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!

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)


  • 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


  • 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!


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.

Vangie laying on bench at end of hot, long day

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.

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. 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.

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.


March Meet Up

We’re thrilled to be partnering with our friends at Rooted Trading Company for another great Pop-Up Event on Saturday, March 12th from 11am to 4pm. Our goal is to recreate a mini Sparrow’s Nest Play experience so families can learn about us and try us out before making a commitment to our afternoon enrichment program, Nature Play Adventures, beginning in March at Powder Springs Park. Here is what you can look forward to…

For Parents:

  • This is a great chance to meet our staff and ask questions about our program.
  • Watch your children interact with our staff and the kind of play we practice each day.
  • Pick up articles and information about the benefits of nature play and time spent outdoors for children.
  • Cash in on discounts on our annual Registration Fee!

For Kids:

  • Plant your very own seedlings to take home and watch grow!!
  • Play in our fort with our “campfire,” small world play, and other nature toys.
  • Enjoy looking through our books about nature and the great outdoors.
  • Make a fun nature craft to take home while making new friends!

We have one more vent planned for April, so if you don’t catch us in March you can watch our Facebook and Instgram for announcements about upcoming events.

events, nature play, programs

Come Meet Us

Pop Up Event February 12th at Rooted Trading Company from 11am - 4pm

We’re thrilled to be partnering with our friends at Rooted Trading Company for our very first Pop-Up Event on Saturday, February 12th from 11am to 4pm. Our goal is to recreate a mini Sparrow’s Nest Play experience so families can learn about us and try us out before making a commitment to our afternoon enrichment program, Nature Play Adventures, beginning in March at Powder Springs Park. Here is what you can look forward to…

For Parents:

  • This is a great chance to meet our staff and ask questions about our program.
  • Watch your children interact with our staff and the kind of play we practice each day.
  • Pick up articles and information about the benefits of nature play and time spent outdoors for children.
  • Cash in on discounts on our annual Registration Fee!

For Kids:

  • Play in our fort with our “campfire,” small world play, and other nature toys.
  • Enjoy looking through our books about nature and the great outdoors.
  • Make a fun nature craft to take home while making new friends!

Similar events are also planned for March and April, so if you don’t catch us in February you can watch our Facebook and Instgram for announcements about upcoming events.