Squirrels is a program for four to six year old children operated by The Scout Association in the United Kingdom which was launched in September 2021 following pilot trials since 2019. A group of Squirrels is called a Drey which is run locally by a Scout Group. After reaching the age of six, a Squirrel can move on to Beavers.
The only aspects of the Squirrels program that resemble scouts is the neckerchiefs and award badges and most aspects are modelled to suit the participants’ young ages such as a simple promise, short sessions, early finishing times and teaching moral lessons through indirect means.
The Northern Ireland Squirrel Association was an independently organised association that operated as a feeder organisation for some Scout Groups in Northern Ireland from the late 1990s. Like the Little Brothers and Beavers in Northern Ireland before them, the Squirrel Association provided a model for the Scout Association’s later programs for younger and younger children.
From 2019, the Scout Association piloted a program nationally, initially under the name Hedgehogs, as a way to increase participation, opportunities for volunteers, and initially targeted black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. In choosing a name for the section, an official report cited children’s TV show Hey Duggee as an influence and referred to Brownsea Island (where Robert Baden-Powell‘s initial scouting experiment took place in 1907) as having a thriving colony of red squirrels.Girlguiding‘s Rainbow Guides have accepted members from age 5, (4 in Northern Ireland) since 1987 and reduced their entrance age to four in October 2021.
The pilot trials included programmes led by parents, schools and other early years settings and by the Scout Association itself. They were considered successful in reaching areas of the population previously underserved by Scouting and 60% had no previous involvement in Scouts before the pilot. The impact of the Coronavirus pandemic reportedly affected the decision to make the pilots an official part of the provision in September 2021 as the youngest had been hardest hit by lockdowns affecting their ability to discover and play as normal leading to a loss of confidence and increased anxiety in the communities the Scout Association was targeting with the Early Years childhood program.
The program was launched for younger participants on 9 September, 2021, with particular emphasis on the existing Scout Association appeal for volunteers, #GoodForYou. the Scout Association’s Chief ScoutBear Grylls and CEO Matt Hyde made appearances on television outlets to promote the launch. Dreys which were part of the Northern Ireland Squirrel Association will be merged into local Scout Groups. At launch, the rollout focused on reaching children in more deprived areas and particularly places which were felt to have been more affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.