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Time in the forest sparks joy, curiosity, cooperation and wonder!

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About Us

The mission of the South Mountain Nature School is to provide children the guidance and resources to play and learn in the South Mountain Reservation with other children while experiencing the wonders and beauty of the natural world.

SMNS’s Nature Immersion curriculum is defined as “free time in nature, resulting in an intimate, deep and personal connection to the natural world.” Our classes promote social and emotional development, teach compassion, gentleness and sensitivity for each other and the natural world and empower children.

Mary Clair Sonneman

Founder and lead teacher, Mary Clair Sonneman, is a former high school English teacher with a background and keen interest in progressive education. She has a passion for the natural world and loves to play outside.

Mary Clair attended a Forest Kindergarten teaching training program at Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon Island in Washington in July 2016, earning her Cedarsong Forest Kindergarten Teacher Certification. Read more about this wonderful school here. She has a BA in English from Boston University and a teaching credential from San Francisco State University.

What We Offer

In addition to our Forest Kindergarten (Preschool), SMNS offers Forest School classes for ages 2 – 8. Forest School classes take place in woodlands in all types of weather over an extended period of time so that children can develop a close connection with nature. The SMNS Nature Immersion curriculum instills a love of nature while developing gross motor skills, social and emotional skills, and more. Research continues to support that connecting children with nature benefits children’s minds, bodies and spirits.

What We Do

During a SMNS class you will see children exploring the woods, running with butterfly nets, building forts, and digging in the dirt. Our students invent new games together, pick wildflowers, climb on fallen trees and much more. Time in the forest sparks joy, curiosity, cooperation and wonder!

SMNS classes meet once a week for 90 minutes and run for 8 weeks. Classes are held at various locations in the South Mountain Reservation in Essex County, NJ. We offer drop-off and caregiver & child classes. Siblings under 2 are free and welcome to join.

SMNS provides students tools for free play such as buckets, shovels, magnifying lenses, butterfly nets, binoculars and musical instruments.

Our Activities

During our time in the forest any or all of the following activities are enjoyed:

  • climbing and balancing on fallen trees
  • digging in the dirt
  • creating nature-based art projects
  • recognizing patterns in nature
  • swinging from vines
  • identifying animals and plants
  • playing games
  • observing changes in the natural world around us
  • building shelters

An essential part of the SMNS mission is promoting and teaching our students environmental stewardship. When possible we use sustainable materials for our projects, and we will always leave the forest as we found it.

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