Unstructured play in a natural setting has demonstrable benefits for a child’s health and wellbeing—not only have these experiences been shown to reduce stress, increase concentration, and spark creativity, they can also help shape a child’s values and understanding of themselves and the world around them. Chicago’s West Side contains some of the most beautiful public resources in the city, including Garfield Park, Columbus Park, and Douglas Park, alongside pocket parks and community gardens developed by neighborhood stakeholders. Yet, increased screen time, busy schedules, and other factors have contributed to a lack of such healthy developmental opportunities for modern children. In communities with disproportionately higher rates of crime, there are additional barriers to playing outside and engaging in nature-based experiences.
With this context in mind, Christopher Family Foundation launched the Growing Together: West Side Collaborative for Youth and Nature initiative in fall 2018.
Pursuing a collaborative approach in all aspects of this project, we first held discussions with residents of Austin, East and West Garfield Park, and North Lawndale to help focus the initiative’s lens on the strengths, needs, and resources of these neighborhoods. We then engaged the funding community to gain further insights into community development, access to nature, and best practices in funding collaboratives.
With this knowledge base, we issued a request for proposals in April 2019, and awarded planning grants to five collaborative teams of nonprofit organizations to develop ideas for increasing opportunities for children on Chicago’s West Side to experience and enjoy the natural world.
On September 18, 2019, the initiative culminated in a live pitch held at the Columbus Park Refectory in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Deputy Governor Sol Flores delivered the keynote address, reflecting on the importance of nature in her own childhood and the critical role that nonprofits and social service agencies play in the current administration. “We understand that government in this space provides a foundation for the work, but we need you to help us innovate. We need you to pilot programs like this. We need you to pound on our doors to let us know what we are getting right, what we are getting wrong, and what we must do to make sure that our young people and families are strengthened.”
Each of the five teams—representing 11 nonprofit organizations—presented thoughtful program proposals designed to leverage the rich resources of the neighborhoods in which they work. Runners-up included innovative collaborations between UCAN and Chicago Botanic Garden; Chicago Youth Centers and Chicago Voyagers; Kidz Express and Flybird Experience; and Gardeneers, Homan Grown, and Stone Temple Missionary Baptist Church.
With the expert guidance of an advisory panel, the Christopher Family Foundation is thrilled to award Garfield Park Community Council, in partnership with NeighborSpace and site design group, a $100,000 grant renewable for up to five years, to realize its vision of the West Side Nature Play Network.
This collaborative project will establish nature play sites and learning networks for educators in East and West Garfield Park, North Lawndale, and Austin. Nature play sites borrow from the natural world—a hollowed-out log, pebble pool, and boulders in place of traditional swings and slides—in order to create intimate outdoor spaces that ignite a child’s imagination and sense of wonder.
It was a very difficult decision to select one recipient from an abundance of inspiring proposals. We would like to extend our deep gratitude to all who gave their time, expertise, and creativity to this initiative. We look forward to sharing updates as the West Side Nature Play Network is activated in the years ahead.