By Gina Lanaux

I am in the middle of 6 acres of beautiful woods, with Red Gully Creek meandering through the property. There are lots of little children here, climbing, digging, building, and playing while teachers ask questions to foster creativity. 

One of them tells me to watch out for the bears as there are a lot of them hibernating. I followed the fantasy until I almost stepped on a tiny bear hiding in the leaves. He was made from a toilet paper roll and strategically placed in a shelter made of twigs. “ What’s your bear's name?” I ask the little boy. “Tiger, “ he says. OK! 

This is Nature Connect School in Montrose, Alabama, owned and operated by the visionary, Brinkley Hutchings. With a degree in environmental science from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, she worked for a nonprofit with projects nationwide. 

While in Boulder, Colorado, she visited a nature school and immediately saw the importance of the work the school was doing, getting children away from screens and into the great outdoors. She went to Northern California to work at nature schools and studied their philosophy and mission. Nature schools are very common in California and Brinkley knew she needed to bring the concept to the Southeast. 

Her first Nature Connect School was created in 2016 in Wilmington, NC. It took a year to get it established and now it has a team of directors, teachers, and apprentices working with 100 families. As owner, she stays very involved and goes up frequently to visit the families and support the team. 

In 2017, she came home to the Eastern Shore to start her second location. Beginning with a one-week summer camp, she had 12 kids signed up. “ Half of them were my cousins.” she joked. Presently, she has 30 summer camp sessions with 500 children participating. In the school itself, she has 100 school families enrolled and a team staff of 10. Wow! 

The school campus is on the Church of the Apostles property in Montrose. A beautiful old barn has been converted into a classroom space. It looks like a regular school classroom, complete with colorful learning tools. The difference is there are open doors and windows. 

Outside the barn, outdoor classrooms are under the trees, and chickens and rabbits are in their coops. The children care for the animals as part of their learning experience. It is a really beautiful place; hard to believe Highway 98 is so close by. 

To date, Brinkley has two preschool (age 3-5) classes and one kindergarten class. The school follows state standards with all the same academics as a traditional school but with the added nature-based education. There is a Homeschool enrichment program for children ages 6-12 and Forest Families for parents and children 0-5. 

Her teachers have educational backgrounds and certifications and are trained in naturalist knowledge. The mission is to help children become dedicated leaders and environmental stewards in their communities by developing a deep appreciation for each other and the natural world. Brinkley says “Who is going to preserve the land and keep the air and water clean if children don’t have a connection to the outdoors?”

Nature programs include exploring outdoors, animal tracking, nature & sensory awareness, storytelling, local plant and animal study, primitive skills & crafts, and lots of fun and play. I would say it is a “Nurture” school as well as a Nature School.

The day I visited, the children were building forts and shelters from flora found in the woods. Their problem-solving and creativity skills were being fine-tuned. One group had created a sculpture that was a vessel for fighting space invaders. Another girl had made an alien out of a piece of wood, the face made with berries and sweet gum balls applied with clay from the creek. 

Other boys were making a bridge across the creek, working together with negotiation and strategy; Life skills in action. Every child I saw was happy, engaged, and excited about learning. Brinkley tells me that because there is so much physical activity exploring nature, the students aren't restless or fidgety when doing academic work. 

Their focus and concentration are improved. She also is proud to say that many of the children are over-prepared for first grade which definitely shows that nature-based education works. “ My dream has come true,” she says, with a sincere, radiant smile. 

Most of our readers who grew up without cell phones and computers happily remember playing outside in the natural world; the forts we built, the clay we dug, the bugs we caught, and the magic we created. It made us who we are and taught us to love and respect ourselves and nature. This is so important for healthy development, physical, emotional, and spiritual. 

Thank you, Brinkley Hutchings, for bringing this amazing school to the Scenic 98 Coastal Area. If I could go back in time, I would want to be an alumnus of Nature Connect School. 

To learn more and schedule a tour, visit The website will tell you everything you need to know and more about the program. Enrollment for school and summer camps opens in February.

Jan 17, 2024
Community Endeavors

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