Ed. Note, Dec. 2012: Since Ron wrote this fine essay, the club that the Swaisgoods created has grown to 750 families. Janice now helps people around the country start their own family nature clubs. See more on how you can create one at the end of this piece.
Me, I’ve always made nature a priority. I don’t know any other way. It’s my oxygen, my religion. My wife, Janice, isn’t too far off. Our first date was a hike and our firstborn son is named after the trail we took that fateful day. Our boys, aged 3 and 5, are growing up in nature insofar as is possible in suburban Southern California. Their backyard is their natural habitat and it by far gets more view time than all digital media combined. Weekends, they know, are for hiking and exploring, or maybe camping. But others, they are missing out. Before Richard Louv and Last Child in the Woods I just felt sorry for them. Or frustrated. Louv’s book, and later his speech, was our call to action.
This essay is about our conversion, as a family. It’s about how we decided that we had a gift, this connectedness to nature. And gifts unshared are selfish. I did nothing to earn this gift. I was just a lucky recipient of a gift from my parents. I grew up free-ranging (in the forests and streams of suburban Raleigh, North Carolina). I had geographical boundaries, imposed by my parents, but, really, the boundaries were temporal. I could go as far as my feet, or bike, could carry me and still return home before darkness fell. That distance was greater than the several blocks of home range my parents gifted me. My first real act of deception took me further afoot into nature than I was allowed. What parents don’t know doesn’t hurt them (usually). Later I was fortunate enough to establish a career studying nature. All of these experiences make it easier for me to share this gift. For my boys, nearly every day is Christmas—they go outside and experience all the gifts nature has to offer.
We formally launched our nature club last November, informally a few months earlier. We call it Family Adventures in Nature or FAN Club. It’s been a life-changing experience.
Our lives have been reorganized to reflect our new priorities. We get out a lot, but we also spend a lot of time organizing. I note with some irony that Janice is plugged into her computer at all hours of night and day, tirelessly organizing, communicating, Facebooking, blogging, and developing materials to market the cause to the community. Most of this she does out of sheer enthusiasm, but a few of these activities have, fortunately, been subsidized by a subaward from a grant to the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative (SDCaN).
What do we do? Mostly, we invite families to join us as we explore our favorite nature spots around San Diego. We get them organized. We show them the cool places to go. We get nature back on their calendar, literally. We become their nature buddies, modelled after the gym buddy system. These days, it seems, you have to schedule nature and make a date with someone else. We invite, beg, cajole, and, mostly (we hope) inspire them to get out there—with us, with others, or as a family. Just get out there is our motto. And while we are out there, we try to mentor families to follow their children’s lead, to foster the natural sense of wonder and awe that comes so easily to kids.
Why are we doing this? I enjoy nature alone or just with family, so why burden it with 20 or 30 other families? I’d like to say it’s altruism, but we all know even altruism has its rewards. It’s the feedback we are getting from the families who join us in our explorations of nature. It’s the joy on their faces, as parents and kids alike open up to new possibilities in nature, together. It’s the new relationships we are building with these strangers on the trail. And, it’s that feeling we get inside when we share this gift. It’s the antidote to selfishness and self-absorption.
I think I began to see the light about a year ago, when I learned firsthand how our family could influence other familiesâ€¦and bring them joy. We began inviting some of our less experienced friends along for hikes and even camping trips. There, we began to witness transformational experiences. Several of these families had owned tents for many years, but had never taken the tent out of its package. The desire was there, but the follow through was not.
Fn one camping trip to the nearby mountains we were out on a hike and came across a muddy pond. For our eldest son, Owen, then 4, this was a stimulus and I knew what the inevitable response would be. The pond invited and he accepted the invitation. He began running towards its bank, casting off articles of clothing as he approached. Soon, he was completely naked and running and screaming with delight as he slid and dove in the mucky water. I glanced sideways and saw the look of shock as the parents of Ben struggled uncomfortably with the situation: No., Benâ€¦ you can’tâ€¦it’s tooâ€¦ohâ€¦OK, you can join Owen. Moments later Ben too was wearing the expression of sheer joy as he explored the wonder of mud, wearing nothing but his birthday suit. His parents’ comportment gradually relaxed and they later thanked us for showing them the way.
We’ve heard this same story many times over in many forms from one parent after another. The pattern is always the same: shock, discomfort, relaxation, joy. What I love most is when the parents begin to let their guard down. They begin to let their children explore nature, on their own terms. That, in a nutshell, is why we are doing this. We have become infected with the turning-families-on-to-nature bug.
Once inoculated, the infection spread rapidly. It’s now systemic and to a large degree defines who we are as a family. It is our first family joint venture. We are in lockstep in our devotion to the cause. We all contribute, even 3-year old Luke. In many ways, our boys are the best emissaries to our cause. In nature they are role models, and they embrace the role with gusto. When they see the path less followed, they take it. They often leave the trail altogether. When they see a hole, they peer into it. When they see a bug, they drop to all fours for closer inspection. A log or a rock? Well , those are for flipping over to see what’s underneath. The bigger ones are for climbing and jumping off. Creeks are always entered, never viewed passively. This is our modus operandi: engage nature, don’t just view it from the safety of the trail.
For this to work, though, we have to meet families where they are and respect their differing philosophies.
Each parent and each child has his or her own boundaries, fears, and obstacles. But, almost to a fault, they all have begun a journey that gradually removes some of those roadblocks. We try to lead, gently, by example, and encourage them to stretch their boundaries.
Most of our evangelizing has been on the trail but we are exploring other avenues to spread the word. Working with the San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative, we (mostly Janice, who chairs the family subcommittee) have also developed a presentation and are sharing it with the community. Janice works the crowd, getting them to explore their roadblocks and come up with an action plan to remove them. We have a website and Facebook page. We send e-blasts to remind members of upcoming FAN Club events. To share our stories, hear others, and participate in brainstorming sessions, we joined the advisory committee and helped launch the Natural Families Network, a new offshoot of the Children and Nature Network.
What does the future hold for us? Will it flop? Will we burn out? We are neophytes at this, but so far it seems to be working. And sustainable. In fact, it’s spreading like wildfire. Our membership has breached 200. Two new subgroups, devoted to exploring very nearby nature, have launched with three more in the works. It’s part of what we’re calling Nearby Nature Community Networks and the goals are twofold—getting families out into nature and getting them connected to their own communities
Why is connecting families to nature such an easy sell? Quality time with family and friends in nature is a recipe for stress reduction, emotional growth, and happiness. I think people understand, perhaps innately, that this is good for them and for their children. They seem to know it, even when things don’t always go so well. One first-time family campers made the catastrophic mistake of forgetting their tent poles. We managed to rig something up to keep the tent standing, but their kids were terrified, fearing it would collapse. They spent a long, painfully sleepless night and went back the next day, earlier than planned. Amazingly, when we arrived home a few days later we had an email waiting for us: when can we try this again? Even through the haze of sleep d
eprivation and frustration, they realized how good this could be. How important it was to their children and to their relationships with their children.
I think getting families out in nature is an easy sell because it’s what they’re looking for. Maybe they don’t know it, don’t realize it, but they come to understand quickly. Our job is to just point them in the right direction. For our family, enjoying the wonder of nature with family is a gift worth sharing. That’s why we started a family nature club and that’s why we keep doing it.
C&NN’s Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit
C&NN Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit: Do It Yourself! Do It Now! provides inspiration, information, tips and resources for those who are—or who might be—interested in creating a Nature Club for Families.
Tips, Inspiration, and Resources for Starting Your Own Family Nature Club.