It’s the Little Things

Is this tiny pond
the great big lake in which
I swam as a boy?

– Richard Wright, Black Nature.

Think about San Francisco. It’s a city of considerable wealth. There are more “haves” than “have nots.”  It’s also a city with seemingly multiple opportunities to connect to the outdoors. But there are pockets of the city that are not able to easily do so.

Addressing this issue using an “equity lens” means providing additional resources to bring nature closer to these communities.

Equity is about the reallocation and prioritization of resources and access to address the fact that these have been, and continue to be, systematically removed or denied to specific communities, segments of society, and/or people of marginalized identities.

It isn’t only about taking children on a field trip to Golden Gate Park. It’s also about finding ways to actively bring nature to the communities where there are fewer nature play opportunities.

The San Francisco Children & Nature Collaborative is using this equity lens to ensure all children and youth have the opportunity to play, learn, and grow in nature. For example, a few years ago, they piloted a hugely successful project to repurpose downed trees and provide natural loose parts to support nature play at early education sites that had more concrete and metal than green space.

It may seem that something ostensibly so small – more natural elements – couldn’t have the potential to be transformative. But it had a huge impact because the need was so great.

What I love about this program is that it reminds us to focus on the “little things.” We often jump to the big projects – the capital campaigns with the thermostats showing how close we are to raising the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to build a state of the art playground or structure that will improve the experience for the community. And, don’t get me wrong, those experiences and structures are important as well. But, as I think about those preschoolers in San Francisco, I am reminded that it’s often the smaller scale, more immediate experiences that can make a big difference. In fact, I recently learned it was a “little thing” that sparked my own curiosity with the outdoors.

A few years ago, I asked my mother if she was surprised that I was engaged in this field. She said absolutely not… spending time outside had always been a part of my life. She loved being outside and, quite naturally, she passed this along to me and my sister.

She felt like the true planting of this seed of curiosity happened in our backyard one afternoon when I was around four years old. After pestering her for a cookie, I took it outside and immediately dropped it on our patio. From my position on the patio, I could see her face inside the house disappear and I thought, “I am in trouble.” When she came outside, she was carrying the three-legged stool, with a magnifying glass in the middle, that I had received earlier that year for Christmas. She handed me another cookie, placed the magnifying glass over the broken cookie bits, and told me to watch. Then she went back into the house.

I remember peering into the glass and being mesmerized. Our patio had come alive. Ants were coming from everywhere! They were carrying the pieces of my broken cookie into the nooks and crannies of the bricks. When I moved my head away from the magnifying glass, I couldn’t really see them, which was also really fascinating. My mother tells me that I sat outside for hours – dragging the stool across the patio and onto the grass – moving on from the ants and the cookie and exploring all sorts of other things. She felt like it was in that moment that I realized there was all this life outside. That my curiosity deepened and I started to understand the difference between the natural and the built environment, and that I expressed a greater interest in the natural one.

That little experience has grown into this bigger journey for me. It continues to spark my curiosity and has offered me extraordinary opportunities both personally and professionally. It started with a little thing: a three-legged stool with a magnifying glass in the middle of it, a cookie, and a mom who allowed me to sit with crumbs in our backyard.

So I tell people, in this world of big challenges, don’t overlook the little things. Make them happen and celebrate them.