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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
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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
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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.

giant adarondak chair at Our Giving Garden
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What Camp Taught Me: Part One

Remembering What I Already Knew

Hi friends! Long time no blog. Spring was a challenging season at SNP followed up by Summer which was SLAM PACKED with programming and fun! Know that each time I saw a poignant moment I made a mental note to share it with all of you once things calmed down and I could begin “blog season” once again.

I had the incredible opportunity to lend my skills and further ply my trade at a great place nearby called Our Giving Garden. If you don’t know about this place, you’ve really got to check it out. I am so thankful for the seven weeks of programming I was allowed to create and run alongside with some amazing counselors. We ran camps about gardening, pond studies, environmental studies, bushcraft skills, campfire cooking, crafting with nature, and animal care there at their farm and forest site in Mableton, GA.

It was good for the body and soul but, most importantly, it reminded me of some foundational principals that I already knew to be true but tend to forget if I’m not able to be engaged in wild spaces with children regularly. These principals have so profoundly affected me that I have allowed them to shape my career goals – indeed they are why we began Sparrow’s Nest Play.

The Gift of Presence

The gift of being present in the moment with a child is priceless. Nature play and emergent learning allows for agendas to be completely forgotten so that my full attention and “presence” can be offered as a gift to each and every child. Never underestimate the value of taking the time to notice just how amazing that particular worm they have in that hand is. I remembered the value of asking questions that invite investigation. And finally, I experienced the joy of sharing wonder together. All because I was present.

child brings large worm for adult to see

The Value of Unstructured Play Outdoors

Now it isn’t always idyllic. Almost each session had at least one child who had been signed up by a parent or grandparent so they could experience this for the very first time. I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t say it was somewhat painful to watch those kids try and acclimate themselves to the all-day, outdoor environment. But only in that kind of space – the Wild Spaces – could I have seen this particular kind of magic happen.

In every case, those standoffish children would begin to become curious. (After, first complaining loudly that they were bored and didn’t have anything to do.) If even out of that sheer bordom, they’d soon begin to poke around and try and figure out what the other children were finding so intriguing and engaging in all this dirt and sweat. And then, communication began between those who had been strangers and “others” to one another. Questions turn into ideas, projects and stories. Sticks become wands, pine boughs become brooms and paintbrushes, and hollows of trees become treasure troves of keepsakes to be visited and revisited. Curiosity leads to communication. Communication facilitates imagination. Then imagination makes them curious again. And round and round it goes all the day long.

view from behind of two children seated on long

Nature Restores

When I first experienced this kind of healing, I was in East Atlanta working at a day camp. You can find that story on our YouTube Channel. In 30+ years of camp programming with children, I’ve yet to have a summer that didn’t encounter a child experiencing profound grief and loss. Sometimes it is the loss of a grandparent, parent, or sibling. Other times they are struggling to make sense of divorce or another life transition over which they have no control. This summer was no different in that aspect. Some children were grieving loss of a beloved family member, others anticipating a divorce or transition. No less than three children were preparing for an out-of-state move. Some of them bore the marks of worry, others of extreme loneliness. A few still bore the scars of feeling deficient due to learning differences they experience in the traditional school classroom.

But the Wild Spaces offer a healing and restoration unlike any other. For some, it is learning a new skill they might have thought unattainable – like how to whittle a stick with a knife. For others, it is physically accomplishing a task they didn’t think themselves strong enough to do – like rolling a large log into place for an obstacle course they can enjoy with their friends. Still others just realize they can make friends more easily than they thought and that people find them likable and that they have valuable ideas to contribute when building a shelter or playing a game. Most of this is completely un-orchestrated by an adult, but I count myself very honored to witness the healing miracle.

boy learns to whittle with knife

I’ve got more to share about summer camp and all that I “remembered” while I was there, but I hope these three help remind you today that some of the most valuable things you can give a child can’t be bought but can only be freely given.

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Pinterest for Curated Content!

Curated content is a fancy way saying, “Ain’t no such thing as an original idea!” This was my personal motto for years as a curriculum writer and director. As long as I give credit to where credit is due, I feel like “sharing is caring.”

So this is just a small Shout Out to our Sparrow’s Nest Play Pinterest page. I’ve been accumulating content for years, but now we’ve got it all in one space. Topics (or Pinterest boards for seasoned “dinners”) include everything from favorite Quotes and Memes, Book Lists, Units of Study, Place Spaces, and of course, Sparrow’s Nest Play content.

I’d love to connect with you on Pinterest, or one of our other social media platforms to hear your ideas about nature play! Please reach out and connect so we can form a hub of like minds that are here to make teaching children in nature a fully resourced movement!

I feel passionately about this movement to get us outside learning and I know I am not alone. If you are a school – no matter how big or small – doing nature play in anyway, please connect with us through Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or by following us here on the blog or leaving us a message. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn. I’d love to chat and find out how YOU are incorporating nature play into your educational experience.