Chapter 3: Circle of Influence

The pack of children avoids the stairs and pushes their heavy mountain bikes up the hill towards the Corkscrew.

The pack of children avoids the stairs and pushes their heavy mountain bikes up the hill towards the Corkscrew.

10:35 AM. Sunrays beam down on the grassy slope as children trek upwards towards the mesa at the sprawling Valmont Bike Park. Dirt beneath nails, sweat-covered brows, muscles aching; each child is inspired by the hive mentality and positive social pressure. At the top of the mesa they turn east and peddle their hearts out to the top of the ominous Corkscrew Trail—a series of switchbacks that edge down a steep face of hard-packed, rutted singletrack.

Many of the children have been here before. Until now, few have had the gusto to launch downward with sufficient momentum to avoid crashing and acquiring bloody knees and hands. The older boys explode into the Corkscrew first. The others follow. My daughter watches, clenching her fear back. I’m filled with trepidation too. The Corkscrew has notoriously ended several of our past visits to the park, always when my daughter goes too slow and, without enough momentum, wipes out on the very first turn. But this time is different: I watch as she draws courage—fearlessness—from her friends and pedals fiercely down and into the curve. Her tires rattle across the packed dirt, then upward, and she cranks her steering into a brilliant arc. She makes it! I’m relieved. She shrieks with joy, her sounds echoing amidst the cacophony of joyous celebration from the pack. It’s a beautiful moment, and I’m grateful for having had other parents suggest we visit Valmont Bike Park with the club.

The circle of influence is the idea of being proactive about things we can do something about, and not being stuck in inaction because of what we cannot control. Getting ideas of what kind of events to plan for your family nature club can feel overwhelming at first, especially if you’re just getting started. However, if you focus on what you can control—your circle of influence—you will discover that you have a lot of resources that will help you plan events that foster profound experiences, and that becomes a huge motivator.

How to Get Ideas for Your Family Nature Club

As with the other steps in building your family nature club, the types of events that resonate with you and your group will depend on your purpose. Your location and community will also impact your options.

Some basic ideas for outings include:

  • Unstructured nature play
  • Nature walk/hiking
  • Star gazing
  • Car camping
  • Backpacking
  • Boating
  • Surfing
  • Mountain biking
  • Skiing
  • Snow shoeing
  • Nature programs
  • Naturalist education
  • Primitive skills education
  • Birding
  • Bird banding
  • Volunteering with local forestry groups
  • Volunteering with local farms

These may seem vague to the newcomer. To get inspired, you’ll want to do a little research on your local area, how the experience for your club will change based on the season, and what other groups are doing in the outdoors. Crafting events that are appropriate for the season is especially important. For example, visiting farms during spring, boating and exploring creeks in the summer, snow play and learning about hibernation in the winter, etc. The research can be fun and rewarding (and you don’t need to do it all at once). I’ve found that a combination of approaches works best, and these can evolve over time.

As the leader of your group, when you are doing research, you need to be mindful about checking in with all property owners about any requirements for bringing groups onto their land. Some property owners don’t have any requirements, some just want a basic heads up, and some require liability insurance. It varies widely depending on who owns the land and the type and size of your group.

Here are some ways to research ideas:

Feedback from your members is a great way to get ideas. Parents will often have their own experiences and desires for what they want to do. You can ask for feedback from your members casually at events, by asking open-ended questions by email or on your website, or by talking with them outside of outings. What’s great about planning events based on feedback is that you know at least some of your members will be very excited to join the event. I’ve learned about a lot of lesser-known locations from members that have turned into incredible experiences. Some clubs will use Survey Monkey for getting feedback—it is free up to 10 questions and 100 responses. You can include a link to your survey in a thank you follow-up email after each event.

Asking local public officials is really effective, and also helps uncover new ideas. Officials at your city, county, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Parks, conservation and outdoor education nonprofits, and other organizations are very welcoming to inquiries. Many of them are paid as public officers, and part of their jobs is to help support groups like family nature clubs understand and access land. They can provide specific ideas for places to go and activities to do, and point you in the direction of free materials that are available. You can connect with these folks by email, phone, and in person. I’ve had correspondence with folks at every one of these types of organizations, and have been pleasantly surprised at how much help they provide!

Online research is a great place to start, and can be a wonderful supplement to getting feedback from members and inquiring local public officials. There are almost an unlimited number of websites that document in great detail locations, trip ideas, parks, and more. This is an especially good way to discover opportunities for educators, naturalists, and other special guests to speak to or guide your group. From websites, blogs, and social networks you can discover a wealth of ideas for your local area. Besides getting ideas, online research is great at providing content (such as text, images, directions, tips, and more) that you’ll be able to use in the descriptions of your events. I do online research for every one of my events, and find it extremely efficient and useful.

Other nature clubs are a great way to get inspired. There is a national listing of family nature clubs that you can use to find some in your area, and many use Meetup.com to find and solicit members, providing a great listing of past successful events. In essence, other nature clubs are trailblazing for you—they frequently will have already done much of the research that you otherwise would need to start from scratch. For example, the family nature club in my area had scheduled events with a local farm as well as an organization offering primitive skills education, both which seemed like perfect fits for my group. So I copied their ideas and planned a couple of events just like theirs!

Networking with local naturalists takes longer, but results in big rewards. It takes time to find and build relationships with outdoor specialists in your area, but once you’ve connected with them, they are perfect for advising on ideas of how to get families out into nature. They also frequently are open to helping you find and solicit members for your group, as it aligns with their goals of getting more people involved with what they love. By talking to friends and families in your club, you will naturally start to spread awareness of what you are doing, and this will result in introductions you otherwise may not have had. I’ve found and have been introduced to several local naturalists, and my relationships with them have been very valuable for getting new ideas for our club.

Keeping track:

Start a working document with a list of all of your ideas. Some ideas you may be ready to schedule, while others may require extra discovery and planning, such as setting up an event that is led by a naturalist from your city parks division. Try to start thinking about the sequence of events over the course of the next few weeks, months, or even an entire year.

Jason’s Picks

I use all research methods! I love getting feedback from my members the best, and find doing so in person gets the best response. However, in the beginning (before I had any members), I found researching online and reaching out to local public officials to be the most effective. Both approaches are easily accessible, highly responsive, and relevant for my local area.

What You’ve Learned

In this chapter, you’ve learned how to find ideas for your family nature club. You’ve learned some basic ideas, and where and how to research and get inspired about these ideas.

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