nature play

Mindfulness, Rhythms, & Rituals

My Forest Teacher Training continues to be a rewarding experience night after night. At the close of each class, I feel as though I have conducted a session of forest school myself, thanks to the open-hearted sharing of the group and of our guides. Last night’s topic spoke to creating “Mindfulness, Rhythms, & Rituals” – what I used to call scheduling.

When I created schedules for schools where I directed, it was a matter of weaving “specials” (Art, Music, Spanish, etc.) into each classroom’s daily routine in order to intricately weave a balanced masterpiece that was pleasing to parents and teachers. Inevitably, someone was not pleased. Maybe their much coveted Playground slot, at a time they felt disturbed the learning flow. Or perhaps, the day the Spanish teacher could come pushed Snack back by 15 minutes. Sometimes the teachers of the special subjects also had requests, like teaching all of the younger classes on Tuesdays, and older students on Thursdays. Making the “master schedule” was a task that often took a week’s worth of painstaking, working and reworking to my (and everyone else’s) ultimate frustration and disappointment.

Not even referred to as “schedule,” this method of planning your day was a breath of fresh air. Based on the Waldorf School philosophy of the inhale/exhale flow of energy. The general idea is that each of our daily routines has an intrinsic flow of energy – some moments giving or restoring energy like a deep inhale, and others a burst or release of energy as an exhale. Likewise, we considered the day to be a combination of moments where children might take a deep breath in to focus and concentrate to gain energy, followed by spurts of activity that allowed for energy release.

Surrounding all of this was the practice of mindfulness, paying attention to our bodies and the world around us. Without an intentional spirit of mindfulness, it becomes impossible to develop healthy rhythms. A friend and I were recently discussing moments when we realize a disjointed feeling, and then wondering how long we’ve been just pushing through those feelings ignoring them. I’ve spent most of my adult life “pushing through” or ignoring symptoms of burnout or stress with the idea that it was just normal. It isn’t. It leads to higher cortisol levels and narrows the space in the brain for the capacity to take in information. Don’t get me started on how it stifles creativity.

Mindfulness exercises, integrated into the learning day, train children to maintain intentional contact with their own bodies and environment. This sense of self-awareness is key to building social emotional intelligence. Accomplished through 5 minutes exercises in deep breathing, listening, focused meditation, or quiet contemplation, mindfulness is currently being integrated classrooms of all kinds to assist students who display undesired behaviors. However, these routines, applied to traditional classrooms have limited impact without the continued benefits of a daily schedule that is built around inhaling and exhaling.

But more and more evidence supports the claim the nature based learning, when paired with mindfulness practices, allows the child to develop physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively without the constraints that a typical classroom places on them. As well intentioned as I was developing those schedules, I don’t think the first question I really asked was “What do the students need at this point in their learning day?” Instead, my priorities had to be standards to be met or the schedules that I was building this schedule on.

Last night I learned to ask the following questions:

  • What do the children need at this point in their learning day?
  • Has something happened to change the typical energy of today, should I add an “inhale moment” to refocus us?
  • Have the children been inhaling for so long they are close to bursting? How can we exhale and stay in a creative flow?
  • What daily opening and closing routines would bring mindfulness and meaning into the lives of my students?
  • Which quarterly, seasonal and annual rituals are the most mindful and meaningful to my students and their families?

I’m becoming a better educator than I’ve ever been through this Forest School Training. I’d like to offer special thanks to Bonnie Cretton from Woodsong Forest School for acting as a compassionate guide in showing me all the ways to craft a child’s learning day in ways that speak meaning into their lives and the subject matter they are learning.

nature play

Why We Need Sparrow’s Nest Play

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 dumptruck in the sane
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.

image of toddler's hand while sitting in leaves with shovelSparrow’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!