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environmental justice, nature play

Moving the Starting Line

I suppose I got into outdoor education (a.k.a .forest schooing, nature play, etc.) in a completely backwards way. Rather than be in a place in nature and decide to share that particular space, I identified a group of children who were underexposed to nature that came alive given the opportunity for nature play. That particular “group of children” is urban and inner city youth and you can watch me tell that story on our YouTube Channel in our Origins Story video linked here and also seen below.

I didn’t have my own farm or piece of land to share with people and invite them to experience, all I had was the idea of the opportunity to come to nature itself – but the desire to do that was VERY strong. Since that time, I’ve been educating myself about the gentle art of enticing children into natural spaces and conversations about nature through what we call “provocations.”

A provocation, in forest school practice, is a point of interest laid out to specifically spark the interest of a learner. If learning about seeds, it could be a variety of seed pods or packets. If conducting a tree study, one might set aside a variety of leaves, bark or needles from nearby trees for identification and conversation. All in all, it is a gentle introduction through natural curiosity and wonder. I have found it a refreshing way to teach and learn.

Most of the time…

I add this because I must honestly mention that in some of my more urban settings if a learner is not in the least familiar with noticing the natural world, their eyes run right over a provacation without the slightest bit of notice – even if it is laid out as a “Discovery Center” on a mat. This is not because of a lack of curisoity or a handicap in wonder. Likewise, these urban children and youth have all the same capacity to be captivated by the samples from nature that a veteran forest school attendee would have. So what is missing?

Exposure. We sometimes call this the “Starting Line.” The idea of a Starting Line refers to where we begin in a nature education program with a set of learners. It involves finding out their previous levels of exposure to the natural world so that you can spark curiosity at a level that will actually catch fire in their imagination.

This means that there are times that before a provocation, nature toy, loose part, or discovery center can be offered a simple introduction must be made. I recently began a lengthy instruction for a game where we would pretend to be squirrels hiding acorns only to find that most of the children (and a few adults present) could not identify the difference between an acorn and a pinecone. Both were frequently seen in the parking lots and driveways where they live. Learners reported that they both crunch when they are run over by a car. But other than that, they were the same thing, or even interchangeable. I quickly realized that I was in error and needed to move my Starting Line.

Tips for Moving the Starting Line:

  • Do it respectfully. There is a good chance this is a case of under-exposure and NOT ignorance. When remediating instruction, avoid demeaning your learner with materials designed for very young children.
  • Use relationship. In the acorn versus pinecone lesson, I just started talking about the yard I played in where I grew up. I told them that in the front yard we had lots of acorns because oak trees grew there. I explained how we played with them and how it was always full of squirrels. But our backyard was full of pine trees and a great place for pine cone battles. I even mentioned getting in trouble for nailing people in the face with them. Was it technical – no! But it introduced the difference through a story about myself.
  • Be available. These introductions might not stick with all of your learners. So when you have to make a correction for the twentieth time don’t sigh, roll your eyes, or put your hand on your temples. Remind yourself to intentionally smile and retell how it comes from an oak like the one that grew in your front yard. Leave out the comparison for now it that is confusing your learner. Just be present for them in a moment of discovery.

All of this being said, though it may change your plans and wound your pride, I highly encourage you to move this line when you sense it needs adjustment. While it may seem like an initial “hassle,” the rewards are just too great not to do it. I’m never sorry that I took the extra time or delayed my plans to be the person who introduced a wonder of nature. Never.

And, after all, it’s not about us – it’s about the kids. Every time.

book review, events

Gearing up for Trunk or Treat

It’s almost time for one of our favorite events, Powder Springs Fall Festival Trunk-or-Treat. On Saturday, October 22nd from 10am-12pm visit us at Thurman Springs Park for games, live music, storytime and trunks full of candy. This event is free to the public and one that we enjoy for so many reasons.

First, it is a chance to meet and serve our community. Membership in a place and kinship with its people is a core value at Sparrow’s Nest Play. We cherish any opportunity we can to share our resources and values with our neighbors. We’ve not yet attended an event downtown where we didn’t have great conversations about the benefits of nature play.

Second, setting up our simple nature play materials so that children and their parents can interact with them together allows parents to be immersed in the act of nature play alongside their child. Many times, watching the fascination with which their child experiences the smallest elements of the natural world delights parents and encourages them to pursue more opportunities for outdoor play opportunities.

Lastly, it’s just fun. It is tough for us to pass up a chance to watch a child’s eyes light up when we play around the campfire, read a book about birds, or build with simple toys. It is a chance to share our love for nature, simple creative play, and kinship with our community. And there is candy.

If you are in the area on Saturday, October 22nd stop by Thurman Springs Park, sit around our “campfire” and drop a line in our creek to go “fishing.” We’d love to play outside with you!

nature play, Partnership Highlights, programs

New Nature Club in East Point

We are so happy to announce a new partnership with the City of East Point Parks and Recreation Department to bring a Nature Club to children in their after school program. Some partnerships are just “made in heaven” and with a little help from a nature loving mom, Jasmine Crisp, with her own organization (The Love for Animals Outreach) who made this introduction we’re off to a great start! Check out all the great things Jasmine’s organization is up to on Instagram at @Love4paws404

We visited the Jefferson Park Recreation Center in late July for a nature play session and had a great time getting to know new friends as we talked about everything from nature at their homes, to clouds, to animals, to food! The like-minded dreamers who plan this program saw potential in getting these city kids outdoors and teaching them that there is nature all around them even in the city. Serving close to 60 children ages 6 to 8, Sparrow’s Nest Play has greatly expanded not only our program hours but our reach with this one program offering.

We are planning four hours of programming a week on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays and the possibilities are endless! They have a wonderful interior courtyard that could be perfect for gardening and raised beds. I can already see a pollinator garden and vegetables growing with kids tending them as they learn where their food comes from and how to grow it. The front of the property, while it faces a fairly busy parkway is completely fenced in and shielded by overgrowth that runs along a drainage culvert. There are fruit trees growing on the hill and birds in the brush, along with evidence of rabbits and other wildlife that visit to feed in this little urban Eden.

With access to the city’s many parks, paths and new Nature Trail, we’ve got the makings of a first class Nature Club. Our sessions begin in September and run through November, with plans to extend this Nature Club into the winter beginning again in January through Spring! Now more than ever, your donations will make a lasting difference in the life of a child as they come to know the wonder of nature! Look for more details to come about Special Projects and Sponsorships for this promising program in a great community!

Partnership Highlights

Birthdays with Sparrow’s Nest Play

At Sparrow’s Nest Play it is our passion to connect children to the natural world. We have personally found that getting to know the animals, plants, and natural phenomena that are living alongside us in our own backyard is a very meaningful and satisfying way to connect with nature. And what better time to do this than on their most special of days – their birthday! If you are looking for a little something extra for their party or in the mood for a different event this year, take a look at some of the unique party themes we’ve put together.

Birding Birthday

Children are inherently interested in animals and nothing beats the wonder and fascination they experience when they learn they can correctly identify a bird by learning their songs and calls. Here are a few fun ways we like to introduce kids to “birding” at an hour long Discovery Play Party. Hourly rate = $80/10 kids (mileage may accrue additional fee)

Discovery Play

  • Small World Play with natural materials, blocks, and wooden objects
  • Library of books both informational and fictional about nature, birds, and outdoor play
  • Play with bird toys and feathers

Games & Staff Led Play

  • Read Aloud Story Time about Birds and Birding
  • Build a Life Size Nest – kids will collaborate with staff to build a life size bird’s nest while discussing bird habitats and health
  • Name That Call – kids will play a game as they learn to identify by sound 3 common bird calls they might hear in their own backyard
  • Bird Identification – kids will learn to identify by sight 6 birds common to the Georgia Woodlands (they’ll also leave with a set of flash cards to take home)

Craft

  • Natural Pinecone Birdfeeders for 10 kids [add $ 20 ]
  • Recycled/Upcycled Materials Birdfeeders for 10 kids [add $30 ]
  • Nesting Wisks for 10 kids [add $30 ]

Take Home Extras

  • Nature Journal with colored pencil set
  • Birding Journal page
  • Compass
  • Bird Flash Cards 
  • Parent Page with more fun birding activities with your family

Fairy Garden

Have a little princess in your house getting ready to celebrate her special day? Consider a party complete with fairy play, wands and tons of magical moments! Hourly rate = $100/10 kids (mileage may add accrue additional fee)

Discovery Play

  • Small World Play with natural materials, blocks, and wooden objects
  • Library of books both informational and fictional about nature, birds, and outdoor play
  • Play with fairy garden toys

Games and Staff Led Play

  • Read Aloud Story Time about the magic of Fairies
  • Fairy Garden Treasure Hunt: kids will collaborate with staff to hunt for Fairy Treasure
  • Fairy Dress Up Play with a variety of wings, wands, and sparkly things

Craft

  • Fairy Wands for 10 kids (add $20)
  • Fairy Crowns for 10 kids (add $20)
  • Fairy Garden 10 kids (add $45)

Take Home Extras

  • Nature Journal with colored pencils
  • At Home Fairy Scavenger Hunt
  • Fairy Dust

More Party Choices…

Bushcraft Birthday [hourly rate $100 for 10 kids]

  • Knot Tying 101
  • Veggie Peeler Whittling Project
  • Tracking Identification Game
  • Compass Game
  • Small World Play
  • Fire Safety & Fire Making [recommended for ages 8+]
  • Campfire Cooking Project [recommended for ages 8+]
  • Read Aloud
  • Take Homes: Knot Tying Cards, Nature Journal, Colored Pencils, Compass, Animal Track Cards, Parent Page

Pollinators Party [Hourly rate $80 for 10 kids]

  • Mini-Pollinator Fountains
  • Buzzy Bee Scent Game
  • Wildflower Seed Bombs
  • Cheesy Pollinator Activity
  • Read Aloud
  • Take Homes: Pollinator ID Pack, Nature Journal, Colored Pencils, Compass, Parent Page

Crafting with Nature [hourly rate $100 for 10 kids]

  • Stick Wrapping
  • Sun Print Art
  • Clay Pinch Pots
  • Nature Weaving Station
  • Read Aloud: A Day with No Crayons
  • Take Homes: Nature Journal, Colored Pencils, Parent Page

The options are endless! Other available themes include Gardening, Enviro Warrior, and Buggy Birthday. Does your child have another nature interest? Contact us about putting together a custom theme for you!

events, Partnership Highlights

Autumn’s All Around PlayShop

Autumn's All Around Preschool PlayShop at Powder Springs Library on Tuesday, October 25th from 11:30am - 12:30pm

We’re thrilled to announce a new partnership with Powder Springs Library to provide nature education to children. Our first event will be our Autumn’s All Around PlayShop, designed for preschool aged children. The Powder Springs Library has beautiful grounds that we’ll use to our advantage as we use our senses to experience the arrival of Autumn.

Children will enjoy free-play at Nature Discovery Centers where they can explore the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the season. We’ll enjoy a story together and then complete a craft and activity. This is a great opportunity to check out some books to get your preschool age child interested in the natural world as they observe the change of seasons.

Meet us in the courtyard at 11:30am for play and nature fun!

Partnership Highlights

Partnership Highlight: Our Giving Garden

Partnerships are everything. You may think I only say this because we are a small nonprofit, but in truth it is in line with the values and mission of Sparrow’s Nest Play. Building community through experiencing kinship and “membership with one another” is what we are about. This series highlights likeminded organizations we have found to come alongside and do the good work that we do. We are thankful for them and want you to know about their missions and work.

Our Giving Garden was established in 2016 on a parcel of land behind a local church in Mableton, Georgia. A small band of volunteers took on a BIG mission – to interrupt poverty. They do this in a myriad of ways, the most obvious being the cultivating of organic produce and eggs for availability at places like The Sweetwater Mission Food Pantry. To date, they have contributed over 6000 lbs. of produce and 6300 lbs. of fresh eggs. All with a handful of faithful volunteers with really big hearts.

But this garden of hope and healing doesn’t stop there. In the parking lot you’ll find their own Free Food Pantry, Free Food Fridge, and Free Pet Pantry also stocked by volunteers and community members that have not been able to resist the vision Our Giving Garden has cast. If The Garden hears of a need, they rally the community to fill it. From Coat Drives in the winter months to other necessary supplies for families, their mission is to interrupt the need and bring peace into the lives of the community. And they do it well.

I was honored to assist with their event programming this summer by serving as a camp counselor. It was a rich experience with days filled with sunshine and wonder as we connected children to nature in a farm and forest atmosphere. Not only did I see children become part of a community with one another, I saw them become partners with the land itself as they began to know and name what grows and lives there. And, of course, at the slightest cry of distress the farm showed the children that they were members of it as well when Samson the Donkey would let out a loud bray alerting everyone that a child was crying.

Our Giving Garden has an upcoming event that you don’t want to miss on Saturday, September 17th! “Working with Animals Day” is an educational event and fundraiser geared toward children and youth to showcase job and volunteer opportunities with animals. In addition to exposure of the amazing animal residents of the farm, there will be animal professionals and volunteers to lead demonstrations showcasing work in the animal field.

Uncategorized

Why Tuesday is my Favorite Day of the Week

Last spring I was approached by an old friend (in truth, by a person I once babysat when she and I were much younger) and asked a very special question: “Do you think kids could learn science outside?”

She went on to share about how students at her small school showed better attention and self-regulation after prolonged periods of exposure to nature. “They need more than just recess,” she elaborated as we planned and schemed over coffee. What we came up with was a plan to introduce her students and their families to the idea of meeting outdoors for science education for the 2022-23 school year. Sparrow’s Nest Play is thrilled to be her partner in this project at Tri-Cities Christian School in East Point, Georgia.

Vangie with her class on first day of science class

Our units of learning this year will include meterology, geology (rocks, soil, and fossils), ennvironmental changes, and space/astonomy. Each week I set up “provocations for learning” on mats in the courtyard in front of the church where the school meets. Some have said there isn’t much nature here to study, but I believe this is a serious misconception. More than ever, children need access to nature and showing them that nature can be found even in urban contexts is critical to the nature education/forest school movement.

So these are “city kids,” some with more experience playing outdoors than others. A few mentioned having opportunities for free play outside at the homes of grandparents. Others said there was just “too much concrete” where they lived. I insisted that we had plenty of opportunity right where we were and after a little discussion, they came up with several things they’d like to learn more about nature, including learning many of the native plants and trees right there on the property of the church/school.

Their enthusiasm for learning and openness to try something new makes each Tuesday morning pure joy! They are always eager to begin and unhappy when I say it’s time for me to pack up my kit. Right now, the question they ask the most is, “When are you coming back?” And I think that is a good sign of things to come.

school group displays their SNP backpacks

Take a look at this short video of the PlayShop I did for the students and parents last March when we introduced the idea of our outdoor classroom for this school year.

pensive dog in profile
Uncategorized

Happy National Dog Day

There was absolutely no way I could let this day pass without acknowledging a very important member of the Sparrow’s Nest Play Team – our dog Maximus. No, I’m not joking and I don’t have too much time on my hands. For reasons I’ll write about here, Maximus gets partial credit for any success we experience here teaching about the wonder and splendor of the natural world.

Most of my “work days” have been spent at home writing or planning the fewer fun days I have the opportunity to spend in Wild Spaces with children. But these days are necessary, even if sometimes boring. I enjoy working on our back porch, where Maximus often enjoys accompanying me for writing and research sessions. When I get restless from all the sitting, he is always ready to take me for a walk so that my mind can wander, which usually is quite helpful. And on the “recovery days,” days when I’m finally home after many days straight outside in all-weather, his weight in my lap is grounding and peaceful.

pensive dog in profile

When we are outside and he is exploring the yard or a trail, I often think “I want my kids to experience nature with this much curiosity, excitement and wonder.” Believe it or not, this thought often comes back to me when I am planning a session and prevents me from the notorious overprogramming that kills curiosity, excitement and wonder. When I am encouraging the children to use their senses, I picture Max in my mind sniffing “all the sniffs” as he experiences everything 100%. In addition to their “fox feet,” “deer ears,” and “owl eyes,” I want to encourage them to use their “hound dog noses.”

Maximux is both encourager and inspiration, partner and friend. In this first year of writing, fundraising and developing programming for Sparrow’s Nest Play I know that I would have accomplished far less without this faithful companion. So Happy National Dog Day from Sparrow’s Nest Play and Maximus, Chief People Officer.

picture of all household pets represented as "staff"

Vangie laying on bench at end of hot, long day
Uncategorized

What Camp Taught Me: Part Three

We Work Hard so We Can Play Hard

Full Disclosure: this is an HONEST post. Sometimes when I’m training a new nature educator they ask me some basic “housekeeping” questions and when I answer them eyes widen. I realize there are truths about this kind of work that I’ve come to accept because I honestly believe I’ve had worse jobs in my life. But there are parts of it that are harder than others. Today I thought I’d share some of those less-than-glamorous parts just in case you are wondering if I am trying to make this all too dreamy. So here are some of the “hardest” parts of the work in no particular order.

Hard Work Reality #1: You get HOT and tired.

I live in Georgia. There is no getting around what summer is like around here. Humidity of often 90% with temperatures in the 90-100 degree range. I have a friend that swears that under these conditions human lungs collapse and ceast to function, but I’m telling you like it is. Even under great tree canopy, we sweat a lot. At the end of the day, I am spent. I’m sure it didn’t affect me quite as badly during my 20s and 30s as it does now in my late 40s, but honestly there is no getting around this part of outdoor education in the South. So, part of my daily routine is lugging this big yellow water cooler filled with silicone ice bags and water for constant refills. It’s an extra step but I’ve found kids are much more willing to drink ice cold water then tepid. You have no idea how many problems I solved with a walk to the water cooler.

Hard Work Reality #3: COVID is still a thing

Like everyone else, I’m ready for this NOT to be a reality, but here we are. The great thing about outdoor education is that you do feel a lot safer without a mask in the wide open spaces we occupy. But taking an extra precaution, we took temperatures each day at check-in. (Cases spiked in our county mid-summer and every parent was complimentary of The Giving Garden and their precautions.) But occupying these Wild Spaces also means limited hand washing is available. I took additional precautions and made Re-useable Hand Wipes for use before snack and lunch. I chose something cloth and re-useable because I always want to model responsible sustainability practices with the children. But it did mean that I washed and dried a load of these each night when I got home from a 7 hour day. There were nights when I was dozing off waiting to get them ready for the next day, but I wanted to know that with all the tool sharing the kids had done they had more than just hand sanitizer on dirty hands. You can find the recipe I used on our Sparrow’s Nest Play Pinterest page.

reuseable wipes made from flannel baby blankets model sustainability for children

Hard Work Reality #3: The poop has to be buried.

Yep. You read that right. Poop.

With 30+ kids we were digging a hole and buring the contents of our makeshift compose toilet twice a week. This also necessitated that halfway through the summer, we clear a new plot for burying the waste because we kept digging up, well, you know. So into the brambles of spent blackberry bushes we went: me, a few of my besties, and my favorite machete. We cleared a 10′ x 12′ plot, drove the fence posts and hung fence to keep the kids out all on a hot, Georgia July afternoon. Because the waste wasn’t going to stop coming and this is the job. See my sexy shovel pic below.

Hard Work Reality #4: And “Other Duties” as Needed.

Every job I ever had – especially the terrible ones – had that clause in the job description. “Other duties as needed” always turned out to be things like playground maintenance, plunging toilets, standing on top of the trash in the dumpster to “smush it down” when they didn’t come so we could fit more in, and fun stuff like that. I have to say here that my “other duties” in nature education are way more tame as far as I’m concerned. Here are a few things you might want to know before you make this your full time gig:

Things to Know Before You Make Outdoor Education Your Full Time Gig:

  • the art of distracting a panicked child while you pull out a huge splinter
  • the name and species of all your local turtles
  • no less than 3 ways to transport a tooth home from the Wild Space
  • how to talk a child into using a steamy compost toilet
  • how to identify and use Long Leaf Plantain for mosquito bites
  • chicken whispering
  • how to remove a tick without ensuing panic
  • several games that require zero supplies and/or skill

Like I said, gathering this knowledge was far more pleasant than many of the things I’ve had to do in my tenure as a teacher and director of a traditional educational program. For me, the “hard work realities” listed above are indeed something I do with a smile on my face. Yes, it is hard work. But it is good work – meaningful work. And we work hard so we can play hard.

campfire with foil packets
nature play

What Camp Taught Me: Part Two

The Art and Skill of Letting Them Fail

I can already feel your tension as you read the subtitle of this blog. Failure? Encourage failure? But what about how they will feel about themselves? How will I manage their disappointment? This makes me feel terrible…like….a….a failure, right? Take a deep breath and keep reading. I need you to trust me. It’s gonna be okay.

While we were starting one of our many projects at camp this summer one of my counselors turned to me and said, “I’ve never done this project before. I’m so glad you’re here.” I quickly turned and reassured her, “Oh don’t worry, I’ve never done it either. We’ll figure it out together for the first time in front of the kids.”

Now know that this is a far cry from Classroom Vangie who, in addition to having Plans A, B, and C ready to be implemented at any moment, had also pre-prepped each and every craft, project, read aloud, song, finger-play, and game. There was never a margin for error, or failure, in my lesson plans. And my kids (and assistants) were astounded everything always worked the first time. But in truth, it had never worked the first time because I had failed the first three times at home where no one could see. Nature Vangie has realized that she was leaving out the most valuable part of each lesson for her students – error.

boy struggling to climb onto tire swing

So many of my “forest friends” who are new to nature play melt at the first sign of struggle because they have never experienced it before. So the first time they attempt to climb the tire swing and it moves, they are completely unprepared to adjust their strategy, ask for assistance and/or try again. Instead they give up.

At Bushcraft Camp, we spent Day One just making fire starters and learning our Fire Safety Rules in small teams. Day Two was “Fire Starting Day” and everything was ready to go – except our materials. These had gotten the first good rain we’d had in weeks this Georgia summer. I considered adding another activity because I knew excitement was high and that frustration would match that when fires would not meet expectations. But Nature Vangie prevailed over Classroom Vangie and I did the unthinkable – I let them struggle.

The photo on the left is their attempt on that day. I won’t lie, they were pretty frustrated. But we debriefed in teams afterwards and discussed what they’d do differently the next day. You can see much better results from Day Three when fires lit immediately due to troubleshooting on the part of the kids – not the adults.

So if you visit a Sparrow’s Nest Play program expect to see…

  • Children in the process of acquiring a new skill who may show frustration. Please be patient.
  • Arts and crafts that have been designed and completed by the children. Most of them aren’t going to make a Pinterest board but we love them more for that.
  • Adults who are asking questions instead of solving every quarrel and issue that arrises between children. You’ll hear, “Did you talk to your friend about it?” or “How do you think you can solve that problem?” or “What could you do differently next time?”
  • A peaceful, honest place of learning and discovery that welcomes the struggles that make our victories so much sweeter and children that own their challenges and accomplishments.