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.
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.
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.
As an organization only 6 months old, we are experiencing a set of “firsts.” Some of them are cause for joyful celebration, while others leave us in rapt anticipation of good things to come. And so we stand at the beginning of our first #GivingTuesday fundraising campaign frantically researching every way we can extend our reach and accomplish our mission at Sparrow’s Nest Play.
One of the most discouraging parts about being “new” and “small” is the fact that many of our efforts at fundraising for #GivingTuesday will be swallowed up by larger and more established organizations that have campaigns they paid to develop and push out. We’re homegrown here at Sparrow’s Nest Play, so every piece of graphic design, video and marketing was done on my personal laptop and posted by me. And as I told my Board of Directors at our quarterly meeting last week, even if we did have the funds for that kind of fundraising campaign, I’m not sure it falls in line with our values.
We’ve set a goal of $1500 to assist our budget needs in the first quarter of 2022. The overwhelming majority of these funds (70% of those raised) will be distributed in the form of scholarships allowing children to attend Sparrow’s Nest Play programming. The remainder of our funds will be dedicated to Operations/Marketing, items including our insurance, website fees and maintenance, and other promotional expenses. At this point in our journey, no one here at Sparrow’s Nest Play receives a salary or compensation. We are a 100% volunteer led organization at present.
The environment offered to children through Sparrow’s Nest Play benefits them and their families by providing an enrichment program designed to teach care for nature and our communities through a uniquely peaceful perspective, and the opportunity for them to have experiences and learn skills that many children raised in urban contexts may never get to have.
Through immersive play in nature, children at Sparrow’s Nest Play will:
Have a safe place to learn and grow.
Learn to care for creation through sustainable agricultural and consumer practices.
Learn the value of small things, such as small acts of love, kindness, and justice.
Experience being part of a membership with one another and with creation.
Develop and practice tools for peacemaking and reconciliation.
Consider supporting us at Sparrow’s Nest Play by donating to our mission. You can also support us by following us on our Facebook and Instagram pages and sharing our content so that word of our mission spreads.
I’m an Atlanta native, now living just outside Atlanta. That may seem commonsensical to some readers, but those here in the area might realize how extraordinary I really am. When I completed a degree in 2010, out of 38 people in my cohort, I was the only native. It is more and more rare to find people who live where they grew up. Even now, I reside around half an hour from my town of origin.
Understandably, “Where are you from?” is a regular conversation starter. You can start a great number of conversations and learn quite a lot about someone by beginning that way. Learning where someone is from gives us the opportunity reminisce about a time when we visited that part of the country, or even tell of relatives that live nearby. My husband always finds a fellow “Hoosier” when we are meeting new people.
But for all of the interesting banter this creates, the question I wish we asked is “Where is your place?” Much like the famed (and culturally inappropriate) “Laughin’ Place” of Brer Rabbit from The Tales of Uncle Remus, where is the place where you can be you? Where are you known?
For instance, we don’t venture out as often as we once did, but I can tell you with certainty that Donna at our Waffle House, Gustav at Monterry’s, Kerri at Johnny’s Pizza, and Stephanie at Chili’s all know us. Noah and Jason don’t even order any more. (Because I enjoy more variety, I usually require a little more maintenance.) It is comforting to go places where the staff remember Noah, understand about his autism, and are patient as he works through noise and other stressors during a meal. These are places we are known – they are our places.
We’ve recently come into the habit of spending even more time in our place, which is Powder Springs, Georgia. An amazing local business owner has given Noah a part-time job in his store which specializes in locally made goods, outdoor gear, and rental of bikes and kayaks. It is the coolest place in town and has become a hub of neighbor-love. Noah is now installed there and is a part of that place, as are we.
I had already fallen in love with our local library and linear park, but now I’m finding myself passionate about the people and smaller spaces within this larger place. I’m learning names, learning about the local businesses, and the history of this town. I’m becoming a part of this membership, as Wendell Berry might say.
In his poem, A Poem About Hope and Place, Berry exhorts us to “belong to your place by knowledge of the others who are your neighbors in it…” and in doing so find restoration as you age and struggle to hope.
This knowledge cannot be taken from you by power
Or by wealth. It will stop your ears to the powerful
when they ask for your faith, and to the wealthy
when they ask for your land and your work.
Answer with knowledge of the others who are here
And how to be here with them. By this knowledge
Make the sense you need to make. By it stand
In the dignity of good sense, whatever may follow.
Speak to your fellow humans as your place
Has taught you to speak, as it has spoken to you.
Speak its dialect as your old compatriots spoke it
Before they had heard a radio. Speak
Publicly what cannot be taught or learned in public.
– Wendell Berry, A Poem About Hope and Place
There is much to be spoken in this place – words of hope and inspiration, peace and unity, care and reconciliation. I must learn my neighbor to fulfill that commandment to love them, and in doing so fully love myself. This place can birth that process. It has “birthed” it for my son, a young man with a disability who was unable to get a job with the larger stores like Kroger and Publix because his speech wasn’t clear on a phone interview. Yet, in this place where he is known, his speech impediment hasn’t been an “impediment” at all. It has restored our hope.
As Berry advises, we are founding our hope “on the ground under our feet.” And in doing so, our neighbors and our place have illumined our way.
Found your hope, then, on the ground under your feet.
Your hope of Heaven, let it rest on the ground
Underfoot. Be it lighted by the light that falls
Freely upon it after the darkness of the nights
And the darkness of our ignorance and madness.
Let it be lighted also by the light that is within you,
Which is the light of imagination. By it you see
The likeness of people in other places to yourself
In your place. It lights invariably the need for care
Toward other people, other creatures, in other places
As you would ask them for care toward your place and you.
Violence against our world and our fellow beings finally cannot be dissociated from the violence of falsehood.
Wendell Berry, On Receiving one of the Dayton Literary Peace Prizes, Our Only World
I’m hardly ever consciously trying to be controversial. Usually, I just mildly annoy people with “my passion” for whatever it is I am speaking into. But occasionally, I really set someone’s teeth on edge by becoming what they might call “political” about a topic. As I’ve written in another blog on Nature and Spirituality, I’m an equal opportunity offender – irritating both the Conservative Right and the Liberal Left. It once bothered me greatly and I would loose sleep at night. Now I sleep just fine.
I preface this post with these thoughts because I know my recent research into environmental justice has made (at least) one of you uncomfortable. I can hear you saying, “Why does she have to go there? Can’t she just do her nature play outdoorsy thing and leave well enough alone? None of this really has anything to do with loving and sharing the world God made – that is Creation Care! Leave the justice issues out of it.”
The problem is that leaving justice out of it is falsehood. It is a lie of omission. Omitting the facts about our history of environmental injustices allows us to anesthetize ourselves not only to our past, but also to present and future dangers that share the lives of those we would call “brothers and sisters.”
We must act daily as critics of history so as to prevent, so far as we can, the evils of yesterday from infecting today.
Wendell Berry, On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative for the Future,’ Our Only World
While hiking at a state park just minutes from my home this weekend, I was thrilled to see many black and brown faces on the secluded trail we chose. I met so many diverse people on the trail that as I journeyed, I wondered if the issues surrounding environmental justice might have not already been solved. Maybe these issues really aren’t worth noting and writing about any more?
Suddenly as the trail descended, we were met by a large rock outcropping that I remembered reading had been studied by archeologists as a site of shelter used by Native Americans for several thousand years. I didn’t see any of them on the trail, however, because we relocated the Cherokee from this region a long time ago. And I was reminded that we are all susceptible to the violence of falsehood out of a desperation for a sense of well-being.
The hidden truth is, recognizing and acknowledging matters of environmental – or any other kind of – justice will not exclude us from appreciating, enjoying and sharing the good and beauty of a place. The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. The joy of being appreciative for a place cannot be disassociated from understanding the history of that place. And understanding the wrongs that have occurred don’t change the way I can appreciate the spicy smell of a hardwood forest.
To fail to enjoy the good things that are enjoyable is impoverishing and ungrateful.
Wendell Berry, On Being Asked for ‘A Narrative for the Future,’ Our Only World
So I will hold both the beauty and the conflict in each hand, allowing myself to always know the tension between what terrible things have happened, so as to more fully know the burning desire to share this beauty now with all peoples. Any other way of pretending is falsehood and violence. It would not be peacemaking.
Occasionally I am asked what I mean by the term “Creation Care.” Unfortunately, many people whose faith traditions are similar to mine simply see no connection between love and care for the natural world and their “spirituality.” And I find that, no matter which side of the “liberal-conservative” spectrum they identify with, when I begin to talk about caring for God’s world I find that those who would close themselves off do so for reasons which seem, on the surface, so diametrically opposed that it makes me laugh. My conviction either causes them to hear a Bible-thumbing radical that wants to indoctrinate children with rigid ideas about Creation, or else the opposite: some liberal, environmental agenda set at hijacking their “traditional Christian values.”
Indeed (and this is a matter of some importance), neither is the case. Because of this, I have found it very difficult to find “my tribe” in between these two extremes. Richard Louv said it well in Last Child in the Woods when he wrote of the precariousness of speaking of, “…spirituality of – or rather in nature – without tripping on biblical vines of interpretation, semantics and politics.” (291)
Perhaps like him, I have found myself on the outside of many institutions, realizing that they take one of many stances on the sticky combination of ecology, the natural world, and creation care:
As aforementioned, many conservative religious institutions view, in Louv’s words, “environmentalism as ersatz religion…a creeping animism” that threatens much of their fundamental doctrine.
Or, perhaps they completely stand by ecological and environmental movements of today, but see them as having nothing to do with Biblical teaching, but rather see them only as an ethic apart from the Bible.
But, sometimes I find myself in a group of people just as disillusioned as I am, without the language or home to convey the feeling of oneness with a Creator whose imprint they see when surrounded by the natural world. These people would often describe themselves as “spiritual” but more than likely, not often as “religious”
For many years I have struggled to find a place, institution or organization where I might share my passion for teaching children the respect for living things, sacredness of place and awe of the natural world. Sparrow’s Nest Play is my sacred ground, on which I hope to share my love for creation and its care.
It’s important to me that we define why the values of Sparrow’s Nest Play (nature play, creation care, and just living) are what they are, and it is important to me that you know it has nothing to do with a soapbox. The truth is, we believe that the problems inherent in the liberal and conservative camps arise from the same misunderstanding: a false dichotomy between nature and spirituality. For a fuller understanding on our beliefs about “spirituality,” see our post Spirituality Means Becoming God-like.)
Our understanding of this is why I am thankful to Richard Louv for his classic work in Last Child in the Woods, which discusses this false dichotomy between nature and spirituality in the next-to-last chapter. He captures the tension by recounting a conversation with a Conservative Christian woman in the following quote.
The Lord created and placed humans in a garden with a mandate to enjoy it, manage it with authority, in subjugation to the Creator,” she says. At the core of the creation story, she believes, is the “truth that humans are made in the image of God, sharing some of the capacities unique to God, such as freedom to choose, creativity, authority over creation.” Without an informed biblical foundation, she believes, concern for the environment falls prey to sentimentalism; idolatry of nature; bioegalitarianism (which ‘elevates animals, devalues humans); and biocentrism (which ‘disregards the biblical notion that where human needs and non-human needs are in conflict, priority goes to meeting the human needs’)”
Last Child in the Woods, 200
I pondered this for a long time after reading, re-reading, and re-reading again before I felt confident that I understood just how different my beliefs and assumptions about what scripture teaches and the beliefs of this woman are. I came to the conclusion that she and I have very differently informed “biblical foundations” when it comes to the Biblical creation account. I’ll need to begin there and then proceed to my account of what I have been led to believe Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection means for our lives here in this world.
Genesis, Creation, and Our Role
The account of creation, in Genesis and elsewhere in scripture, tells us of God placing people inside creation, making them in his image. Rather than see this image-bearing as the authority wielding power to subdue and manage, I see God as inviting us to to become caretaker and co-creators of all he had made. The Hebrew wording used for “rule” and “subdue” also indicate a leadership by “going down” and “spreading out among.” There are other verbs for “conquer” or “have dominion,” but the words used here indicate relationship and caretaking
So our faith begins with the story of how God created a beautiful world and then created people to live in it, to name it, and to do the good work of caring for it. At Sparrow’s Nest Play, we think that means that God’s original idea was for people to see themselves as a part of the world–meaning that even though the world provides our food, God made us to have a responsibility to it and to each other.
At the end of that story we’re told about sin–we think that at least part of what that means is that people started thinking about the natural world as something that was underneath them–instead of a part of them, that it was there for them to exploit and use up. They saw themselves as being outside of the world, rather than being a part of it. We think that’s part of the destructive nature of sin–to exploit and use up the people, animals, and places around us. Ultimately, we think that when Jesus came, he was establishing God’s kingdom on this earth, and he told us that that meant that God’s will would be done right here.
Jesus’ Ministry of Reconciliation
Jesus’ ministry was one of restoration, reconciliation and resurrection. As witness to the exploitative nature of humankind, he continually sought to restore and reconcile wrong ideas, actions and practices, which often involved restoring marginalized people and places. Jesus came to bring peace to a broken world. Part of that definition of peace or shalom is “enough for all.” A scarcity mindset and the belief that there aren’t enough resources (food, water, wealth, medicine, energy, etc) are at the root of greed and exploitation.
Scarcity thinking benefits the powerful and the power systems they have created. I believe Jesus’ restored Kingdom undid the powers and the systems they upheld.
Because we think Jesus came to restore us to being caretakers of this earth, at SNP, we want to help children learn why and how to take care of the soil, water, the plants, and the animals around them. We think that when they do, they’ll also learn that they are taking care of one another and themselves: that this is a way of loving their neighbor as themselves.
Spirituality in Nature
Do I believe one can engage in nature without encountering the “spiritual?” Well, I suppose that depends greatly on how one defines the word spiritual. What I can bear witness to are countless instances of both children and adults finding moments of something bigger than themselves while in the natural world. And in these moments, sometimes they had a name for the eternal and infinite. Some might have called it God, or Allah, while others chose to refer to the vastness as Mother Nature. It was this feeling of smallness among the infinite that led native peoples to create stories, handed down generation to generation, about many aspects of nature from a creation account to animal lore.
When speaking about faith-based environmentalism, Paul Gorman, founder and director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, declares, “The extent that we separate our children from creation is the extent to which we separate them from the creator – from God.” (Louv, 299) Conversely, I think it is hard to expose them to nature and not allow them to have questions about how it came about. I enjoy those conversations and being a part of them. I especially enjoy having them with children, whose mind’s eye is still so open and willing to dream and imagine a world with room for shalom.
And in a world with room enough for shalom, I think there will also be room for the neighbor-love that impacts lives large and small in every ecosystem.
In today’s busy spaces of home, work, school, and schedule it may seem like “too much” to read about one more thing you and your family needs to “fit in” to an already impossible schedule. Recreation out of doors has become a specialty niche, another group you can choose to belong to or “identify with” in order to gain a place in society’s ever fluctuating social order. But that is not what I am talking about.
I’m not proposing week-long excursions, either as a family unit or that you pay precious dollars for your child to experience. I don’t mean that I wish for you to drop the savings account on camping equipment and force everyone to “Enjoy time in creation…damn it! We’re going on this trip even if it kills us and we are going to like it because it will bring us closer to God’s creation!” And I absolutely don’t want to add another thing into a child’s already overloaded schedule.
What I am suggesting is that reconnecting and reorienting oneself with the natural world in an intimate way places us closer to the heart of God.
Where can this be done? A small patch of yard with potted plants can be a great start. For small children, just a few trees is a forest. Public parks, while controlled in landscape and play options, at least provide grassy places for sitting and trees to observe. Spots in the yard to dig in the soil, gather fallen leaves, or just sit comfortably and quietly all serve as great springboards for Creation Care.
In Last Child in the Woods, Louv recounts a conversation with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who was at the time President of the Waterkeeper Alliance and senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council. Speaking passionately about reconnecting children to nature, Kennedy said, “We don’t want to live in a world where…we’ve lost touch with the seasons, the tides, the things that connect us – the ten thousand generations human begins that were here before us…and ultimately to God” (200).
“We shouldn’t be worshipping nature as God, he said, but nature is the way that God communicates to us most forcefully. ‘God communicates to us through each other and through organized religion, through wise people and the great books, through music and art,’ but nowhere ‘with such gesture and forcefulness in detail and grace and joy, as through creation” (Louv, 200).
Not only do we feel a nearness to God when we place ourselves strategically in the natural world, we experience a smallness within ourselves, which positions us within the created order as God intended – as caretakers and watchmen of an enormous garden. When we still ourselves to notice things like blooming flowers, birdcalls, watersheds, and the markings of seasons, we see just how much has been going on around us without our notice and attention. And suddenly we are placed within eternity, as co-creators with endless opportunity to partake in a richness we had previously missed.
Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are; it offers an environment where they can easily contemplate infinity and eternity.”
Louv, Last Child in the Woods, 98
Now step back and look at the person who has themselves been recreated. They have intimacy with God by thinking about how (and perhaps “why”) he made things as he did. They wonder about many of these things daily. These people have developed critical thinking skills like observation, reflection, evaluation, inference-making, problem solving, and decision making. They are able to see themselves as part of whole, yet also as integral to its health and well-being. And they are able to contemplate time and eternity, placing themselves rightly within God’s story.
views from my “sit spot” in our backyard
I don’t know the names of all the flowers or birds that appear in my backyard – yet. Indeed it would probably take me most of the rest of my life to learn them. But I am being changed in the process of learning them. I spend more time in wonder and in awe of a creator with the capacity for such variety, substance, and wit. As I practice sitting and observing, I find myself in dialog with a Creator who created in abundance – not scarcity. This shalom realization, that there is enough for me and for his created order, is something I want to share with children. I believe it will also bring them a “peace that passes understanding.”
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.
There have always been a few “fringe philosophies” in education at any given moment. One that is moving from the fringe into a class all its own is the idea of nature play. Sparrow’s Nest Play grew out of a love for teaching creation care, along with the belief that being in nature as co-creators and stewards of this place, is a witness of peace. Angela Hanscom’s bookBalanced and Barefootwas one of the first resources I explored when looking for evidence about why nature seems to heal.
Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, began with the question: Why are so many more children struggling to sit still? She goes further to postulate, “Are we simply more sensitive to children’s needs these days? Or is there really an increase in sensory issues in young children? What is causing these problems?”
Research led her to found TimberNook, a nature-based developmental program for children because her conclusions were a resounding “Yes, there is an increase in sensory issues in young children.” Much of that foundational research is included in this book. It is exceptionally well laid out with plenty of specific examples about how certain activities meet sensory thresholds and what happens when those are not reached – or even explored. Just within the first chapter, Hanscom traces decreasing core muscle strength, poor posture, decreased stamina, fragile bones, poor balance, weakened immune systems, aggression, reading difficulties, and anxiety as issues that stem from a nature deficiency.
After laying out the many issues that can stem from a lack of experiences that come from free play in nature, Hanscom spends the next chapter speaking specifically to sensory integration. Her summation is quite dim, “There is a common thread that runs through the development of healthy motor, sensory, social-emotional, and cognitive skills. Any time there is a kink in that thread…your child is at risk for a range of problems, from having difficulty making friends to paying attention in school to controlling emotions to even losing the ability to imagine – not to mention being at risk for a range of physical injuries.” Her solution, however, as a therapist couldn’t be simpler – whole body movement and lots of it.
“When we constantly say no – ‘No climbing,’ ‘No riding your bike to Henry’s house,’ ‘no running,’ ‘There’s no time for that,’ ‘Don’t touch that,’ or ‘Get down from there,’ – we’re likely to see effects on children’s development.
As an educator, my ingrained skepticism comes out in the form of safety concerns. Having served as the Director for several programs, the words “liability” and “safety” are often out of my mouth before I’ve even had a chance to fully process the question. Even so, her chapter on allowing children to take risks (Chapter 5: “Safety First Equals Child Development Later) gave me pause to really stop and wonder how often I have defeated a child’s natural need and inclination in the name of safety. I am coming to the conclusion that while I may never describe myself as a “risk taker,” allowing for calculated risk taking is something I need to make more room for. Don’t miss her “Common Sense Safety List” beginning on page 129 to help you lay a foundation after reading this chapter. While you might not come to all the same conclusions that Hanscom does, I encourage you to read this chapter, along with Chapter 6 about the evolution of playgrounds and playground equipment with an open mind.
One of the most beneficial parts of this book, for me, was the confirmation that children need unstructured, independent play. Her research indicated that the “amount of time children spend in unstructured play has decreased by 50 percent [in the past few decades], resulting in children devoting most of their time to indoor activities.” Likewise with the average child spending as much as 5-6 hours a day in front of a television, computer, or video game screen, she makes a compelling argument for declining trends in creativity and problem solving among children as a result of lack of independent play.
“When children are deprived of both child-led and play experiences, they may struggle with higher-level thinking skills, such as coming up with their own ideas, problem solving, and other forms of creative expression. It is important that we allow plenty of independent play experiences, in which children have ample time and space to explore, create, and play with friends. It is then, and only then, that they will be able to practice the complex cognitive skills needed for a successful academic career and to reach their intellectual capabilities.”
Even if this book doesn’t inspire you to run right out and join a nature play group (or support us here at Sparrow’s Nest Play) I think it is well researched enough to stop and help us understand why we are seeing some of the fundamental changes in childhood behaviors – especially those related to sensory issues. I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a different way to reach a child who struggles to sit still and just seems all around “awkward.”
For us at Sparrow’s Nest Play, this book confirms that our bodies were made to participate in creation as caretakers and co-creators. Resources like this one help us articulate why we believe we’ve been wired to our places intimately and belong to and in them.
Welcome to Sparrow’s Nest Play! This dream seems a long time in coming to fruition, but at the same time a little bit like randomly jumping off a cliff. My hope and dream has long been to offer a place (or places) of peace for children in today’s violent, busy, and consumer oriented world. Small people can easily get lost in the “rat race.” Even more tragic, experiences that were once common among children during their development are now viewed as “fringe,” “niche,” or even “liberal.”
There is something inherent in us that wants to inspect and wonder. It is easily recognizable in the preschool aged children with which I have worked. But somewhere along the way, wonder and creativity get stifled and suppressed by standards and expectations which are far outside the natural interest of many children.
One such child I had the joy of teaching was Peyton, who simply could not imagine playground
time without sitting in a pile of wood chips rearranging them to his personal liking. He used any tool he could find to move the chips – toys, cups, spoons and other objects from our dramatic play – he just had to be digging and touching and exploring the dirt. He would come in filthy and almost require a good bathing before we could continue our learning each day. Thankfully, his mother knew of his predilection and always packed additional clothing for this purpose.
The problem? Our policy absolutely forbade the children to touch or play with wood chips in any way. One might ask, “Then why cover the playground in 3 inches of them?” As is common, this policy was the result of a lawsuit that had been filed in another center where a child had an eye injury from a wood chip thrown by another child, costing the center many thousands of dollars in settlement. Thus, it became standard policy to have be “hands off” concerning the wood chips. Similarly, they were to be discouraged from touching sticks, dirt, leaves, pine cones and any other natural debris on the playground–all things children were made to play with.
This is one example of many where I’ve seen children eager to immerse themselves in nature only to be told that nature is too dangerous and a safety liability. I witness them trying to find ways to make playground equipment move more than it does or to find heights to jump from each day, only to be told that trying this isn’t safe. As the children turn aside from reprimand, I feel like we’ve killed something natural and beautiful inside them. I always wonder if it will reemerge or if that was its last natural occurrence, and like the last thing living of its species have we doomed wonder to extinction.
And then once inside the “safety” of our classroom once again, these same children display anxiety at risk taking – just unguided but supervised play that encourages them to “see what happens if…”. Sometimes, I think that because I’ve had to tell them so many times “We don’t do that because it isn’t safe” they see danger around corners where there is none.
Sparrow’s Nest Play is a place to investigate and wonder and learn using all of those natural, God-given curiosities. With supervision and caution, teaching a child to use their senses to explore the world around them is highly beneficial to their development. But it takes intentionality. If we need to have a time of digging in the dirt, let’s provide a safe space to do so, tools to assist and an appropriate place to clean up afterwards. And let’s teach about what healthy soil is while we are doing it so we don’t waste this learning opportunity!
But more than just nature play, Sparrow’s Nest Play seeks to cultivate curiosity about our world and our place in it. We ask questions like:
Where does food come from? Who grows our food?
What does a healthy world look like? How did it get unhealthy?
What is our responsibility in caring for creation?
How should I treat my fellow human beings as we share resources?
How can I promote peace with creation and with humanity?
One day we hope to have After School Programs and Day Camps, in order to provide not just education, but experiences and a community for children to explore these questions and many more. For now we’ll be creating online curriculum and content with the hope toward partnering with small groups of like-minded individuals. Join us in our journey at Sparrow’s Nest Play. subscribe to our blog and stay up-to-date with our journey toward getting our 501-C3 designation soon!