Outdoor signage at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

Close your eyes. Transport yourself to south Phoenix, Arizona, dense with lower income suburban houses and apartments. The rising sun warms your skin as you drive past strip malls, housing developments, and the occasional school, until you come upon something unexpected: 19 acres of formerly-abandoned property transformed into a community space that is changing how adults and children gather, collaborate, garden, learn and, indeed, co-exist.

Children gardening in the outdoor classroom at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

When you arrive at Spaces of Opportunity on a Saturday morning, it will already be busy with activity. In the farmers’ market, Unlimited Potential team members set out health resources and produce, as several local vendors set up stalls of handmade and homemade goods. Two stands carry fresh produce grown a few steps away, or one mile away at the Orchard Community Learning Center. As the sun shifts in the sky and the temperature climbs, children transition from gardening classes to the Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom, exploring agriculture, irrigation, music, and physics—all in one play-filled space. Some run their muddy boots back and forth between the outdoor classroom and the food forest their parents are helping plant, finding ways to help out, believing there is no job too hard for them in this space, and no moment in which they are not learning. The music of Jaranas blends with the sounds of a community coming together, embracing land brimming with opportunities.

With help from her older brother Youalechkatl, Spirit of Tlaloc, age 7, writes:

Child playing with silks

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

Spaces of Opportunity is a place where I have an opportunity to learn how to grow food, plants, and trees. It brings a bunch of nice people together to grow, and we also eat peaches and delicious foods and cook foods from the garden.

I have learned Hollyhocks can be eaten (a flower that grows in the garden). When you eat them, it can help improve your breathing and clear up sinuses. I also saw a mulberry tree for the first time in Arizona, and ate its fruit. 

Spaces of Opportunity also has a local farmer’s market every Saturday morning. The market has helped my 11-year-old brother named Youale to expand his plant-based business and meet great people that have become our family. Youale also helped build the high tunnel at the garden. One thing I would like to see in the future is people being able to camp and cook out at the garden.

If we travel across time, the history of human beings in what we now know as south Phoenix (also known as South Mountain Village) begins with the Huhugam peoples, who farmed this soil 1,700 years ago in the Salt and Gila River basins, and whose descendants are still farming, in spite of the dams built by the colonizers that diverted life-giving water from their fields, and later development that paved over much of the land.

Child stacking wooden blocks in the outdoor classroom at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

Fast forward to the grand opening of Spaces of Opportunity in 2018, and the community that is writing a new chapter. In the span of less than eight years, the Roosevelt Elementary School District and four nonprofit organizations have come together to envision and actualize this project. Orchard Community Learning Center, TigerMountain Foundation, and Unlimited Potential are small organizations, yet have a combined 60 years working in south Phoenix. The Desert Botanical Garden, founded in 1939, brings multiple layers of expertise to this urban farm and community garden effort, and, importantly, the school district provided the land.

A web of projects helps us build hope through action in a hyperlocal context, all while incidentally and intentionally addressing the causes of our global crises. With a community representing at least eight countries of origin and seven native languages, our greatest collective hope at Spaces lies in the children and the schools around us; we long to see a paradigm shift in the delivery of curriculum and enhanced understanding of the value of place-based and project-based learning. Global warming; decimation of the biodiversity of animals, insects, and plants; food apartheid; discrimination and racism; and economies designed for the ultra-rich are all addressed through Spaces’ work, and provide a unique and expansive curriculum for our children—from soil love to seed, to harvest, to community, to school, to table, to composting food waste and back again.

Child and caregiver dancing in the outdoor classroom at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

Spaces for Children

Children find their way to Spaces via many pathways—they are free to visit the outdoor classroom anytime, as there are no walls. Families visit to buy food and crafts from the farmers’ market adjacent to the outdoor classroom or to take classes on health and nutrition. School groups come from the four nearby schools—and beyond—for outdoor learning and exploration. Children come along and help when their parents or grandparents work in the fields, food forest or market, taking breaks to play. They join Be and Amy’s Project Roots kids’ gardening classes, which often seem to include exuberant dance trains through the outdoor classroom. And, children come along when families join classes and singing groups or watch cultural performances. In these ways and more, Spaces is expanding and deepening how and where children learn and grow.

School district teachers and administrators, working together with community leaders at Spaces, constantly ask, “What are we doing to support our children throughout this learning process?” Considering what we know about hands-on and collaborative learning from thinkers like Lev Vygotsky, we aim to provide opportunities to play and explore with peers of all ages. Knowing that physical and mental well-being are critical to learning, we aim to foster overall good health,

Child playing in the sand at the Spaces of Opportunity outdoor classroom.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

wellness, and emotional well-being. The natural outdoor classroom sets the foundation for this work in early childhood, so that children can prosper in real-world engagement throughout the community. The children who play, work, and learn in the outdoor classroom and all around Spaces have hands-on experiences in a natural habitat. In this context, RSD and Spaces collaborate on three initiatives:

  • Strengthen partnerships to collaboratively empower south Phoenix youth in wellness and the science of health in an outdoor setting;
  • Support children, educators, and parents with the “seed to table” initiative, to foster deeper understandings about nurturing gardens, share traditional experiences, and prepare food with nutritional value;
  • Develop and sustain an ongoing partnership with neighboring schools to co-design STEM curricula, support on-site learning experiences, and engage students in project-based learning.

We recognize students learn through social interactions, and so we have mobilized our community in south Phoenix to establish programs to foster this learning and support our children with ideas to solve real-world problems. By establishing an outdoor classroom in south Phoenix, we are reinforcing the need for our children to explore, learn, and share with others in a natural environment. This is a special, innovative environment that serves as the cornerstone of the South Mountain Village community as formally titled by City of the Phoenix Planning Commission.

Child and her grandmother posing for a photo at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

From the Present to the Future

Aline, age 7, was with her grandmother, a member of Unlimited Potential, at a recent gathering at Spaces of Opportunity. As the only child in the group, she quietly raised her hand to open a conversation about our hopes for the recently completed outdoor classroom. Upon receiving the talking stick, she said, “We need a treehouse in Spaces of Opportunity.” Asked to say more, she said that treehouses make you feel brave, and “if you are afraid of heights, you need to keep trying so you can conquer your fears.” She paused and added, “But we need to have patience, too, for the trees to grow.”

Aline’s words epitomize the potential of this community, by articulating a powerful vision for the outdoor classroom and the entire Spaces of Opportunity: a place to practice bravery, persistence, and patience, and demonstrating for all that children are not just recipients of our efforts, but participants in building a sense of place and who they want to be in the world.


Childcare Education Institute

Spaces of Opportunity and the United States Forest Service

Contributed by Elise “Apple” Snider, education coordinator for the Southwestern Region of the USDA Forest Service

Standing in a circle on a rare overcast Arizona day, it was clear this would be the place for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service’s next outdoor classroom partnership. Spaces of Opportunity and their partners’ shared vision aligned with Forest Service values of interdependence, conservation, and diversity. With strongly rooted connections to community and place, proximity to schools, and ongoing urban agriculture, they even had a space in mind for an outdoor classroom as part of their master plan.

You might be wondering why the USFS would collaborate on outdoor classroom projects. We are primarily known as the federal agency that manages wildland fires and vast tracts of forested mountains. However, we are also members of the community and strive to provide equitable access to the benefits of nature, whether that is on a national forest or grassland, or closer to home. Outdoor classrooms can do just that in a joyful way! They provide hands-on, daily connections with nature for kids and families. This benefits both people and the land. Time in nature enriches children’s lives and learning, by supporting social and physical development, well-being, collaboration and creativity. And, because children who have positive experiences outdoors are more likely to want to protect nature as adults, time outdoors learning and having fun is crucial for the future of our planet, including the Forest Service and our public lands.

I want to offer my appreciation and thanks to Spaces of Opportunity, Nature Explore, and the many other organizations and community members for coming together and developing a shared vision for this outdoor classroom. May it be a space where all can learn, play and flourish.

Rostro Al Sol

by Virginia Angeles-Wann

This vital, beautiful story about how and why children participated in creating a mural for the Outdoor Classroom was written in Spanish, with additional words in Tohono O’odham. A rich and at times challenging intermingling of languages is integral to the story of Spaces and its community. An English translation is below.

Group of people working on the outdoor mural at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

Ta?el sol­—nos da la bienvenida de una linda mañana en el desierto sonorense, la clase de segundo grado me espera para que cantemos “El Pájaro Cú” un son veracruzano para la celebración de Día de los Muertos. Afuera Fernanda y John me esperan para hablar con la clase sobre la creación de un mural para el Nature Explore Classroom que se ubica en frente de nuestra escuela primaria.

El sur de Phoenix donde habitamos una gran comunidad mexicana y Mexicoamericana -entre otros grupos- se usa el español como  primer idioma el cual está sujeto a la discriminación lingüística por ley en el estado de Arizona. Por esta razón, es importante que la clase de segundo grado y su maestra hayan decidido que una celebración tan milenaria no fuese olvidada y que su grupo tan diverso tuviese la oportunidad de cantar en español. Afirmar el derecho a retener y usar el idioma materno y sus expresiones culturales es importante para quienes somos parte de una de las nacionalidades oprimidas dentro de Estados Unidos de América. El respeto a la diversidad lingüística y cultural en uno de los estados con más problemas de discriminación y hegemonía cultural y lingüística sigue siendo un gran desafío. 

Child painting part of the outdoor mural at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

Después de cantar nuestro lindo son jarocho, John y Fernanda preguntan a la clase que les gustaría ver plasmado en la pared de su Salón de Exploración de la Naturaleza. Las respuestas son hermosas y diversas. Hay quienes, como Shaheed, que quieren ver árboles de Mesquite que habían estudiado como parte del Aprendizaje Basado en el Lugar. Lucinda quería ver a los geckos occidentales de bandas que son parte de la fauna del desierto. Danna aporta la idea de pintar mariposas y otros insectos. La lista incluyó flores, plantas, árboles y más árboles. Fernanda y John toman apuntes de todas las ideas que da la clase. 

People painting an outdoor mural at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

La necesidad y urgencia de tener imágenes plasmadas en un mural en medio de la comunidad que representen a nuestra niñez, íntegra, completa sin omisiones se hace presente. Fernanda diseñó con las ideas ofrecidas por la clase un mural con niñas y niños de tez color bronce, cobre y ébano. Mostrando así a las personitas que jugarán y explorarán por muchos años a venir en ese lugar urbano/natural. Niñez que tocará jaranas bajo un Mesquite cantando en una lengua entre muchas otras. Niñez que cuidará jardines de polinizadores para así contribuir a la protección de las mariposas del tiempo de la cosecha como se conocen en Michoacán a las monarcas. Monarcas que llegan justo cuando se celebra la memoria de nuestros seres queridos que han muerto, no al estilo “Coco” sin tener que pasar por la migra del inframundo y presentar papeles porque para el imperio cultural de Disney aún en la muerte las ánimas son excluidas por un estatus de legalidad artificial y absurdo. Monarcas que atraviesan tres países para recordarnos en medio del desierto de lo inmortal que es la naturaleza. El mural también nos recuerda esa inmortalidad con Ta?ai -correcaminos-, Do:da’ag -las montañas- yTa? -el sol que nos da vida. Vida que ha sido presenciada por el pueblo Tohono O’odham en este gran desierto donde no se conocían las fronteras.  Que esta misma vida fluida en todas sus manifestaciones: animal, mineral, humana y planta es importante; que las sonrisas y juegos de toda la niñez son importantes sin exclusión alguna. Qué al final cuando hacemos las cuentas de lo que importa y lo que es terreno sagrado es como hicimos lo posible o imposible para cuidar y ver crecer la imaginación, la pasión, la curiosidad de nuestras pequeñitas. Al final de cuentas lo que importa es ver como nuestros pequeños y sus voces y visiones fueron defendidas y amplificadas. Sí el Ta? que encapsula a I’itoi-de la cosmovisión del pueblo Tohono O’odham– nos recuerda que hay muchas distracciones y atajos que no conducen a ningún lugar y a los cuales tenemos que esquivar para poder así vivir en acorde con lo que sustenta la vida, con lo que hace posible un futuro para las nuevas generaciones y alcanzar una equidad humana sin fronteras. Pues al final del camino cuando habrá que ver hacia atrás antes de llegar al final del laberinto/vida y hacer la última cuenta tendremos que ver sí nuestra aportación fue o no a favor de lo que da y sustenta vida. Sí, es en ese último vistazo a Ta? que nos despide y regresa al vientre de la Madre Tierra que rendiremos cuentas a la séptima generación. 

Facing the Sun (translation)

by Virginia Angeles-Wann

Person painting an outdoor mural at Spaces of Opportunity.

[©Spaces of Opportunitiy]

Ta?—the sun­—welcomes us to a beautiful morning in the Sonoran Desert, the second-grade class is waiting for me to sing “El Pajaro Cú”, a Son Jarocho from Veracruz for the Day of the Dead celebration.  Fernanda and John are also waiting to talk to this class about creating a mural for the Nature Explore Classroom that is located in front of our elementary school.

In south Phoenix where I live, there is a large Mexican and Mexican-American community. For many of us, Spanish is our first language, which is subject to language discrimination by law in the state of Arizona. For this reason, it is important that this second-grade class and the teacher have decided that such a millennial celebration would not be forgotten. It was important for this diverse group of students to have had the opportunity to sing in Spanish. Affirming the right to retain and use one’s mother tongue with its cultural expressions is important to those of us who are part of one of the many oppressed nationalities within the United States of America. Respect for linguistic and cultural diversity in one of the states with a problematic history of discrimination with cultural as well as linguistic hegemony continues to be a great challenge.

After singing our lovely Son Jarocho, John and Fernanda ask the class what they would like to see on the wall of their Nature Explore Classroom. The answers are beautiful and diverse. There are those, like Shaheed, who want to see mesquite trees that they had studied as part of place-based learning. Lucinda wanted to see the western banded geckos that are part of the desert fauna. Danna brings the idea to paint butterflies and other insects. The list included flowers, plants, trees, and more trees. Fernanda and John take notes of all the ideas that the class gives.

The need and urgency to have images reflected in a mural in the middle of this space that represent the children from this community as whole and complete without omissions is present. Using the ideas offered by the class, Fernanda designed a mural with girls and boys with bronze, copper, and ebony skin showing the little people who will play and explore for many years to come in that urban/natural place. Children who will play jaranas under a mesquite singing in one language among many others. Children who will take care of pollinator gardens in order to contribute to the protection of harvest time butterflies, as monarchs are known in Michoacán. Monarchs who arrive just when the memory of our loved ones who have died is celebrated, not in “Coco” style, having to go through the U.S. customs of the underworld and produce “legal” documentation, because for the cultural empire of Disney even in death the souls of some people are excluded entrance to the other world by a status of artificial and absurd legality. Monarchs that cross three countries to remind us in the middle of the desert of how immortal nature is. The mural also reminds us of that immortality with Ta?ai (roadrunner), Do:da’ag (the mountains) and Ta? (the sun) that gives us life. Life that has been witnessed by the Tohono O’odham people in this great desert where borders were unknown. It also reminds us of this same fluid life in all its manifestations: animal, mineral, human and plant are important; that the smiles and games of all children are important without exclusion. In the end, when we account for what is sacred ground, what matters is how we did everything possible or impossible to care for and see that the imagination, passion, and curiosity of our little ones was allowed to grow. At the end of the day, what matters is seeing how our little ones and their voices and visions were defended and amplified. Ta? that embraces I’itoi in this mural—I’itoi the spiritual guide in the Tohono O’odham’s cosmovision—reminds us that there are many distractions and dead ends that lead nowhere to be avoided in order to live according to what sustains life, with what makes possible a future for new generations and achieve human equity without borders. For at the end of the road, when we will take a final look at the sun, before reaching the end of the labyrinth/life and make the last count, we will see if our contribution was or was not in favor of what gives and sustains life. Yes, it is in that last look at Ta? that bids us farewell and returns us to the womb of Mother Earth that we will be accountable to the seventh generation.

John Wann-Ángeles has 35 years experience in K-8 education as a teacher, administrator, and adjunct professor. He is an advocate for a radical shift in school curricula that eliminates standardized testing, promotes place-based learning, and honors children as the creators of knowledge. He is the founding director of the Orchard Community Learning Center.

For over 25 years, Virginia Ángeles-Wann has worked as a multicultural and bilingual educator, environmentalist, and advocate to support place-based outdoor education for all children in south Phoenix. She teaches at Lassen Academy of Science and Nutrition. She is a board member of the Orchard Community Learning Center.

Richard K. Ramos, Ed.D., works in the public school system in south Phoenix. Throughout his experience, Ramos served to help students and families for more than 25 years. Only working in Title I schools, his motivation is to ensure learning is fair and equitable for every child. Ramos is the executive director of innovation and learning in an underserved community. An Arizona native, he received his Ed.D. in leadership and innovation from Arizona State University in 2018.

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