Brinkley Hutchings says that most Baldwin County residents don’t know about Red Gully, so named for the occasional banks of red clay found along its winding path north of Montrose. Its obscurity is hardly surprising; gullies are, by definition, tucked away deep into the landscape. Looking at a satellite image, you’d never know the stream exists, obscured as it is by the oaks and pines growing along its banks.
And so, just for knowing about Red Gully, six preschool-aged children splashing through the shallow waters are off to a good start. After all, giving children a good start was why Hutchings founded the outdoor program Nature Connect Alabama in 2017, and today, she grins as she watches the toddlers stomp through the water, scoop up a rock or bring her a blade of grass. One little boy loses his balance and ends up face-first in the gully, but he comes up smiling.
“You really get to see their coordination develop over time,” Hutchings says.
The morning started half an hour earlier up the hill at Fairhope’s Church of the Apostle, Nature Connect’s home base. After healthy snacks and a singsong in the church’s pavilion, the class followed “Ms. Brinkley” towards the gully like a row of slightly distracted ducks. Wearing a backpack, a gray Nature Connect T-shirt and with her brown hair pulled back in a bun, Hutchings looks fully in her element. “There’s not one day I don’t want to go to work,” she says, smiling.
Stepping through the trees in a pair of green rainboots, Hutchings has a lot to smile about. It’d be hard for her not to see a bit of herself in her students; her childhood home around the corner was the jumping-off point for countless similar forays, often accompanied by her dog, Belle.
“I was allowed to watch one show on TV after school, and then I had to be outside the rest of the time, which I didn’t mind,” she remembers. “Oftentimes, I didn’t even watch the one show. I would just tell my dad which direction I was going — either towards the pipe or towards the well.”
Individual excursions to collect clay or to play in a creek were paired with expeditions with adults: attending the Fort Morgan bird banding with her father or hiking with her mother. “I’ve just always had adults around me who pointed out the beauty in the outdoors and then took me to experience it,” she says.
Through Nature Connect, Hutchings is trying to give her students the childhood she had, a childhood of boundless curiosity, exploration and a healthy dose of silliness.
“This is my pirate ship!” declares one girl atop a leafy mound.
“Pirates are a very popular theme,” says Program Facilitator Holly Langston with a smirk. Langston, who also works as a substitute teacher, joined the staff last fall after seeing what the program did for her children. Today, she and Hutchings are supervising the six preschoolers as they ogle bugs and slip on dry leaves.
The preschool class, Hutchings later explains, is all about discovery. “It’s a lot of exploration,” she says, “learning about the place where we live. At that age, they’re meant to be in the outdoors. They just naturally know what they want to do, they know where they want to explore, and so we see ourselves as facilitators of their experience. We have a curriculum in mind, but as soon as we get into the woods, if we discover a lizard or frog or salamander or if they’re really into the creek or climbing trees, that becomes our lesson for the day.”
As one boy begins a slow crawl up a leaning tree [“He’s our climber,” Langston says.], another feature of the class becomes apparent: dirt is good and scratches can be, too. Hutchings encourages a rambunctious and enthusiastic approach to the outdoors, and every preschool class is good for a handful of tumbles.
“We’re constantly assessing risks,” Hutchings says, “so we’re not going to let them do anything where they’re going to seriously hurt themselves. But we do have conversations with the parents where we’ll say, ‘It’s rough to play outside. The kids are going to get scratches and little bruises. They’re going to take small tumbles. Are you okay with that?’ We think it’s good for the children to learn their capacities.”
Though today’s class is held just a short distance away from Hutchings’s childhood home, the seeds of Nature Connect actually lie over 700 miles away in the Carolinas. Upon graduating from St. Paul’s Episcopal School, Hutchings enrolled at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where her father once studied marine biology. Although Hutchings decided to study medicine, the oceanside university seemed an idyllic option to the child of Mobile Bay.
“The environment in Wilmington is very similar to here, with the rivers and all the waterways,” she says. “I mean, I could go swim in the ocean between classes.”
As Hutchings delved deeper into her health studies, she became more and more convinced of something she had always suspected. “I started to realize that people are getting sick because the environment needs to be cleaned up,” she says. “So I shifted gears and started studying environmental science.”
After graduating in 2012, Hutchings worked across the country for various environmental nonprofits and grassroot community efforts. In Illinois, she organized lobbying efforts for a food labeling bill. In Houston, she helped promote biking trails along the bayous. In Atlanta, she worked to protect parks along the Chattahoochee River.
“While I was doing this work, I realized that the people I was working with were doing it because they loved the outdoors. It made me wonder, ‘Where did that love come from?’ And the answer is that it came from their childhoods. I started thinking, ‘Who’s going to be the next generation that protects the air, water and land?’ If kids don’t have a connection to the outdoors — if they’re indoors and in front of screens, if they don’t have their hands in the dirt, if they aren’t climbing trees and really falling in love with the outdoors — who’s going to want to protect it?”
With that question in mind, Hutchings moved to California where outdoor schools are prolific (there were five in her community alone) to learn the ins and outs of running an environmental education program with the goal of bringing that knowledge back to the Southeast.
In 2016, Hutchings did just that, establishing Nature Connect North Carolina. Today, the program has six staffers, runs classes every week from September through May, includes a summer camp program and serves approximately 150 children a year. In 2017, Hutchings decided to bring her vision home, back to the waterways and clay-studded bluffs of the Eastern Shore that had inspired her all those years ago.
“I felt like I could make a difference here,” she says.
Study after study confirms what we all instinctively know: Children who grow up spending time in nature are happier and more likely to care for the planet as adults. As the tentacles of technology increasingly keep children at home in front of screens, more and more parents have discovered the benefits of outdoor schools.
But when Hutchings started Nature Connect Alabama, there was, and still is, nothing else like it in the area. What started as a summer camp in 2017 has since grown into a variety of outdoor programs. The preschool class is Nature Connect’s primary program, offering children ages 3 to 5 the option to attend up to five days a week (most of her preschool students are enrolled at an area preschool but spend one or two days a week at Nature Connect). A spring homeschool program for ages 6 to 12 convenes once a week and focuses on nature studies: identifying plants and animals, drawing animal tracks, journaling and playing cooperative games. An after-school program at Daphne’s Mayday Park offers an adventurous complement to a child’s structured school day, and a family program invites parents with children ages 5 and under to experience the outdoors together in a meaningful way. And, of course, the summer camp programs for ages 3 to 12 are more popular than ever. All in all, Hutchings says Nature Connect serves about 200 children a year.
“I’m so thankful for this community and that people see the importance and the value of what we’re doing,” Hutchings says. “When I started Nature Connect here in 2017, I didn’t know how well it would be received or if people really wanted something like this in the area, and it turns out they really do.”
Despite how much the program has already grown, Hutchings hopes Nature Connect continues to evolve with the desires of the community. With the creation of the preschool class, she hopes to someday add kindergarten, maybe even first and second grade. Plans are already underway to renovate a barn on the church campus into a schoolhouse, and the existing play area will soon be converted into a “natural playground.” And as Nature Connect grows, so does its impact.
“It’s not just about connecting children to the outdoors,” Hutchings says. “It’s about connecting their families to the outdoors, connecting the families to one other and really building community. Bringing people together is really a passion of mine. I want families to be able to take outings together where their children play and know how to play safely in the outdoors.”