Some of my earliest memories are of playing intently outdoors and simply being with the wonder of the natural world. Such experiences helped forge my deep personal relationship with nature, which has been the impetus behind my lasting academic and professional focus on the environment. In 2011, I began a doctoral program in which I researched the potential for family nature clubs to enhance social and ecological well-being. The purpose of family nature clubs, as articulated and promoted by the Children & Nature Network, is to gather children, families, friends, and community members together to enjoy nature on a regular basis.
Part of my research design was to create a new family nature club in my own community in central Maryland. I also worked closely with the Children & Nature Network to reach out to the leaders of family nature clubs and engage them, as well as the members of their clubs, in my study. In total, the results of my research weaved together insights from 47 family nature clubs, 348 unique individuals, and direct observations of 133 families that participated in outings with my family nature club, and my experience of designing, launching, and leading a new family nature club and participating in outings with my own family.
The key findings of my study cover multiple topics ranging from the amount of time family nature club participants spend in nature to their sense of connection with nature, sense of connection with their community, family-life satisfaction, social action, and household environmental behavior. Of particular relevance to this book, more than 20 distinct positive outcomes were identified for family nature club leaders and participants, both parents and children:
- Learning about places to go in nature
- Learning about the natural world
- Learning from leaders and/or other families (about ways to be in nature, ways to be with kids, etc.)
- Spending more time in nature
- Developing a greater sense of connection with nature
- Increased environmental awareness and/or behavior
- Being more physically active as a family
- Having quality time together as a family
- Developing a greater sense of connection as a family
- Meeting new families/getting to know new people
- Developing a sense of community (friendships with like-minded people, etc.)
- Feeling a stronger overall sense of connection to the area we live in
- Had fun, memorable (interesting, exciting, adventurous, novel, etc.) experiences
- Experienced a sense of accomplishment and/or expansion of comfort zone
- My child(ren) has enjoyed free play/playing with other kids (had the opportunity for independence, imagination, creativity, exploration, etc.)
- Child(ren) having experiences that are positive for their behavior (problem solving, patience, sharing, independence, etc.)
- Experiencing an enhanced sense of well-being (relaxation, joy, confidence, happiness, etc.)
- Having experiences that foster a sense of connection to something bigger (spiritual, religious, etc.)
Reduced barriers to getting out in nature:
- Fewer barriers to getting out in nature (more prepared, experienced, comfortable, and/or leveraging the planning done by the FNC leader, etc.)
- A greater commitment to spending time in nature (setting time in schedule, getting gear such as play shoes that make it more viable, etc.)
Family nature club leaders also reported additional benefits, including enhanced personal relationships, increased well-being, a sense of personal accomplishment, increased leadership opportunities, and satisfaction from teaching people about and helping people to connect with nature. By all accounts, leading a family nature club is very enjoyable, gratifying, and well worth the effort. My personal experience resonates with these academic results. During the first two years of running my family nature club, I have had the great pleasure of watching children and adults gather together with focused excitement to look at animal tracks, examine beaver tooth marks, watch snakes slither into streams, touch a toad, cross creeks, and plant trees and gardens. The simple joy that came from sharing in these discoveries was contagious, and I am filled with hope that such experiences, replicated and expanded over time, will bring participants closer to each other and motivate their sustained care for the natural world. By offering a setting where families can regularly explore, learn, and grow together in nature, family nature clubs create a unique and very important opportunity for families to connect with one another, as well as their social and ecological communities.
This book clearly and compellingly presents the steps parents can take to start their own family nature clubs and bring these many benefits to their own families and communities.
Ph.D., founder of The Community Ecology Institute