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News + PoliticsEducationTeaching Behind the Mask: Young kids and nature, in the city

Teaching Behind the Mask: Young kids and nature, in the city

'I am not sure whose idea it was to put children inside shoe boxes all day and call that schooling.'


Teaching Behind the Mask is a series of voices from infant, toddler, and pre-school classrooms across San Francisco. It’s a collaboration between Barbra Blender, Eliana Elias, and the remarkable early-childhood education teachers who continue to serve children and families during the pandemic. You can see more installments here.

If you walk through McLaren Park, Glenn Canyon, Crissy Field, Ocean Beach, the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, or any other treasured San Francisco natural space, you might see her. 

She usually carries a heavy backpack, filled with children’s books, a first aid kit, magnifying glasses, art supplies and other learning tools. You will quickly realize that she is no ordinary hiker.

If you watch her closely, you will learn so much. Her name is Angelica Guerrero and she will be accompanied by six young children and her assistant, Emma Sandford.

Angelica Guerrero connects learning to nature

Angelica is a well of wisdom — wisdom about caring for our children, wisdom about how our disconnection from nature is causing us harm, wisdom about the importance of rooting children in their home languages and cultural traditions, wisdom about how communities can become change makers, and wisdom about how policies impact deeply rooted social injustices.   

She will be the first one to tell you that her learning thus far in life is not the result of a solitary pursuit. Instead, she insists on sharing the credit for her insights with many people and places that, as she describes, have helped her create a colorful tapestry, uniting many of her beliefs and convictions into a strong and beautiful woven blanket. Each thread comes with complexity, but fits perfectly into other threads, forming a worldview that is personal, joyful, fierce and unapologetically political.

Following the first thread will lead us to picture Angelica in Mexico:

It was 1996. I was hired by the Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes. The goal was to bring art experiences to children and teachers, who had lost their schools during the conflicts that devasted Chiapas.

From afar, I watched carefully as a teacher worked with a group of children. The teacher was standing on a rock, in a beautiful natural setting and the children were surrounding her. It was a math lesson. In the absence of a blackboard, the teacher was using sticks to write on a smooth patch of earth as children counted their collections: sticks, rocks, and leaves. That moment opened my eyes and made me see natural spaces as the right place for children to learn. 

I had brought plasticine, a type of clay used as a medium to work with the children, but I immediately felt like I was “cheating.”  I put that clay aside and adopted the indigenous view:  What can I use that is already here? 

Soon the children, the teachers and I were studying ways to use local mud to make clay. That month, working with Indigenous communities, changed my life and my career path. Rather than pursuing the arts, I turned my attention to children, and to the ways children interact with Nature.

Following the second thread will lead us to 2005, to a group of mamas that Angelica names individually: Miranda, Robin, Molly and Kris. 

Angelica had moved to San Francisco a few years before, accompanying her husband, who had enrolled in a masters’ program.  She was learning English and taking Early Childhood Education classes at City College.  

She, like the other mamas, was looking for an ECE program for her own children. There were few desirable options. Together, the mamas researched the regulations and licensing requirements and in 2005 started a small family child care for six children, lovingly named Billy Goats or Las Cabritas . They anchored the program in three fundamental values: Nature education, Parent participation and Parent education. She adds: “At the heart of a good early childhood program, we must have a strong community.”

Applying the lessons that she had learned from her time in Chiapas, Angelica committed to creating a nature-based program with some time indoors at her own home.  And even through a computer screen, one feels how passionately Angelica discusses the impact that nature has on children’s development:

I am not sure whose idea it was to put children inside shoe boxes all day and call that schooling.  In fact, I remember walking through the San Francisco parks during school hours thinking:  Why are these spaces empty? These are the times when we should have children using our parks, our trails, our beaches! Nature provides us with multisensorial environments that lead us to a deeper understanding.   When we are immersed in nature we become a part of a microsystem. This sense of belonging helps us to ask ourselves some fundamentally human questions: What is my place here?  How am I connected to this place?  Children’s sensitive sensory systems get everything they need through their interactions in natural spaces. The “terrible twos,” I have concluded, are a direct result of sensory deprivation.

This astute observation is backed up by research.  In the book “The Last Child in the Woods,” the author Richard Louv coins the expression Nature Deficit Disorder, sparking a global conversation about the negative impact of humans’ growing separation from nature. And now it is common for pediatricians to prescribe “vitamin N” – time in nature- as a remedy for many childhood ills. 

In addition to all the health benefits that natural environments bring to children, Angelica points us to the rich learning that occurs: 

When we spend time in nature my job as an educator is to observe closely and respond to children’s boundless curiosity.  I don’t have to ‘educate’… I can wait for the right moments and expand on the concepts that are unfolding right before our eyes.  Last week, for example, our school was at McLaren Park. There were warning signs about coyotes. I came prepared for this. 

As soon as someone started to use a loud chainsaw on one side of the park, I interrupted the children.  They had been quietly looking for worms (we found none).  I told them… do you hear that sound?  Often, these loud noises disrupt creatures.   Soon after that, my assistant Emma Sanford alerted me to a coyote. I calmly said: Coyote alert! 

The adults moved to the front, and the children knew what to do.  They moved to the back.  We lifted our arms, and the coyote kept moving in the direction opposite to the chainsaw sounds.  We followed by clapping our hands, knowing that this would send a message for the coyote to keep moving.   After this eventful moment, we paused to learn. I pulled some books about coyotes out of my backpack.  We compared and contrasted what we had seen with the pictures in the book.  We discussed the coyote’s point of view: “The coyote was afraid,” one of the children shared… “Or hungry,” another added. These lessons cannot be taught while children manipulate plastic toys sitting at a table inside a classroom.

Turning her attention to the other pillars of the Billy Goats’ values: parent participation and parent education, Angelica maintains the same level of enthusiasm.  She focuses on the importance of community building, and on the level of support families need to raise children:  

That first group of children who started in the program in 2005 is entering college this year! —all going to college! We are still in contact. It is interesting to notice that when we share pictures and memories of the olden days, roaming around Glen Park, the memories shared remain engrained in their childhood experiences. One of the groups, for instance, used to refer to a pile of old logs as the ‘fire truck.”  Even the adults still refer to that as ‘the fire truck’ area.  Another group referred to that same area as ‘the horses.

Hearing these stories makes one wonder: are memories created in nature more vivid? Are natural environments more likely to spark rich fantasy play and abstract thinking?  And what is the long-term impact of a nature program on children?  When asked to share what she thought Angelica paused:

The families that come through my program continue to maintain a strong bond.  We all agree that the children have a solid sense of self, they are problem solvers.  I attribute this to the fact that in nature there are so many opportunities to observe cause and effect.  In nature the children have uninterrupted time to work together and practice social skills.

Angelica also wanted to make sure she made a distinction between a nature-based program and an outdoor program: 

In an outdoor program there is still a lot of control. We can, for instance, set up classrooms in a parking lot, or even a sidewalk. But a nature-based program embraces the unpredictability of complex systems and interactions.

Following the third thread will lead us to reflect with Angelica on the importance of providing young children with opportunities to continue to learn in their home languages and to connect with their families’ cultural backgrounds.  With this in mind, Angelica, who first started teaching in English, transitioned to make The Billy Goats a Spanish immersion program. The desire to provide a high-quality Spanish immersion program is also rooted in Angelica’s commitment to social justice and to increasing opportunities for the Latinx community in San Francisco.   Her desire, she shares, is to serve a diverse community of families, from different income levels:

That proves to be a challenge for a small program like mine.  Our city is becoming more segregated and expensive.  As a Family Child Care, I am seen as a for-profit “business.” I don’t qualify to apply for donations or some type of grants because I don’t have a non-profit status and I can’t fundraise in the same way that larger ECE programs can. In order to mitigate this issue, in March of 2020 in the middle of the pandemic, I became an Early Learning Scholarship recipient.  To qualify, ELS participants need to become a part of the quality rating systems, requiring many assessments.  I adapted my program. After all this hard work, I found out that the scholarships do not cover the real cost of care. If you were to take the money received for one child, it would only cover about 70 percent of the cost.  When asked how I should cover that 30 percent gap, well-meaning city officials told us to be creative and make up the gap by fundraising.  This left me wondering… how does a program, meant to decrease the opportunity gap for young children actually continue to put the burden of subsidizing child-care on the shoulders of women… particularly of women of color? There are so many challenges in this job.  How can I take care of my own children, when I can’t make a livable wage and when I can’t pay my assistant what she deserves? How can I cover the high cost of health care, which should be the right of every educator?

Following the fourth and last thread: Angelica the community organizer, the community educator and the activist.  She has worked as “trainer of trainers” for agencies of resources and referrals such as BANANAS INC for 20 years:

As a way to give back, I am often looking for opportunities to connect with others.  Before the pandemic I used to carry my professional cards and when I noticed a group of caregivers struggling to provide high quality interactions, I gave my cards and I offered free “pop up” child development classes at the park.  Word spread, and sometimes I would have 10 to 15 parents or child-care providers waiting as I unloaded my white board and handouts.

 This commitment to serve, support and show solidarity has never been more important as it is now, during this pandemic. “As the pandemic hit,” Angelica elaborates, “most of us, small  providers, were hard hit too.  We had to modify the way we cared for our children while organizing and sharing information among other family child care educators.”  

You can watch Angelica sharing some of her tips with other providers by clicking here.

Angelica’s fierce commitment to nature education became even stronger during the pandemic. Learning outdoors is still the safest way for us to return to school. Even during the fires, Angelica found ways to safely take children to natural spaces. She identified pockets of clean air in San Francisco, and took the children to those places, as illustrated by this stunning picture of Angelica and her group at Ocean Beach on September 2nd, 2020 when the air quality was very poor in the rest of the city.

A clean-air break at Ocean Beach.

Angelica is also very knowledgeable about state and local policies and guidelines that affect our work.  When she is given credit for that knowledge, Angelica returns to her habit of sharing the credit with others:

I have a network of colleagues.  For instance, I am a member of a group called San Francisco Educators for Equity. We volunteer our time to meet and study the policies that are impacting Early Childhood Education in our city and our state.  And some of the changes looming might not have a positive impact on children, families and ECE educators.  I would like to invite all members of our community to read and study the California Early Learning Master Plan. 

As Angelica shares her analysis of this document, a few things stand out. This document was written during the pandemic, while most educators and parents were dealing with indescribable stress. There was very little feedback given to the state of California, and major changes will be happening in June.

At first glance, the professional language used might give the impression that this is a good thing for California’s youngest learners, their families and their educators.  But this plan. She says, contains many problems. There is also a bill, AB 22, meant to expand Transitional Kindergarten for our four year-old that has been met with strong resistance from Early Childhood experts, who worry about the potential impact of this change for children, who will be in larger groups and be forced into more structured and less developmentally appropriate environments.  And here is an invitation from Angelica:

“I want to invite all families to read this document and question: Is this what I want for my child?”  

For those of us who know Angelica, it is impossible not to get enveloped in her passion for her convictions. What she brings to the early Childhood community in San Francisco spills out of her small program and into the trails of our parks and the sands of our beaches. It flows into zoom rooms with the Office of Early Care and Education and First Five San Francisco and into volunteer spaces, designed for those who deeply care about young children and their families. Her insights deserve to be amplified. And, as she locks arms with all who worry about the future of our planet, we have to ask:  Is the future of our children impacted by their relationship with the Earth or is it the Earth who now desperately needs this relationship?

(You can find out more about the Early Learning Scholarship program here.)

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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