A Focus on Relationship to the Planet

Children have the chance to connect with nature at Heartwood Nature School

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Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of guest opinions about fostering environmental stewardship with an appreciation for our surroundings and the well-being of future generations. The series is coordinated by ACES, the Alliance of Climate and Environmental Stewards.

Each day, I come to treasured land at Maple Crest Farm in West Newbury to guide young children through a four-hour day in which we focus on nature connection, the cultivation of kindness, free unstructured play, organic learning, and developing a deep reverence for Mother Earth.

"We have forgotten our place on this Earth"

Why? Because the ecosystem is crumbling around us and these children will inherit it shortly. Because children everywhere are spending more time on screens than playing as children should. Because recess is being replaced by standards and expectations that are not developmentally appropriate and because, as a species, we have forgotten our place on this Earth.

We at Heartwood Nature School aim to fix this. With three incredible teachers beside me — Christine Amor, Daniela Currie-Gutierrez, and Hana Philcrantz — we are helping children to find their place on this planet and learning together what it means to truly take care of it.

No matter the weather, we play, we explore, and we adventure. The children delight in the changing of the seasons, the splatter of mud, hearing the crunch of leaves under foot, and learning how to care for the tiniest of creatures we find in the forest.

We allow the children to see, touch, hear, smell, and even taste the delights of the woods, and in this way, they become familiar with nature — understanding how much it gives us and how it needs to be protected.

"Learning comes naturally and organically"

In their play, the kindergarten children create a store out of a fallen cedar tree, using acorns and hickory nuts for currency. They sell “tacos” made out of leaves and detritus from the forest floor. Out of this, we create a math curriculum that is relevant, developmentally appropriate, and most importantly, really interesting to them at the moment.

Over six weeks, the children solidify their understanding of numbers 1-10 and learn basic addition and subtraction skills, all while playing!

Our preschool children are no different. They bask in the sounds sticks make upon different trees, observing the bark, and grasping the idea that each tree is different. While learning about different trees, they focus on the sounds and music that nature makes, and the sounds they can create with nature items. Have you noticed that most children can identify major logos such as Nike, Target, and McDonald’s? I wonder how many children can discern a Birch from a Sugar Maple, a Shagbark Hickory from a White Pine? How have we lost this ability?

Children connecting with themselves

Even more than connecting back to nature, children at Heartwood connect to themselves. We focus intently on cultivating social emotional skills that give children the agency to solve problems, speak up for themselves, and become part of a world that treats everyone the way they deserve to be treated. We listen to children, understanding what their bodies need — time for unstructured play, grownups willing to entertain questions and curiosity outside of the bounds of “curriculum” and “standards,” and the ability to engage in adventures that include getting wet, climbing tall trees, jumping off of rocks, laying in mud, and rolling in snow.

This is how we get back to the wild Earth. This is how we get back to our roots.

Our culture places such reverence on growth, productivity, and material possessions, often at the expense of the trees, the water, the air, and our fellow creatures. At Heartwood, we focus on the heart of things, the foundation of our very existence — love, connection, and our reciprocal relationship with the planet that sustains us.

Martha Burke is the owner of Heartwood Nature School at Maple Crest Farm in West Newbury. For more visit

This column was coordinated by ACES Youth Corps member Caleb Bradshaw. To share any comments or questions, send an email to To learn more about ACES, go to

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about the author
Martha Burke

The Founder, owner, and director of Heartwood Nature School, Martha became a committed environmentalist in her early years, spending time outdoors whenever possible. During early career years, she expanded her breadth of knowledge about the world, the environment, and wrote for several sections of the newspaper on various topics as well as a few magazines.

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