Chapter 7: Disconnect
10:10 AM. A young girl climbs aboard the front end of a half-submerged tree. It is amazingly buoyant, and bounces and sways, colliding gently with an inflatable kayak. Clasping paddles, the children move across the shallow waters of the lake. The kayak slides easily across the surface water, pulling away from the log and beach towards a nearby floating dock. The kayakers arrive to the shouts and celebration of children who are stranded on the dock. Children jump from the dock to the kayak and vice versa, leaving a new group of stranded children on the dock and a new crew in the kayak.
Meanwhile, onshore families enjoy sun kisses and sand toys. Infants wander up and down the beach munching on watermelon and chasing sunfishes with nets and glee. The log floats nearer and other children try their best to walk up and down the unstable float, jumping off as they lose their balance to splash into the welcoming waters. Cell phones are tucked away and adults monitor the children, periodically getting invited to partake in their goofing off and imaginary play. Be a turtle. Swim like a dolphin. Hop along as a frog. The play is infectious and everyone is connecting—with sand, water, tree bark, and each other.
Disconnecting from technology helps us focus on what’s happening with those around us, and our surroundings. Being engaged during nature outings is important for every participant, and especially for leaders. As the leader, your job is to be a good host, which means putting away cell phones and interacting with the families who join your events.
How to Be a Good Host for Your Family Nature Club
Besides tucking away mobile devices, there are a variety of steps you should take as the host of your family nature clubs. These will vary depending on whether your group is made up entirely of regulars who are familiar with how events are run, or if you’re welcoming first-timers to your event. It will also vary whether you are guiding the event solely or if there is a third party involved, such as a naturalist, skills leader, or other educator. There are four basic steps you should take for every event.
The four ways to be a good host:
Welcome and Introduction
When families arrive to your events, you need to welcome them. As mentioned, you should allow for a 10- to 15-minute grace period for latecomers. By welcoming folks as they arrive, it helps people know they are in the right place, and also makes them feel like they’re showing up to something they are part of. As each family first arrives, it is a good idea to greet people. Introduce yourself and make introductions to other guests. Some groups and/or events require nametags. If you plan on doing that, it’s best to get guests to put nametags on right away. Depending on your group structure, you may also want to record the number of participants at each event, collect contact information, and get them to fill out the liability release forms.
It is very important that, as the host, you arrive on time, and that you start the event on time after the grace period. This will help build confidence in your guests and ensure repeat attendance.
Once everyone has arrived and the grace period is over, to officially start the event you should gather everyone around for a quick introduction. You can keep this as casual as pointing out where you’re heading and announcing that it’s time to start, or you can have a more in-depth introduction. Here are some of what can be included in a more in-depth introduction:
- Group norms/principles—Remind the guests of your group’s norms and principles. You can talk about the purpose of your group, such as connecting with nature, giving the children free time and space for unstructured play, or encouraging skill building. You can keep a printout of your group’s norms and principles and read it to them as a gentle reminder.
- Intention/direction—Inform guests as to the plan for the day. Talk about what you expect to happen, and where there is flexibility in that plan. For example, you might be going on a hike and have a specific goal in mind, or maybe you are leading an “unhike” where the point is not to get anywhere, but instead to follow the children’s whims rather than adult urges. If you’re doing something like boating, let them know what kind of equipment is available, and how to use it.
- Risks/rules—Talk about what kind of risks there are at the event location, or associated with the specific activity. If there are poisonous plants, dangerous animals, or environmental conditions (high rocks, ice, strong currents, etc.), let them know how to avoid any problems, and what to do if a problem arises. Some events will have specific rules that you should make guests aware of. For example, you may be visiting a farm that uses electric fencing that is not particularly pleasant to touch. Or, you may be in a nature or wildlife preserve with sensitive environment where off-trail exploration is not allowed.
- Caregiving—Discuss how each parent is responsible for their own children. Talk about what happens if some children want to split up. It may be that parents are comfortable with watching other children, but remind folks that it is up to the parents to ensure they get permission or agreement from others before assuming someone is watching their children.
- Staying engaged—This is a good time to remind people to put away their technology and stay engaged with their children, their family, and others.
Help strengthen your community by taking an active role in deepening relationships. Take an interest in the other families, and work to get to know them by talking to each adult and child throughout the event. When speaking with children, it is a good idea to crouch down so that your eyes are at the same level as theirs. You can make much-appreciated introductions between families that don’t know each other well by giving some background on you and how you know the other people. You can spark conversations with small talk starters by asking people about their own childhoods, experiences in nature, or interests in attending the event or joining the group.
As the leader of your family nature club, you are the logistical coordinator for your group. Besides mapping out the plan for the day, while you’re at your event, you are the one people will look to for direction as to what to do. From guiding activities like icebreakers to bringing special equipment such as guidebooks, magnifying glasses, and binoculars, to literally guiding the group in a location, you should assume a leadership role in helping move the event along. In the cases when a third party is leading the event, you should still welcome and introduce the event, as well as work towards deepening relationships. But you can depend more heavily on this third party to do the guiding for the day. There may also be natural leaders in your group who will make suggestions as to the direction or activity to pursue. You can welcome these suggestions and follow them, or remind them of a different plan that you want to pursue. Guiding is a delicate balance of telling people what to do—for example, informing everyone that you’re going to explore up a creek—modeling, and showing them that you’re stopping by putting your stuff down and starting to play. It’s also important to get feedback from others to gauge everyone’s interest and comfort level. If you re on a rigorous hike and trying to stay together, you can survey people at various points to see if folks are ready to turn around or keep going. Don’t worry if you have no experience guiding—just try out different approaches and see what works best for you and the group. What’s most important is your enthusiasm and empathy for others!
Paramount to the success of your family nature club is staying safe. This starts with how you pick and organize events, including scouting locations to ensure you understand the risk associated with each event. While the responsibility of a child’s safety belongs to their parents, it is important to help parents stay aware of current dangers and risks, and help point out when problems are arising. If you’re on a trail with large rocks, it’s a good idea not to let children climb so high that a fall could be life changing in a bad way. Likewise, playing near water introduces many risks that you should be aware of, so take appropriate considerations. You can research risky play and how to manage that in advance of your group to get more information. In a later chapter, I will discuss legal protection to keep you and your families safe.
My style for hosting our family nature club events is shaped by having a small private group of families who all currently attend or have attended the same school. We know each other well, and so the group’s norms and event styles are all very well known. I run my events more casually than I would if it was a public group where new members were joining each week. So my welcome and introduction is more like what you would expect at an afternoon picnic. Some people arrive on time, while others join a little later. We aren’t so formal as starting each event with an official welcome introduction, but rather I spend a lot of time while on the trail talking with other parents about options for how to let the event unfold.
I have a light-handed approach to guiding, and focus a great deal of effort on making sure that guests have as good a time as possible—including both children and parents. I try to interact with everyone during the event.
I stay alert and keep other parents alert to any safety issues, both before and during the event. While I support and help facilitate risky play, I work to ensure that any risky play is low consequence. So, for example, we may play on a half-frozen creek with a high chance of the children breaking through and getting wet, but it is on warmer days, with extra clothes, and with parents staying close to children and not wandering far from our vehicles (rather than playing on a deep lake with thin ice where falling through is very dangerous and high consequence).
What You’ve Learned
In this chapter, you’ve learned how disconnecting with technology will allow you to be a better host and focus on what is important—the people and experience! You’ve learned about how to welcome and introduce events, how to deepen relationships, how to guide, and how to stay safe for your family nature clubs.