environmental justice, justice, nature play

The Nature Gap, Environmental Justice and Why We Care

At Sparrow’s Nest Play, our tag line is Nature Play – Creation Care – Just Living. That last one highlights our focus on justice related issues as they relate to the natural world and its resources. I’ve had the honor of meeting a ton of like-minded people this summer as I’ve completed my Forest School Teacher and Director Training. This training led me to delve into researching programs across the nation, while meeting other nature play leaders from, literally, across the globe.

My research quickly led me to fully realize some great disparities that I’d been ducking and dodging for several years – unsure if they were “real issues,” or just something I was picking apart needlessly. As it happens, those issues are indeed real. They have names and movements and research to which I had never been exposed.

The clues that had frustrated me for years should have been enough to send me on this search years ago. Here are a few of them I experienced daily when I lived near the edge of southwest Atlanta, where I grew up:

  • Our public parks, of which there were few, were run down and full of broken equipment with peeling paint. Most were devoid of grass and sparsely planted with trees. It was never a very relaxing or restorative place to take my small child for the afternoon.
  • Each of the grocery stores in town was small, dirty, poorly stocked and had poor quality fruits and vegetables. I didn’t know “organic food markets” existed until I moved into a wealthier and whiter zip code.
  • Even on our own street, it didn’t always feel safe for my child to play in our backyard – inside our 6 foot fence with our large dog. It wasn’t unusual to hear loud explosions and not be confident if it was a car backfiring or a gun shot. The police department was chronically underfunded, we were told.
  • When the wind blew from a certain direction you could smell the chemical plant – a sickly, sweet smell that left the inside of your mouth tasting like you’d been sucking on a penny. It wasn’t out-of-the-ordinary for a boil water notice to be issued without explanation. One night we were even evacuated to a church on the other side of town due to a chemical leak.

At the time, I reasoned that the neighborhood was just “run down” and due to complete survival fatigue, many of the residents just couldn’t summon up the initiative to change things. What I didn’t realize is that I was living in The Nature Gap – a very real place, duplicated in cities around our nation.

Read more about The Nature Gap:

In the midst of accumulating and ingesting the facts about the disparities in equitable access to nature between wealthier, white populations and those of color, I was also given an assignment to research and cultivate my own philosophy by comparing them with that of Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Waldorf. While I will spare you the majority of my paper on the three philosophies, I do want the world to know where the study led me personally.

As I reviewed each philosophy, I found great merit within every one. However, studying the culture and time of each founding philosopher, one may also intuit how their belief system was in many ways a reaction to the societal norms, or even upheaval, of their time in history. In much the same way, I must acknowledge that the culture and philosophy of Sparrow’s Nest Play is a reaction to the trends I see in today’s American society.

So it must be said that I live in a world where:

  • it is widely accepted that children are more vulnerable than adults to the negative effects of environmental toxins because of the fundamental differences in children’s physiology, metabolism, absorption, and exposure patterns that cause children’s bodies to react to and excrete toxins differently than adults
  • increasing evidence suggests that access to nature and green space provides children with a myriad cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits, such as increased ability to concentrate, improved academic performance, reduced stress and aggression levels, and reduced risk of obesity
  • Unprecedented numbers of children in the United States suffer from asthma, cancer, low IQs, and learning disabilities each year
  • Communities of color are almost three times more likely than white communities to live in “nature deprived” areas, those that have less or no access to parks, paths, and green spaces.
  • Discrimination and racism in the United States have had profound effects on human settlement patterns and on the patterns of protections for the nation’s remaining natural areas. Redlining, forced migration, and economic segregation are just a few of the unjust policies and forces that have created barriers to, and a gradient of distance from, the United States’ remaining natural areas for people of color
  • Communities of color are three times more likely than white communities to live nature deprived places. Seventy-four percent of communities of color in the contiguous United States live in nature-deprived areas, compared with just 23 percent of white communities.
  • Seventy percent of low-income communities across the country live in nature-deprived areas. This figure is 20 percent higher than the figure for those with moderate or high incomes.
  • Nature destruction has had the largest impact on low-income communities of color. More than 76 percent of people who live in low-income communities of color live in nature-deprived places.

Sparrows Nest Play must be a place where children, regardless of ability, race or socioeconomic background…

1. Have a safe place to learn and grow.

2. Learn to care for creation through sustainable agricultural and consumer practices.

3. Learn the value of small things, such as small acts of love, kindness, and justice. 

4. Experience being part of a membership with one another and with creation. 

5. Develop and practice tools for peacemaking and reconciliation. 

I’m sure we can utilize methods from all three popular philosophies to do this, but we’ll also love our neighbor as ourselves, while we are serving and preserving the world we’ve been given. And all will be welcome, but we just can’t ignore the gaps any longer.

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