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.


January at Nature Play Adventures

We are more than a little excited to be gearing up for our Nature Play Adventures program which will begin in January at Powder Springs Park. Here is a short preview of what our forest friends will be discovering through play and projects…

Birds in Winter

A fun part of getting to know “our forest” will be cataloging the birds that we observe there. We’ll begin identifying birds by sight and even by call for our running list of birds that live there. We’ll learn about their ideal habitats, as well as that they eat during the winter months. On our project list will be bird feeders – both for home and for “our forest.”

Winter Tree Study

We’ll also get to know our native plants and trees by mapping our forest. It’ll be a little tougher without the leaves to help us identify them, but it’ll be a lot of fun to see if our deductions based on bark and other observations were correct in the Spring when leaves come out! We’ll take some sticks and twigs from our favorites and do some nature weaving this week.

The Winter Sky

Noticing the signs of the seasons will become a daily part of our rhythm, so we’ll begin by taking note of times of sunrise and sunset each day. We’ll review each season’s solstice or eqinox and learn how this affects the length of our days and temperatures. Noting the small changes each day will sharpen our observation skills immeasurably. As we notice that we often have “wet” winters here in our region, we’ll make a rain gauge for our base camp.

The Moon

Building on our knowledge of weather and seasons, we’ll discuss the phases of the moon. We’ll research the Farmer’s Almanac for moon phases and learn about special moons like “Harvest” and “Blue” moons. We’ll be sure to have lots of books on hand about the moon and it’s phases.

Add to all of this a dash of Outdoor Safety Skills and the splash of ongoing fun that will be getting acquainted with “our forest” and you’ve got a recipe for adventure. Tell a friend about our program while there are still spots available! To register today go to our Registration Page.

nature play

Physical Benefits of Nature Play

The benefits of nature play have been known for many years, but more recently evidence-based research is documenting groups of children that have matriculated through early childhood programs and are able to display the real benefits daily exposure to nature contributed to their physical, cognitive and social-emotional development. See notes at the end of this article for links to research confirming our passion for keeping outdoor play a part of the daily life of children.

Gross Motor Skills & Coordination: It seems counter-intuitive at first, but constant exposure to walking on uneven trails, while navigating roots, rocks and other obstacles is a real boost to one’s sense of balance and coordination. Children who have struggled with clumsiness and general lack of coordination are challenged at first, but soon “get new legs” beneath them.

Upper Body Strength: Extended time in nature allows for all kinds of movement that we might typically restrict during inside play including climbing. Whether they scale a tree, using their arms to fully pull their own body weight, or just gain more use of their upper body by using their arms and shoulders as they navigate tree trunks on the forest floor, it takes little time to see an increase in upper body strength. It is very rewarding to witness the moment when a child realizes they have more strength than they once had.

Photo by Jeremiah Lawrence on Unsplash

Core Strength: As children increase in movement, they will naturally be performing activities that enhance overall strength. However a specific contributor to core strength are the types of projects children find themselves collaborating on as they engage in nature play. Building forts and bridges involved carrying and lifting – sometimes over distances as they port materials across their playspace. These kinds of movements go a long way to building up important core muscles.

Endurance: Each child arrives to a forest school or nature play setting with their own tolerance threshold for temperature and physical activity. Part of the journey as a nature guide is helping children stretch those thresholds in safe ways in order to build endurance. Modeling appropriate clothing for both staying warm and keeping cool, for instance, goes a long way to helping children self-regulate their own levels of endurance. Teaching them to drink to stay cool in the summer months and find sunny spots to keep warm in the winter to warm themselves allow them to stretch their personal boundaries and accomplish things they never thought possible of themselves.

Postural Control: As core strength, upper body strength, and gross motor coordination improve, we also see an increase in postural control. This refers to a child’s ability to sit upright without support without experiencing fatigue, while using the arms and legs to move freely. As children build more and more muscle tone in their daily nature play, so increases their postural control. This is also connected to an increased sense of equilibrium and balance.

Fine Motor Skills: In addition to the increase of Gross Motor Development, children will also develop their fine motor skills through the use of tools. The grasping rope, string, or twine in a construction or weaving project is a great example. The use of many gardening tools, as well as the act of weeding and delicately planting seedlings is another way children intricately use their developing fine motor skills. And don’t forget all the time touching, feeling and foraging as we let our imaginations and curiosity run wild identifying plants, trees and animals. Thumbing though field guides can also be a real workout.

Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash

Development of the Senses: Sensory integration is, perhaps, one of the greatest gifts of a forest education! Allowing the nervous system to “reset” and integrate the sensation of light filtering thought the leaves, the spicy smell of vegetation underfoot, the sound and feel of a breeze, as well as the sense of the weight of our own bodies as we move along an unpaved path is a true vitamin for the nervous system. Even for the neurodivergent, introducing these times of sensory awareness in small increments is an organically friendly way to open their Sensory Awareness to a fuller experience.

Risk Taking: Not enough can be said about the need for children to be exposed to opportunities for decision making and risk taking. Not scary, haphazard, dangerous risks that put them in harm’s way, but calculated choices that lead to discovery. Because the primary method of instruction and guidance (we don’t even like to call ourselves “teachers”) in forest school and nature play is open-ended questioning, children are allowed to explore their own conclusions and ideas without fear of failure or being wrong. This leads to innovation, creativity, self-confidence and is, I think, the key building block for healthy self-image.

Special thanks to Jean Lomino at the Forest Teacher Institute whose contributed to the resourcing and development of this article.

Articles for Further Study:

Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature, Child Mind Institute.

Nurtured by Nature, American Psychological Association.

Six Ways Nature Helps Children Learn, Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley.

Why Naturalize Outdoor Learning Environments? Natural Learning Initiative, North Carolina State University.

Nature-Based Education and Kindergarten Readiness: Nature-Based and Traditional Preschoolers are Equally Prepared for Kindergarten, The International Journal of Early Childhood Education.

nature play

Three TedTalks about Nature Play with Kids

Many of you saw my previous post of curated TedTalk videos expositing the neurological, social, psychological, educational and emotional benefits of being in the natural world with more frequency and intention. After viewing those over and over again, I felt like I really wanted to point to some sources that applied directly to children. In this post you’ll find three talks that specifically mention the benefit directly to children, but in each case those benefits also spill over into the lives of the whole family.

When recently asked, “Well, who will Sparrow’s Nest Play serve?” it was difficult for me to imagine where the actual benefits of this kind of thing stop. Serving a child – expanding their horizons, helping develop their physical and emotional health, and helping them build a sense of appreciation of the natural world and their place in it – doesn’t stop with the life of that one child. Almost always, that child wants to share their experience with not only siblings and friends, but with parents and caregivers. Whole families can find respite through the small action of teaching one child nature awareness.

In her talk Prescribing Nature to Health, pediatrician Dr. Noosh Razani, tells the story of her urban-dwelling family and the challenges she feared when exposing them to the outdoors. One especially poignant part of her speech revolves around her realization that she was “killing their instincts” as children with all of her concerns for their safety. Watch as she explains how she made the transition from a lonely, overly cautious mother to a professional that now prescribes “Nature Prescriptions” and believes this to be an “evidence-based health intervention.”

One of the most inspiring videos I found came from Nilda Cosco, a Research Associate Professor at the College of Design, and Director of Programs at the Natural Learning Initiative, North Carolina State University. In her TedTalk entitled, What Nature Teaches Children, she presents research on enhancing outdoor environments at childcare centers in Raleigh, North Carolina. The “health promotion interventions,” as she terms them, are not new ideas but are the spirit of a new movement. Story after story, picture after picture, will convince you that these small changes are not only achievable but completely necessary to the health and well-being of our children.

Finish off your inspiration session by watching Rebecca Brenna present Lessons Learned from Playing Outdoors. Her simple formula concludes that “experiences + choices = life lessons.” Among the virtues she credits having learned from outdoor play experience are independence, responsibility, creativity, teamwork, compromise, negotiation and risk taking.

I hope these videos truly give you, as a parent, caregiver, or educator a sense of “no fear, just wonder.” Wonder at the amazing possibilities that are awaiting us if we just utilize our imaginations and the wonderful opportunities nature has to offer.

nature play

Three TedTalks About the Benefits The Natural World

We’ve all heard that “nature is beneficial” for our health and general well-being. But it can fall on deaf ears when we are also inundated with new diet crazes, vitamin regimens and fitness routines that also promise to change our lives as we know them. I’d like to offer three short videos based on research and neuroscience that show how exposure to nature – at little to no cost – is life altering.

While these three TedTalks are directed to adults, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to apply the principles to the lives of our children. (Look for a future post highlighting Three TedTalks About Nature Benefits for Children.) A common theme in each brief message is intentionality. As you view these, seriously consider the small amount of intentionality it would require to incorporate nature awareness as a regular discipline in your routine.

Jon Young, one of the authors of Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature, frames his talk on Repairing Emotional Isolation by Reawakening Deep Nature Connection with the idea of being “super-natural.” In his view, combating isolation involves awareness and connectedness of place that leads to applied mindfulness. His insights on becoming intuitive through sensory awareness, especially through the use of Sit Spots, have led me to begin this discipline on my own.

After spending time writing “nature prescriptions,” Ronna Schneberger went to Japan to study Shinrin Yoku, the art of forest bathing. As she shares her insights on how Those Who are Nature-Wise Have an Edge, she expounds on three specific ways to begin your nature-wise journey toward being energized, more focused and experiencing enhanced clarity.

Last but certainly not least in impact and importance, David Strayer shares his research in cognitive restoration through nature exposure in his talk Restore Your Brain with Nature. After teasing out the hidden and not so hidden tensions between our technology based, multitasking culture and the natural world, he shares research based benefits to prolonged nature exposure.

At Sparrow’s Nest Play, we hope to be a source of information that can “cut through” a lot of the noise and be a short cut of sorts for you that curates good resources for nature play, creation care, and just living. We hope these resources have been useful and have given you the inspiration to go outside and enjoy the natural world today.