Why Nature Connection?


I think that Merrohawke does a great job creating a place for kids to love nature and  be who they really are. Thank you for connecting my children with the environment, the outside world, and allowing them to be unplugged and in tune with nature.

Merrohawke Nature School is one of at least 75 nature connection organizations nationally--and 150 internationally--that emerged out of the 1970s environmental movement and self-identify as an 8 Shields school. Developed by Jon Young in 1983, the founding belief of 8 Shields was that if we can return children to the same intimate relationship to the natural world as was held by our indigenous ancestors, with active mentoring, ceremony, ancestor awareness, the arts of tracking and survival, and the surrounding culture of aunts and uncles that all value this deep immersion to place, these children will grow up to consciously appreciate, be authentically connected to, and be actively willing to protect and nourish the natural world and their community.

Nationwide, the nature connection movement now serves upwards of 50,000 youth annually; Merrohawke serves 2,200 youth annually. 

It's a fact that modern childhood has moved indoors. On average, American children spend between 4 and 7 minutes a day engaged in unstructured outdoor play and as many as 7 hours a day in front of an electronic screen. This national trend has paralleled an alarming growth in childhood obesity and prescribed pharmaceuticals for kids. Many kids are tuned out, stressed out and over-scheduled. Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle author Richard Louv calls this Nature-Deficit Disorder. And this is not limited to just kids, as it can also be seen in adults, families, and whole communities.

However, youth and adults who regularly spend time outdoors enjoy priceless befits to mind, body and spirit, including improved physical health and  professional or academic success through enhanced skills in leadership, self-awareness, self-confidence, communication, critical thinking and creativity. There's a wealth of information online about the importance of connecting kids to nature thanks to the Children and Nature Network, co-founded by Richard Louv, and we highly suggest checking it out.

As we educate children and families about the outdoors during our nature connection programs, we are also working to rebuild a culture of nature connection in our community. While simply spending time in nature is an very important habit, creating a lasting culture of nature connection in ourselves, our families and our neighborhood requires a complex, multi-layered application of principles that are immersed in the 8 Shields Model. At Merrohawke, we are committed to this effort for the benefit of creating healthier kids, stronger families, a thriving greater Newburyport community, and a flourishing planet.

Nature Mentoring

Our programs are infused with principles and practices that emerged from a collaborative effort worldwide led by Jon Young and the 8 Shields Institute, and offer an important alternative to traditional environmental education. Through a carefully crafted set of invisible intentions we craft into our days, and an equally passionate willingness to abandon all plans when nature offers up something else, we are creating an invisible school where deep knowledge follows individual curiosity. It is beyond the cutting edge—it is the forming edge of creating nature-based learning that will inspire a future generation of earth-minded stewards.

If you'd like to learn more about nature mentoring, contact Kate or Debbie, read through Coyote's Guide to Connecting With Nature, or attend the next Art of Mentoring workshop in Vermont with us in September--it's an awesome experience and our staff volunteers as AoM staff.

Wild Nature Play

All of our programs involve time to play in nature, because this is where the taproot of deep connection to the earth--land or sea--takes hold. We intentionally create time to allow for kids to get muddy, run wild, build forts, race hand-made driftwood boats, dig to China, search for buried pirate treasure, climb trees, catch frogs in swamps, paint themselves in charcoal, or do penguin slides across mud flats. While kids think they are just playing, and many marvel at these moments of freedom for unstructured outdoor time, we know that recent studies have proven that childhood experiences such as these--and not the more traditional forms of environmental education as found over the past 30 or so years in 4H programs, nature centers, and scouting--directly lead to adults who are active stewards of the earth in practice or profession, or both. Kids who connect to the land on their own terms through childhood play are scientifically proven to grow to be adults who are active environmental stewards. You can read more about this in David Sobel's summer 2012 essay in Orion magazine, "Look, Don't Touch: The problem with Environmental Education."

Further, we share the growing concern that while preservation of conservation land is important, an equally important goal is to ensure its care by future generations. As Nicholas D Kristof  wrote in the New York Times on July 28, 2012, "To guarantee wilderness in the long run, we first need to ensure a constituency for it. Environmentalists focus on preserving wilderness, because that’s the immediate priority, but they perhaps should be as energetic at getting young people to interact with it. We need more Americans working through their challenges, like Cheryl Strayed, by hurling boots off precipices. We need more schools and universities to offer classes on the wild, in the wild — with extra credit for students who get lost."

At Merrohawke Nature School, we are working to cultivate the next generation of environmental stewards by creating time and space for wild outdoor play to build deep nature connection in ourselves, our families and our community.

Waldorf Education

As we grow and evolve, Merrohawke leadership staff are weaving in principles and practices of Waldorf education into some of our programs in order to make for the most meaningful experiences in nature possible for our children. We believe our purpose is to preserve and protect the sacred childhood years, and we strive each day to make children's lives beautiful.

Ocean Literacy

The influence and importance of the ocean in our daily cannot be understated, and the seven essential principles of Ocean Literacy are woven throughout our time together:

1. Earth has one big ocean with many features.
2. The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.
3. The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
4. The ocean makes Earth habitable.
5. The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.
6. The ocean and humans are inextricably linked.
7. The ocean is largely unexplored.

For more information on Ocean Literacy, please visit the Ocean Literacy Network.

In this short video, our friend and mentor Jon Young shares more...

...and this longer conversation with our friend, Mark Morey

And Sir Ken Robinson...

And if you'd like to schedule a showing of "Mother Nature's Child," just let us know!

Like-minded Friends

While we are the only known organization in the world developing programs rooted in deep nature connection as delivered through a maritime lens, there are many 8 Shields schools and organizations with whom we share a passion for connecting kids to nature. Below are a few with whom we engage with regularly:

White Pine Programs: Cape Neddick, Maine. 
Institute for Natural Learning: Brattleboro, VT
Vermont Wilderness School: Brattleboro, VT
8 Shields Institute: Santa Cruz, CA
Two Coyotes Wilderness School: CT
Wilderness Awareness School: Duval, WA
Wild Earth: New Paltz, NY

We also shared a kindred passion for Waldorf education with friends at:

Waldorf School at Moraine Farm (Grades PreK-8): Beverly, MA
Pine Hill Waldorf School (Grades PreK-8): Wilton, NH
High Mowing (Grades 9-12): Wilton, NH 
Seacoast Waldorf School (Grades PreK-8): Eliot, ME