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THE GIFT OF NATURE SHARED: How We Launched Our Family Nature Club

About the Author

Ron Swaisgood, Ph.D., is the Brown Chair/Director of Applied Animal Ecology at the Institute for Conservation Research, San Diego Zoo Global and General Scientific Director, Cocha Cashu Biological Station in the Peruvian Amazon. He is best known for his work with the giant panda and chairs the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Giant Panda Expert Team. Ron and his wife Janice have created a family nature club in San Diego with over 1000 member families. Janice leads C&NN’s Natural Families Network.

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 families…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., Ben… you can’t…it’s too…oh…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

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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.

 

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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.

Download the Tool Kit [>]

 Tips, Inspiration, and Resources for Starting Your Own Family Nature Club.

18 Comments

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your piece. Thanks for sharing.
    Hopefully more families will venture out and learn to enjoy and love this great big world we all share. Seeing the pictures of the kids laughing, exploring and playing outside in these different settings is a wonderful testament to your commitment to share your appreciation of nature. If we don’t pass this on to the next generation who would be the stewards in the future?

    Thanks and keep up the good work- hopefully you will spur others to follow suit.

    Reply
  2. Hey Janice,
    I bitly’ed this link and I’ll be twittering it out.
    Your Scripps Ranch Neighbor and Admirer,
    Suzanne

    Reply
  3. Inspiring story!!! I would love to start/ join a group in my area (Nova Scotia, Canada). We just did our first family backcountry camping with our almost 3 & 4 yr old. It would be so great to have more families that are interested in getting outside to explore.

    Reply
  4. I am SO excited to have read this and to know there are other families across the country striving for the same goal as we are. You make perfect points.

    My husband, Brian, and I started a similar group in the Lehigh Valley of PA (Allentown/Philadelphia area) in January 2010. We were so hopeful to find just a handful of families who appreciated the opportunity to experience ‘nature’ with their children. We wanted to show people how to give their children those opportunities. Every point you make in this blog is exactly what we were feeling. I just kept reading it going “YES! YES!”

    I just wanted to praise you for how far you’ve taken your group. You’re an inspiration to us! In the past 8 months, we’ve grown to 54 families. Hopefully we can be as successful as you in our new venture. We’d love to continue to hear how things are going on the other side of the country! If you have any advice or links to useful resources, I’d love to know about them.

    Thanks for your efforts in keeping our kids ‘free-range’! 🙂

    Jenae & Brian Holtzhafer
    Emmaus, PA

    Reply
  5. Thanks for sharing your experiences. My husband and I have been thinking lately of starting our own club in our area. We both love to camp, hike, kayak, and generally just be outside with our daughter and dogs but never thought to share this with others. When I read The Last Child in te Woods last month and came across the C&NN website I thought that forming a group would be a great idea (& much needed around here in Ohio). Thanks for the inspiration and details on your family’s experience in doing this.

    Reply
  6. Ron, you write beautifully and with great enthusiasm. I met your Janice at last week’s CNN Gathering and we discovered we have many common connections: Tucson, inspired by the Natural World, and a lifelong mission to connect kids with nature. Perhaps we can connect in person next time your family is in Tucson.

    I am happy to find your blog.
    Sincerely,
    ~Suzanne

    Reply
  7. Beautiful blog and amazing efforts Ron and Janice! I wish all communities and kids had you two to rally groups and get out for fun in our real an beautiful world. Please keep us posted!

    Reply
  8. This is fabulous, Ron! You guys are amazing. Maybe someday I could join you on one of your outings! Janice, you work so hard!

    I especially liked your laying out the pattern of “shock, discomfort, relaxation and joy.” SO true!

    It was great to read something that exactly expresses what I’ve seen with our club. You’re family is an inspiration!

    All the best to you.

    Reply
  9. Ron Swaisgood

    Thank you all for the kind comments. It’s so good to hear that there are others out there who share similar experiences and sentiments. For those of you who have already launched your own clubs, good on you! For those who are contemplating and need a little encouragement, may I recommend joining C&NN’s Ning site for social networking (http://childrenandnature.ning.com/). It’s a great way to connect with others who share your interests. So join and share your experiences and learn from what others are trying to do. If you want to know more about Janice and I are up to, you can join our website (https://www.bigtent.com/groups/fanclub). If you’re local to San Diego, join us on outings. If you just want to get ideas from what we are doing, you can join as an “observer.”

    It’s great to be part of a movement defined by so much passion and enthusiasm, isn’t it?

    Reply
  10. This is AMAZING! Just started my own journey to do my part. Trying my best to be the natural parent that I grew up having.

    Reply
  11. Ron,

    I so enjoyed reading this piece…it literally brought me to tears as you were able to put into words why I do what I do here in AZ!

    I’ve had many similar experiences and gotten such amazing feedback from families. I always come away from our nature outings with my heart soaring for days.

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring story!!

    Holly Hunter
    Founder of The Active AZ Families Meetup Group

    Reply
  12. Hello Mr. Swaisgood,

    San Diego Audubon Society is giving a presentation this Wednesday to the volunteer guides at Mission Trails Regional Park entitled, “Saving the Children: Curing Nature Deficit Disorder.” The SDAS presentation covers the roots of the disorder, the national response to “Last Child in the Woods'” call to action, and what is being done nationally and locally, including the efforts of San Diego Children and Nature Collaborative. Long story short, I would like to illustrate the concept of family nature clubs but do not have any eye-catching images such as yours that are posted on the SDCaN website. Might I download 2 or 3 images? They would be the neatest concluding images to our presentation and the essence of what we are trying to accomplish in this crusade. Many thanks for your consideration of this request.

    Mike Matherly 619-461-9049
    Chris Redfern, Executive Officer, SDAS, 858-273-7800 X-102

    Reply
  13. Ron Swaisgood

    Hi Mike,

    Sure that’s fine to use those photos for your presentation. Happy that they can be of use to further the cause!
    Ron

    Reply
  14. Phenomenal, an inspiration to us all. The growing divide between children and nature is one of the saddest occurrences I can think of. Thank you for introducing so many families to the beauty of nature. I’m sure many of these kids are biologists in the making, which is always good news! Hopefully I can start something like this one day 🙂

    Reply
  15. Jessica Groenendijk

    Loved this article, Ron, and great photos: you and Janice are my inspiration. I began our Club NaturaNiños here in Cusco, Peru, a few weeks ago; we’ve had 6 outings so far, involving two families, just morning walks into the hills and very informal, but already it’s become a part of our lives that we all look forward to. We are not yet familiar with the surrounds of Cusco, so it’s a wonderful way of exploring new territory together. I’m hoping, with time, that Cusco families will join us (not only expats) and that we will go further afield, on camping trips. We have a long way to go, but it will be a fun adventure getting there. Luca still talks about the moment HE uncovered a shiny, brown scorpion during our second excursion… Keep showing us the path!!

    Reply
  16. Bravo!! So glad to have you guys out there leading by example!

    Reply
  17. It’s true…you really have brought the joy of nature to our family. And for this, I will be forever grateful.

    Reply
  18. Ron and Janice have been an inspiration to watch and join! They are truly showing us how wonderful, important, and joyful being in nature with your family and friends can be. Thank you to Ron and Janice, Owen and Luke, for the role model they share so generously. Each of us can go outside with our family in whatever configuration that works for us- just one family, two families together, small nature club, or a larger group, such as FAN. Realizing your obstacles to getting out, will help you find your way. My best memories of my time with my family are when we were together in nature. Out we go!!!

    Reply

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