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New forest school has Mother Nature as a teacher

Go outside and play.

Who as a child hadn’t heard that from a parent?

That familiar suggestion may take on a new twist: Go outside and learn.

Learning outdoors is the idea behind the Hawthorn Forest Program, a so-called forest school in Riverhead scheduled to open for classes Sept. 13. Forest schools, in which students are primarily taught outdoors, have roots in Scandinavia going back centuries, said Hawthorn Forest Program founder Keri Minnick.

The program, geared toward children ages 18 to 30 months for a parent-child class, up to age 10, said it’s designed to support play, exploration and risk-taking while outside in the fresh air.

Ms. Minnick, leading a visitor on a tour of the program’s nearly 2 acres of rented property off Sound Avenue, turned off a path and entered a clearing where the trees opened up to form what seemed like a natural amphitheater.

“This is probably one of the most magical places on the property,” she said. “This is a classroom.”

It’s one of five such outdoor classrooms with tree stumps for seats. The area, a former farm, abuts 270 acres of Suffolk County-owned land leading to Long Island Sound, said Ms. Minnick. With nature trails, it’s a peaceful, serene place. All one hears are birds chirping, insects buzzing and that’s about it. A couple of young deer were spotted trotting down a trail Saturday.

“Enchanting” was the word the program’s creative director, Hannah Gray, used to describe the place.

Reconnecting with nature is all part of it, but there’s more to it than that. Proponents say a forest school fosters a new way of thinking and problem-solving for children. The curriculum will connect language, math, science, art, health, music, nutrition, history, life sciences, community, culture and conservation as part of three-hour sessions Mondays through Fridays. Among the crafts advertised are whittling, needlecraft, cooking and bread making.

A barn, which is to undergo renovation, will host art programs and be used during inclement weather. Weeds and scrub brush have been cleared to prepare for the first classes. “There’s not much that you need to improve on nature,” said Ms. Minnick.

Hailey Marzigliano, one of the teachers, said she’s excited about interacting with the students, nature and animals. “I love everything about it,” she said. “It’s so special in my heart, and I can’t wait to see it grow.”

“It’s like a different world when you walk back here and enter this, you know, and then there’s the street and you go back to reality,” she said. “But hopefully this will be the reality one day, you know, that everyone starts to see how wonderful this is.”

Ms. Gray, who lives in Southold and runs her own forest school on Shelter Island, Flora & Fauna, sees great value in Mother Nature as a teacher. She said students “really don’t need much other than what is in nature in order to build their knowledge.”

Enrollment has begun. Ms. Minnick said the tuition is different for each age group and can range from $800 a month to about $1,100.

Ms. Minnick called it the “right time, right place, perfect timing” for this program. “We want to give children this opportunity to step away from all the screens for a minute,” she said. “When I was a kid I got to go outside and my parents said, ‘Just come back, you know, by sunset for dinner.’ We can’t do that anymore. As a society, it’s not allowed, it’s not right, so our children have lost their freedom to run around and explore the world.”

Standing in one of the outdoor classrooms, with a bird tweeting in the background, Ms. Marzigliano was soaking it all in.

“If you close your eyes and you just listen to the bugs, the wind, the birds, butterflies fly by, flowers, it’s just serenity, like peaceful,” she said. “What’s the word? Tranquil. Just so peaceful, relaxing, and it’s very hard to have a bad day here, probably impossible, probably impossible. So as much as this is for the kids, I think we all love it just as much.”