Several years ago I had the opportunity to work at a summer camp dedicated to Creation Care and peace-teaching. Since that time, I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that my life’s calling is drawing children to God through this kind of play. I was forever changed by my time as a guide for them, and I believe they, too, were changed by their encounters with God’s creation.
Set on a small church farm in East Atlanta, this camp was a place set aside for inner city children to experience nature and creation. When I say “inner city children,” please realize that our clientele was varied. Some were from a ministry that worked with children that were homeless or recently rehoused. A few children were recently arrived refugees who didn’t speak English and scattered at the sound of a car backfiring because they assumed it was gunfire. And we had a few gentrified white upper-middle class children sprinkled in just for fun.
Divided as heterogeneously as possible by age and origin into three Farm Families, these children would begin their day with a large group gathering under the towering oaks at the front of the property. We’d get a temperature read on on everyone for the day, making sure no conflicts had arisen on transportation to the farm that necessitated intervention, and then sing a few songs and play a game or two. But the children were really just eager to get started on the first set of activities – Farm Family Chores.
You heard me right, chores! Good, old fashioned work. Most older members of our staff would chuckle at the novelty of these activities remembering the dread with which they had participated in the same activities as children. And while the July Georgia temperatures did nothing to bolster the enthusiasm of the adults, the children didn’t seem to notice.
There were three Farm Families and three rotations of chores. Chicken Care involved cleaning the pens, feeding and watering the chickens. Goat Care meant either herding the goats to a new area for feeding that day, or carrying feed in containers from the Feed Barn to their pen and providing them water. My rotation was Sheep and Pig Care, which involved carrying compost scraps to the farm pig and watering the sheep. I should add that all of this was made extremely complicated by the fact that our well pump was out that summer and the children had to carry water about 100 yards in any direction from the kitchen in 5-gallon buckets to complete their tasks.
Those buckets of water were heavy, and skinny six to twelve year-old arms can’t carry a 5-gallon bucket full of water too far. But split between two children, one on either side of the bucket, they could go around 20 yards. Then, they’d swap out for another two kids. In this fashion, working as a team, they’d get the job done – and God forbid an adult suggest they step in and help!
These children, many of whom had never seen a live animal other than maybe a domesticated dog or cat, started out the sessions terrified of the animals – fascinated but completely unprepared to go near a chicken, goat, sheep, or pig. But as the session unfolded, the children began to feel their daily contributions were so meaningful that they connected to these animals and to the land they were on. By the end of the session, I think every child had held a baby goat and a chicken. Many of them were reaching beneath chickens to grab the morning’s eggs without even thinking about it. But that is not the only way the children were changed.
There was a noticeable restfulness of spirit about the children that had not been there before and their pace slowed as they cared for the animals. I remember them stopping to ask me about the “pretty orange flowers” growing at the edge of a field. I can still recall the shock and wonder when I told them that blossom would one day be a pumpkin. Many had never seen a strawberry plant, and learned to harvest them with joy each day. They began to laugh and play. The language barrier was not an issue. And any conflict that did arise could usually be solved by taking them down to the goats and sitting to calm down, watch, and talk.
At the end of each day, the children were encouraged to reflect on the best parts of their experience, what they had learned and where they had experienced peace that day. There responses were often as follows:
- I experienced peace when I pet the sheep.
- I felt peace when the chickens got loose and we had to make a human fence to get them back in the pen.
- I felt peace when I had to stop the baby goat in the strawberry patch.
- It was peace giving the pig water and my lunch scraps.
While I know that crafts, stories, and music were also fun, I think what healed those children and brought them peace was God’s creation. Experiencing an intimacy with the creator through creation gave them a priceless gift. It placed them in the story of Creation as caretakers and allowed them to give and co-create. For a child who believes they have nothing to offer the world, this is the gift of a lifetime.
At Sparrow’s Nest Play, we want to give this gift to as many children as we possible can. It may be a while before we have the physical property to house the animals that we had at the farm, but God can use all parts of nature to heal and bring peace. Through our writing, videos, and other resources, we want to be his conduit for that peacemaking.