Three students gaze wide-eyed at a natural specimen.
A teacher holds out a seed on her palm as four students look on.
A green unripe cocoplum, a purple ripe cocoplum, and a cocoplum leaf rest in a child's hand.
Three students gaze wide-eyed at a natural specimen.
Cocoplum Nature School was founded in 2020 by two Delray Beach mothers, educators, and environmental stewards, Dr. Fernanda Wolfson and Dr. Melanie Stefanovic. Their friendship began at the children's library and local community gardens when their first children were babies. Friendship blossomed into co-founding the evidence-based school they each dreamed of for their own children.
Everything that is taught in traditional schools with textbooks and rote practice can be learned by children outdoors with natural materials through play, exploration, and inquiry. In fact, for most of humanity, children have joyfully learned all they needed to know and do through play groups, the natural world, markets, gardens and farms, and other settings not bound by four walls.
The three pillars of Cocoplum's curriculum are nature, place, and play. We employ Reggio Emilia methods of observation, documentation, and assessment. Learning is individualized, largely self-directed, experiential, and social. We foster critical thinking and creativity, not conformity, and we cultivate collaboration and communication, not competition.
Beliefs, Values, & Practices
All children can and do learn in their own way in their own time
Individualized and experiential learning
Constructivism in the form of an emergent curriculum and child-centric practices
"I couldn’t imagine my child at a different school and I don’t think he could either."
"She wants to go to school every day, so of course that makes us happy parents."
"I know my daughter’s interests and curiosities are valued."
"CNS has provided a safe and stable environment for my child. She loves going to school."
2021 by Ty Powell. All rights reserved.
FAQs Answered by Caregivers
How does nature school work?
The children are encouraged to wander, dream, experiment, question and explore. Through the fascination and inquisitiveness that is inherent in their nature, they discover the world around them in real time through real experiences creating a deep learning that will stay with them and allow them to grow. The teachers offer suggestions, look for interests, ask questions and encourage discovery. They run with the interests of the children instilling the learning principles that we all hope for within the context of their interests – not the other way around. This fosters autonomy, confidence, growth and a love of life and learning.
- Mother of a 7-year-old
Are you worried your child will get hurt?
Not really. Of course there is always the risk of injury, but the children are closely supervised given the small student to teacher ratio. Also, accidents happen everywhere, and at least at Cocoplum I know when my child gets hurts she we will be cared for by a well-trained, empathetic adult.
- Mother of a 5-year-old
How do you track your child's progress?
We measure progress by his social/emotional growth just as much as everything else. There are academic areas currently where he is excelling and areas where he is coming along at his own pace. He is not struggling anywhere and is a happy, well-adapted child building his own confidence in his world. And in the areas that he is not interested, we have seen that at his own time, learning in those avenues will and has come around - never forced and never feeling inept. We receive narratives of learning from the teachers that fully document the experiences, growth, and learning he is undergoing. We are encouraged and lead by the school to further provide opportunities for him in the avenues he is most interested in.
- Mother of a 7-year-old
What do Cocoplum students do all day?
In a word: PLAY! As simple as this may sound, their play is extremely dynamic. It is fully immersive, so collaborative and engaging, that they don’t even realize that they are absorbing and learning so much. Whether this consists of making mud pies and selling them to make a profit, water play with physics, animal yoga or enjoying their numerous field trips all over, these kids are learning math, science, history, reading, writing, economics, mindfulness, emotional regulation, music, art and tons of physical education. Most importantly, they are busy soaking up and giving out all of the kindness, friendship and love of their Cocoplum community!
- Mother of a 6-year-old
How do they learn to read?
By following their own interests and curiosities. The children are continually invited to activities that will allow them to build the foundation for reading. They even guide and help each other which instills a sense of community at a young age and creates a safe space to learn. By traditional school standards our son would be considered “behind” on reading and writing because he didn’t start until almost the age of 7. Yet, since he was allowed to discover, create a curiosity and interest and then begin learning at his own pace, he has shown a deep interest and enjoyment in reading and writing. When there is no pressure, this enjoyment will stay with him for the rest of his life, instead of being labeled as “behind” which could create a displeasure and sense of being not good enough.
- Father of a 7-year-old
How does the school handle conflict?
I was particularly impressed with how Cocoplum handles conflict resolution with the children. Cocoplum teaches the kids social-emotional skills so that they can understand, experience, express and manage their emotions. They are also encouraged to interpret their classmates’ emotions as well. Since these kids are at play in nature every day, they are given the opportunity to practice conflict resolution and self-regulation in a playful setting and to find common ground and peacefully make amends. I have noticed that communication and naming feelings is key at Cocoplum in helping the children better understand conflict and work through it together.
- Father of a 7-year-old
High Professional Standards
The evidence from dozens of studies conducted over about a decade converges around a single conclusion: “In academic contexts, nature-based instruction outperforms traditional instruction” (National Institutes for Health, 2019, p. 1). Natural surroundings and unstructured play have significant benefits for learning.
Code of Ethics
We hold our employees and volunteers to the highest standards, and our topmost priority is the protection and safety of the children in our care. To learn more about our Standards of Ethics, click here.
Cocoplum Nature School is proud to be an organizational member of the Eastern Regional Association of Forest and Nature Schools (ERAFANS), the Natural Start Alliance (NSA), the North American Association of Environmental Education (NAAEE), and the League of Environmental Educators in Florida (LEEF).
Melanie Stefanovic, PhD
Melanie co-founded Cocoplum Nature School in 2020 after nearly 20 years as an assistant teacher, camp director, classroom teacher, teacher leader, school administration consultant, and researcher. She holds a Doctorate in K-12 educational leadership from Florida Atlantic University, a Master's in educational leadership from FAU and a Master's in elementary education from Northwestern University, and a dual Bachelor's in psychology and English from the University of Notre Dame. She and her husband are raising their two vibrant children in Delray Beach where they love to ride bikes and play at the beach. She proudly serves the City of Delray Beach on the Green Implementation Board. Melanie's admiration of the natural world was cultivated in the mountains of Utah where she grew up skiing, camping, hiking, and playing sun-up to sun-down outdoors.
Fernanda Wolfson, EdD
Curriculum Director & First Grade Teacher
Fernanda is co-founder of Cocoplum Nature School. She holds a Doctorate and Specialist Degree in Curriculum and Instruction, a Master’s in International and Intercultural Education, and a Bachelor’s in Early Childhood Education from FIU. She holds a certificate in Monitoring and Evaluation from American University and is an ERAFANS Certified Nature School Educator and mindfulness facilitator (The Way Education). She has created nature-based early childhood education programs in Delray Beach since 2017 (Global Story Time at Swinton Community Garden and Bilingual Nature Play at the Children's Garden). She has worked and lived in Mexico, Philippines, France, and the USA. She has two boys and loves nature and music.
Teaching & Administrative Assistant
Pau studied Psychology at Universidad la Salle México. She has more than 3 years of experience in Human Resources. During her career, Pau worked with children of different ages, and she credits much learning and enrichment to them. She has participated in different internships performing observation, analysis, evaluation, and development comparison for children from the ages of 6 to 9 years old. She has also practiced psychomotor, language, and cognitive stimulation for children from the ages of 2 to 3 years old. Pau has realized that what she enjoys most about her work with children is seeing them express their genuine feelings and emotions about the world around them.
Christina was born in New Jersey but has grown up in Delray Beach. She is a passionate and nurturing educator. She holds a Bachelor's degree from Florida Atlantic University in General Studies and Early Childhood Education, and she earned the Certificate of Early Childhood Environmental Education from FAU in 2021. Christina loves to spend time with her cat, friends, and family. Her hobbies include gardening, hiking, dancing, and cooking.
Early Childhood Facilitator
Vivi was born in Colombia and moved to Florida when she was 23-years-old after finishing her degree in environmental engineering. After having two children, she became passionate about raising them with respect and about teaching. She believes respect is the best way to maintain children's passion and enthusiasm for learning. She earned her Level 1 ERAFANS in 2021. Previously, she worked at Sunflower Creative Arts where she honed her skills in child-led approaches in an outdoor setting.
Sasha has her Bachelor's in Speech, Language and Communication Disorders and a Master's in Education Policy and Leadership. Sasha has been a preschool teacher for close to 9 years, so she has a real love for educating young scholars! Outside of work, she enjoys dancing, spending time with loved ones, and going on nature walks with her dog.
2nd/3rd Grade Teacher
Sara has taught in public schools for a total of 6 years in 3 different states, New Jersey, Georgia, and here in Florida. Sara received her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Rider University in New Jersey in December 2015. Her favorite things to do are to spend time with her dog, her family, and her friends. She also enjoys a lot of arts-and-crafts type activities. She could not be more excited to be a part of the Cocoplum Community.
Resource Development Manager
Kate is an experienced fundraising professional with 10 years working within the nonprofit sector. Her ability to tap into the essence of an organizations mission and create an intentional resrouce development strategy creates an aligned relationship between Cocoplum and its donors. Her passion for personal grwoth and principles of permaculture design are woven into the core of how she lives and the work that she does.
Knowledge of child development
Practitioner of conscious discipline
Enjoys a tight-knit and diverse workplace
Lover of nature and the outdoors
Confident, agile, creative