Environmental studies teacher Deja Jones believes in the healing qualities of outdoor play and learning from the environment. She's opening a new Montessori school and urges Black families to redefine nature in ways that connect with the Black experience.
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Kids use garden tools to dig in a raised garden bed.
Credit: Deja Jones

Few states recognize nature education as a standard way of learning or curriculum. Finding a federally- or state-funded program is virtually impossible for Black families, even though there are many benefits. As co-founder of Honeypot Montessori, opening in Newark, New Jersey in the fall, Deja L. Jones, M.Ed hopes to restore nature-based play and "give children some of that outdoor time that they would not have otherwise, either at home or in their neighborhoods." Newark is one of 10 states with increasing concentrated child poverty. Jones' goal for Honeypot is to remove as many barriers that prevent Black youth from nature-based play as possible. 

She says outdoor play at the local park was one of the best parts of her childhood. The adults in her life fostered this access. 

Jones says, today, these instances of "place-based education" are rare for Black children. The  "nature gap" leaves people of color, those in low-income communities, and those with children with less access to nature and more likely to live in nature-deprived places. Environmental racism—like the predominance of air and water pollution, under-maintained educational facilities, and gentrification in Black and brown communities—leaves youth with limited access to green spaces and the benefits of outdoor play. 

Jones says Black youth deserve immersive and culturally relevant nature-based experiences. 

In an interview with Kindred by Parents.com, Jones, who is working on her Ph.D. on the benefits of nature education for Black youth, addresses the barriers to Black children experiencing the healing components of nature-based play.

You say the bell hooks quote, "When we love the earth, we are able to love ourselves more fully," speaks to nature-based experiences as indigenous to Black people. What do Black children gain from nature-based experiences? 

You develop a sense of responsibility when you're taking care of something. You develop a sense of gratitude and a feeling of fulfillment when you can take care of and help cultivate something and see something from seed to fruit or seed to vegetable. And Black kids, we don't get those experiences.

There's so much research that shows that nature experiences at an early age help children develop social and emotional skills that they lack when they come into school. 

The kids put their gloves on, and they're just digging the soil with their hands mixing it up. And you can see in their face—they're concentrating, zoomed in, and thinking about what they're doing. They're curious, they're examining, they're finding worms, and they're finding spiders and ladybugs and all these other things. It boosts the child's confidence and mental and physical health. It's important for Black kids to have these experiences because it helps them construct themselves, it helps them find meaning in the lives that they're living, and it helps them create a sense of understanding of their relationship to this world. 

A close up of a child's hand holding a worm
Credit: Deja Jones

How can nature-based experiences and the Montessori method specifically benefit disabled and neurodivergent black youth?

Being outside is a sensory experience. When you're touching soil, you're feeling the texture of the soil. You might look at a piece of dirt and think, "Oh, it's gonna be drying hard, but it's soft, and it's a little moist.' You're able to isolate things based on senses, you know, you get to isolate smells in the garden, or smells that you might smell outside, you get to isolate textures. There's also the ability to develop concentration skills. Because being outside and doing tasks like gardening, it requires multi-steps. 

Montessori is very individualized, which is why it's also suitable for children who are neurodivergent. Each child in the Montessori classroom has an individualized plan automatically, regardless of if they have a classified learning disability or not. The way Montessori is taught helps neurodivergent children build a capacity to do multi-steps. Nature therapy is very good for developing the senses, developing concentration and endurance in children, and helping them develop critical thinking skills. It also gives children autonomy, which is very important. 

A lot of neurodivergent children, or children who might need one-on-one support, might feel like they don't have ownership of themselves because they need constant support and check-ins. But being out in nature, being out in the environment they get to explore on their own and they get to draw their own conclusions, have individualized thoughts, and come to their own conclusions about the way things are working for them and what makes sense for them.

Harvest of green tomatoes and peppers in wooden baskets
Credit: Deja Jones

What are some of the specific benefits you hope to bring to Newark? 

Newark has never had a Montessori school. They've also never had one that is nature-focused—this will be something completely new to the community. It would benefit the children in Newark because Newark is a very hot place in terms of the environmental justice movement. Still, it's also going through a very, very aggressive gentrification process, where there are a lot of apartment buildings popping up. There are fewer green spaces. There's this destruction of green spaces, and one of the goals of Montessori, Honeypot Montessori, is to really, rewild a portion of the community that the school is going to be in to create more green spaces since the green spaces are being taken away. 

It's also the notion that about 50% of our day will be spent outside, learning in nature. Then the other 50% will be inside going through the traditional Montessori method. Children will get to experience more outdoor experiences and an autonomous form of pedagogy. 

Headshot of Deja Jones
Credit: Deja Jones

What suggestions do you have for parents who want to expose their children to nature? 

When I was in elementary school, we would do a lot of nature walks in the park. We would try to find pinecones, collect leaves, and do all these cool science projects in the park. I'll never forget this one trip in second grade, where we learned how to get the sap out of maple trees. And we were able to taste and sample it.

It starts with what they see—reading stories like Jayden's Impossible Garden to them that have children of color as the main characters doing things in nature, pointing out a little weed coming through to concrete. Find nature wherever you can find it. Have some seeds, get a pot, and teach your kid how to start an indoor herb garden. It's very affordable.