This glorious morning in mid-May brings us an early sunrise, bird song, croaking toads, frolicking farm animals and the flood of new life that keeps this farmer moving. Simultaneously, the American school calendar means that May is also a time of winding down and reflecting on a season’s worth of work. And oh, what a year it has been.
Just like everyone, I’ve shifted my work to make space for the pandemic that has impacted our world. At first, I had so much frustration that the structures I so carefully put into place shifted and changed while the Earth seemed to move under our feet. But then, we recalibrated, found what we COULD do and pushed through to work and play in new ways. Ohio Naturally’s four pillars of Teacher Training, School Business Consulting, Community Building and Play, and Advocacy continued. During the season of work, it sure didn’t seem like enough-but, as I reflect, I feel the need to celebrate all of the contributions Ohio Naturally made. Since there is a staff of one here-me-there is no office party, but a quiet morning with the birds documenting the work with joy.
Most excitingly was direct work with children! Through various contracts, volunteer projects, and partnerships I was able to provide direct programming to over 350 children ages 3-8. This was a shift that wasn’t originally part of the Ohio Naturally plan, but so needed in a time where so much was moving online. As I look back, this programming morphed and changed as the pandemic did. From a weekly online invitation based on map making and exploring with the development of The Big Map-Out! at Agraria in Yellow Springs, to social studies lessons (my roots in education) with homeschoolers, to direct nature exploration programs with children at a Centerville elementary school, I have had the opportunity to build community and keep children learning and playing outside all year!
My adult community grew too! Through many conferences, the Ohio Nature Based Early Childhood Education Collaborative and co-sponsoring a professional development book study, there were so many relationships deepened across the miles. Thank you to my zoom account! I have been able to connect with people I had only heard about like the folks down at the Arlitt Child Development Center in Cincinnati, Black Lives Matter at School organizers, OAEYC, ODNR, and a wonderful educator in Columbus providing training for gender studies in ECE-just to name a few! Representing Ohio, I’ve also been able to connect with a national network of nature-based programs through the Regional Network sponsored by Natural Start Alliance. Inspiration abounded as early childhood educators across the Dayton area met at the Kindergarten Readiness Summit this spring followed up by lots of volunteer hours helping build a beautiful Mosaic of Hope!
I literally lost count of the number of trainings, workshops, and webinars I attended over the past year-I have a feeling I’m not alone! Topics included non-profit management, leadership development, diversity, equity and inclusion, gender issues in ECE, bee keeping, black farming in Ohio, marketing, non-profit development and board creation, and seed saving. Then came April! April is conference season in early childhood education and I was honored to deliver over 10 trainings to educators across the state-again, thank you zoom! While it was on a screen, what a joy it was to be able to meet new folks and encourage their efforts to utilize the outdoors as their third teacher.
In addition to these public trainings, dozens of conversations were happening behind the scenes through the school business consulting efforts. This is something that is so difficult to quantify as many individuals yearn to teach in concert with nature. When I began the journey of nature-based education, I wished that there had been someone here in Ohio to answer all of my random licensing questions or to help me see the bigger picture and consider my work from different angles. That is the original goal of Ohio Naturally, to help increase capacity for others teach children outside in new and beautiful ways.
As I step back and observe at a macro level, the advocacy piece of the Ohio Naturally initiatives don’t see immediate results, but every voice matters! I am proud to advocate for nature-based education through Miami Valley Leave No Child Inside as well as a national initiative with Nationwide Children’s hospitals to support mental health called #ontheirsleeves. On the top of my mind though, is the broader societal issue of accessible, affordable, high-quality childcare. The pandemic has shown America how important care is for our economy and work to continue, yet it remains a field that is under-appreciated and underfunded. I am horrified that the gains women have made in the workforce were cut off at the knees as they disproportionately took on the weight of childcare. We need to examine the mantra of rugged individualism and come together in order to thrive. This is the guiding light that I see moving my work forward into the next few years. Childcare is education. Education is care. Black Lives Matter. Indigenous Lives Matter. It is hard; but we can do hard things.
As I know every other teacher is doing right now, I’m preparing to temporarily set down the weight of the last school year. I will celebrate all of the work and show gratitude for being able to wake each day to do it while so many had that chance taken away. I will take these big ideas and let them shift and change as I move through the cycle from teaching work to farming work. While I’m literally growing food I’ll be growing ideas and energy-I do my best thinking on the tractor! Peace and well wishes to you.