School under the sky

By Allison Marlow
Posted 8/7/20

As the first day of school looms, parents across the U.S. have debated and searched for alternatives to cramped classrooms and bustling hallways in an effort to avoid contracting the …

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School under the sky

Students at Nature Connect, in Daphne, spend all day outside.
Students at Nature Connect, in Daphne, spend all day outside.
Submitted Photo
Posted

As the first day of school looms, parents across the U.S. have debated and searched for alternatives to cramped classrooms and bustling hallways in an effort to avoid contracting the coronavirus.

In Baldwin County, the most recent tally shows 7,000 students have transferred into the Baldwin County Virtual School, an option that keeps students home and out of public buildings.

There is a third option: no walls. No desks. No buildings at all.

So-called forest schools have popped up around the nation in recent years, offering a school day that is spent in woods, streams and beaches.

Three years ago, Nature Connect opened its doors in Fairhope. The tiny preschool program was built as a vehicle to pry children from screens and return them to the outdoors.

“I just really felt it was important to provide a way to get them outside and enjoy the place where we live,” said Nature Connect Director Brinkley Hutchings. “That’s what childhood is all about, swimming in the bay and making mud pies.”

Now the project that was Hutchings’ dream has become a saving grace for hundreds of Baldwin County parents. Every summer program Nature Connect offered this year was fully booked and the staff is expanding and adding kindergarten classes, and homeschool and after school programs.

“We really didn’t realize we were well suited for a pandemic, but here we are and people are saying they are not ready to send their children back to school. We are doing our best to provide a creative solution,” Hutchings said. “Now more people are really thinking about how they want to school their children and where they spend their day.”

As a child Hutchings spent her summers exploring the creeks and woods that weave through Josephine and Orange Beach. As an adult, she noticed those magical hidden places were empty and children were inside instead.

After spending a year in the Green Corps, a national field school for environmental organizers, Hutchings worked with different outdoor education programs in Georgia and California where children spent the entire school day outside. She wanted the same opportunity for Baldwin County.

“It’s intuitive for many of us to be outside,” she said. “There are many studies that show time spent in nature increases attention span, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving skills, self-esteem, resilience. It really is important to grow up outdoors.”

At Nature Connect class is outdoors in the woods and creek behind the Church of the Apostles in Fairhope. All curriculum – reading, writing, math – is taught outdoors and often uses nature as a tool to drive lessons home.

The curriculum is sometimes fueled by what the children find in the woods that day.

“Especially in preschool there is a lot of creative play. If they see a log and want to build a salamander home in the creek then we collect salamanders,” Hutchings said. “If a turtle appears during class, that becomes the lesson.”

Hutchings said the pandemic presents an opportunity for communities to come together and support children.

“Instead of thinking about cutting recess and moving desks why not think about increasing outdoor time and help build outdoor spaces for schools? We live in such a beautiful place and have a wonderful community. This would be a positive shift for our families and children,” she said.