh start-up secures funding to launch chain of outdoor nurseries

An Edinburgh start-up social enterprise has secured £725,000 to launch a chain of outdoor nurseries in Scotland.

Willow Den – a trading subsidiary of Inspiring Scotland – will offer Early Learning Childcare in exclusively outdoor settings for children in Scotland aged 3 to 5 years old. The enterprise will launch its first site in partnership with Spartans Community Football Academy in August with capacity for up to 24 children per day.

The funding package includes £225,000 loan funding from Social Investment Scotland matched by a £225,000 grant from the SIS Growth Challenge, with the remainder comprising patient capital from Willow Den’s founder, Inspiring Scotland, and a pool of private investors.

Willow Den plans to operate across Scotland, including in deprived communities, with ambitions to expand from one nursery this year to eight by 2026, delivering services for up to 200 children and creating 30 new jobs.

The announcement of new nursery places provides a boost to the sector following a difficult year. Research showed that only 50% of nurseries were sure they would re-open after lockdown with one in seven expecting to stay closed. Those capacity issues are further exacerbated by an increase in funded hours of Early Learning and Childcare for 3–4 year-olds.

Although outdoor settings are proven to improve health and educational attainment, growth to date has been slow. There are thirty-one outdoor settings in Scotland compared to two and a half thousand nurseries in total (1.2%).

Willow Den is led by chief exec Deborah Grant who was appointed in late 2020. With 25 years’ experience working in childcare and social enterprise, Deborah is a recognised expert on Early Learning and Childcare, and specifically outdoor learning. Prior to her current role, Deborah was performance advisor for Inspiring Scotland’s Thrive Outdoors program, supporting organisations to develop outdoor learning programs.

Chris Jamieson, head of investments at SIS, said: “Willow Den is launching into an attractive market, with an increase in funded nursery places and a current lack of capacity. This is an exciting opportunity for SIS to support a high growth and high social impact enterprise. Willow Den addresses a range of social needs, the most important being access to good quality nursery education. We believe the enterprise has a genuine opportunity to scale quickly and grow into a national chain, supporting children, families and communities as well as creating new jobs. We’re looking forward to working with Deborah and the team as they pursue their ambitious plans for growth.”

Deborah Grant, chief exec of Willow Den, said: “I’m delighted to be leading Willow Den through an exciting launch period, with a clear aim of creating more opportunities for children to spend quality time outdoors.

“With funded childcare hours doubling from August, and Covid-19 continuing to impact children’s health and wellbeing, there is growing demand for increased access to outdoor nurseries across Scotland. Our aim is to help to meet this demand and support the wider outdoor learning movement to gain traction by increasing the number of outdoor early learning and childcare nurseries across the country.”

Celia Tennant, chief exec of Inspiring Scotland, said: “Our work over the past decade has highlighted the impact of high-quality outdoor play as an essential catalyst for healthy childhood development and a fundamental part of growing up in Scotland.

“However, our experience also uncovered a gap in the availability and provision of high-quality outdoor nurseries in Scotland. Combining our sector experience and entrepreneurial approach, we took the bold decision to create a sustainable business model to address this at scale. We are delighted that Social Investment Scotland are on board to help us and Willow Den achieve our ambition that every child in Scotland has the opportunity to play and learn in the outdoors.”

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