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.

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!


A Special Day is Coming

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: 

  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. 

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.

creation care, environmental justice, justice, theology

The Violence of Falsehood

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.

creek bed along trail

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.

rock outcropping used by Native Americans

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.

environmental justice, justice

Just Living: 3 Videos about Environmental Justice

I recently emailed a colleague in the nature play movement about my desire to draw awareness to inequalities in access to nature. Because his passion is also for exposing the gaps in access to green spaces and the challenges faced by urban youth, I knew he would be able be honest with me about just how much a white woman can speak into this issue.

He wrote back that he was simply “humbled” by my interest and acknowledgement of something he has probably known intimately all of this life. More than anything, I want to be the one humbly speaking about this issue, supporting voices of color as they look for support and justice. One of the best ways I can do that today is to share three short videos that outline what the environmental justice movement is, and how it impacts the lives of people I care about.

Environmental Justice, Explained does a wonderful job of explaining how long practiced systems of racism, compounded with pollution and climate change, make people of color highly susceptible to environmental injustice.

And it doesn’t stop with the environment. Watch What is Health Equity? to learn how lack of exposure to green space, affordable and healthy food, lead to health issues that greatly impact quality and quantity of life for millions of people.

And finally, there is perhaps no more respected voice than that of Robert Bullard, the Father of Environmental Justice. In this episode of Chasing the Dream: Pollution is Segregated, this brilliant sociologist details the origin and effects of environmental justice.

True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”

Martin Luther King Jr.

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.