The Green Spirituality of Playgrounds

I guess I am doin' all right. I'm studyin', and like the teacher says, it pays off. A lot of time, though, I wish I could walk out of that school and find myself a place where there are no whites, no black folk, no people of any kind! I mean a place where I'd be able to sit still and get my head together; a place where I could walk and walk and I'd be walking on grass, no cement with glass and garbage around; a place where there'd be the sky and the sun and then the moon and all those stars....I feel I can stop and think about what's happening to me-it's the only place I can, the only place.

-A 12-year-old girl who had never left her neighborhood (recorded in Boston, 1974, by Robert Coles)

In families with children, the year does not begin in January. Rather, August waning and September waxing signals the advent of another school year. In addition to the usual totems of fall-leaves, cider, pumpkin pie, Indian corn-there is an almost wholesale absence of children outside.

I do not mean to write about the return to school. Rather, whether urban or rural, most of us move indoors dictated by weather and seasonal change. I welcome the invitation to turn homeward after summer's gregariousness and I appreciate the structure. But empty playgrounds and vacant ball diamonds lead me to think about the importance of space in the lives of children and those they depend on to make sure that space is adequate, safe, ripe with possibility, and rich in beauty.

Certain physical settings trigger a feeling of one's smallness in the cathedral of otherness. Sometimes unnerving, mostly deeply rewarding, this experience is common in nature. What is it about creation that moves the soul in two directions at once: on a dead-eye trajectory toward God and into the quiet eddies of inner space? Many people whose self-described spiritual commitments are not with conventional religion or institutions report their encounters with nature in expressly spiritual terms-commune, unity, creative, divine, healing, restorative.

FOR MOST urban children, especially those in poor families, the playground offers what limited experience of nature these people in formation have. Beginning with playgrounds and parks-both the numbers and locations of these play spaces do not readily serve all children-we must reacquaint young people with nature. And we should reconfigure our conceptions of these spaces to make the experience of nature more immediate.

In the Turkey Thicket neighborhood of Washington, D.C., there is a grand climbing structure composed of tree trunks salvaged after being downed in a storm. Call me romantic, but the opportunity to shimmy up and down a 4-foot-'round tree confers more blessings than those possibly embodied in metal monkey bars. Flower boxes have transformed some streets in the Bronx. Are these red geraniums a new kind of flower power?

Working for green space may seem trivial when faced with the complexity and gravity of a struggle for justice and peace in the world. But the very complexity and enmeshed nature of problems means that we must unravel the knots where we find them. Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem, knows the potential of art to build compassion in discouraged children. But dancers need a place to dance. The stage is only as good as the world it reflects. Building community play spaces and peeling back the urban veneer will reacquaint all God's children with Eden.


The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places . By Gary Paul Nabhan and Stephen Trimble. Beacon Press, 1994.

The Spiritual Life of Children. By Robert Coles. Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Guide to Environmental Activities and Resources in North American Religious Community. By the Joint Appeal by Religion and Science for the Environment, 1047 Amsterdam Ave., New York, NY 10025.

North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology, 161 Front St., Suite 200, Traverse City, MI 49684.

North American Coalition on Religion and Ecology, 5 Thomas Circle NW, Washington, DC 20005.

MARYBETH SHEA writes from Mt. Rainier, Maryland, where she lives with her husband and three children. She has been a poet in residence at area schools and is on the faculty of the University of Maryland Art Center.


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