“What if parents, grandparents, and kids around the country were to band together to create nature clubs for families? What if this new form of social/nature networking were to spread as quickly as book clubs and Neighborhood Watches did in recent decades? We would be well on our way to true cultural change.”
Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
This past Saturday I had the pleasure of joining the Bronx Zoo in kicking off the inaugural session of its brand new Family Nature Club, which was a great success. With the help of a grant from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, the zoo has created a monthly nature club to help families get outdoors and explore nature. As some of you may know, Kids Unplugged began in 2009 as a family nature club and I am so excited to be partnering with the zoo to help them in their new endeavor.
What is a Family Nature Club?
A family nature club is a group of families who come together to enjoy the outdoors. Usually lead by one or two people or families, these clubs can meet anywhere from a couple times each week to monthly, and the activities can be as loose or structured as the organizer sees fit. Kids Unplugged held a weekly after school hike (Wacky Wednesday Walks) and monthly Saturday outings. Sometimes we participated in local clean up events, sometimes we met for longer hikes and other times we met at a trail, hiked into the woods, and then just hung out and let the kids play and explore on their own without our getting in their way.
One of the biggest obstacles to getting kids outdoors is knowing where to go. Sadly, kids don’t have access to the wild spaces or neighborhood woods as many of us enjoyed during our own childhoods. Parents today are faced with the responsibility of creating these outdoor opportunities for our kids yet don’t always have the time or energy to seek out nearby parks, preserves or trails. Family nature clubs take the mystery and planning out of parents’ hands. Families simply show up at a predetermined times and place and they’ve got a ready-made outing! Another challenge to exploring nature is that kids tend to like having other kids around. A family nature club provides a built in solution, as kids always know there will be others to play with on the trail.
How Do I Find a Family Nature Club?
There Aren’t Any Family Nature Clubs Nearby–How Can I Start One?
It’s pretty easy to start a family nature club. Your own email or social media contacts are a great place to begin. Write up a brief explanation of what you’re setting out to do, pick a date and a location for your first outing and just put it out there. Start with a place that you are familiar with–a trail in a larger nature preserve with a visitor’s center is always a good choice as there will likely be designated parking, bathroom facilities and an obvious meeting spot for the group. Do some research on local parks, preserves, greenways and nature centers in your area and check them out with your own kids before bringing your nature club there. This way you can advise members on details like directions, parking, whether or not a trail is stroller (or dog) friendly, and how they should dress–I always suggested my group dress to get dirty but if there was a stream or creek on the trail I’d recommend rubber boots since kids tend to find it impossible to stay out of the drink!
So now that you’ve got the basics, here’s some fodder to further inspire you to either join a family nature club or to just go ahead and launch your own!
5 Reasons to Join or Start a Family Nature Club
- Recess: It Just Ain’t What it Used to Be – Today’s children spend minimal time outdoors during the school day. Despite the fact that studies prove that periods of unstructured, outdoor play increase a child’s ability to focus in the classroom, recess time is repeatedly cut from the daily schedule. At the same time, teachers and principals use loss of recess time as a punishment, oftentimes taking recess away from the kids who need it the most. The need to promote and protect recess during the school day is essential, however, we can offset our kids’ lack of daily outdoor playtime by increasing it ourselves during the hours when they are at home.
- Time Spent Outdoors Relieves Stress and Improves Health – We live in an increasingly sedentary society. Childhood obesity and attention issues continue to rise as does the time kids spend in front of a screen each day. Time spent outdoors, romping through the woods, building forts, searching for salamanders and playing imaginary games can offset the negative impact of being cooped up for hours with our electronic devices.
- Kids Who Grow up Loving Nature Seek to Protect it as Adults – For all of our focus on teaching kids about global warming and the new three Rs (recycle, reduce, reuse), parents and educators are missing the boat on the easiest way to raise environmentally aware human beings. When kids spend time out in nature–playing, exploring, having their own adventures–they develop a love for the outdoors and the desire to protect it grows intrinsically. Big trips to national parks, while wonderful, aren’t required for this to happen, either. Watching squirrels scurry about in autumn, catching crabs on the beach, climbing trees–that’s all we need to give kids to create the future stewards of the environment.
- Important Life Skills are Learned Through Outdoor Play – One of my favorite children’s books is Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran. It’s a story about a group of children growing up in the Arizona desert who create their own imaginary community. Through their play, the kids learn about social hierarchy, finance and trade, rules and government, law and order, gender issues, risk-taking and friendship. There are no grown-ups directing their games and all of it happens outside. Whenever possible, we need to provide our kids with the opportunities for this kind of free-range, outdoor play. It is essential to their development.
- Unplugging and Exploring Nature is Essential for Everyone – Who today doesn’t feel totally overwhelmed and overscheduled? The majority of our kids’ outdoor time is spent on a sports field and the majority of parents’ time is spent schlepping our kids from hither to yon from one activity to another. One of the beautiful things about nature is that it slows us down. Get outside as a family. Hit a trail, get on your bikes, walk on a beach and collect stuff. Let the sun warm your face and pick up pretty autumn leaves with your kids. We could all use more time to unplug and reconnect.