6:30 AM. I’m on my second cup of coffee, and my daughter, Nyla, age 3, has wandered beyond our tiny kitchen area to join the other children who have all finished breakfast and are now exploring the forest that surrounds our camp. They caper in and out of view and settle on a fallen evergreen tree. The tree’s girth is a challenge at first, but Nyla scrambles up to sit between two other children. It’s a crisp morning, chilly enough for winter hats and coats, yet still the children are lit up with joy—they are free, unencumbered by adult agendas, schedules, and fences of urban living. Out here in nature, they flex their independence and discover what so many other children have found outside—serenity and solace.
Throughout our two-night multi-family camping trip, I observe Nyla grow in so many ways. She helps me prepare breakfast and then later carry our inflatable kayak, life jackets, and supplies down to the mountain reservoir hundreds of yards away. We paddle across miles of waters, sun ourselves and leap from rocks with the other families, and share memories and stories by campfire light. The hours seem to span days, and she is ever-present, glued to the expansive vistas, community interactions, and family bonds. Her happiness is marked with an absence of the complaining and whining typical of toddlers—instead, replaced by an eagerness to take on responsibility, and a level of engagement that is far rarer when at home.
My memories of growing up in Colorado abound with experiences in nature. We hiked, we backpacked, we rafted, and we skied. We played in streams, mountains, and oceans (not in Colorado, obviously!). Until becoming a parent myself, I never realized how much of those childhood experiences were made possible by my parents’ interest and participation in ensuring that I spent a great amount of time outdoors. When I young, this was facilitated by living in the mountains and my parents’ own values, which allowed for unstructured time and play outdoors. Then it was Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and travel that took me deep into nature on a regular basis, often with peers, and facilitated greatly by my parents’ participation and leadership. This camping trip, several years ago, revealed the role that I would need to play if I wanted to raise my children in a similar way—connected to nature.
Shortly thereafter, I was introduced to the concept of family nature clubs in Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. I learned about nature deficit disorder and unstructured nature play, and discovered that my uneasy feelings about modern childhood were a reflection of the massive shift in the reality children face today. Children now spend less time in nature than in any previous generation. Their connection with the natural world is being lost, and at the same time we are facing an increase in obesity, physical maladies, and disconnected communities. Companies have mastered the art of selling indoor, screen-based products that diminish children’s outdoor, unstructured nature-play—play that enhances their development and connection. The future leaders—our children—need our help now.
Why I Started a Family Nature Club
I never imagined myself as someone who would organize outdoor events for groups of families. But I desperately wanted a solution for my children to ensure they enjoyed a childhood as rich with nature experiences as I had.
I desperately wanted:
- More unstructured outdoor play, and for my children to enjoy independence and interact with nature devoid of adult agendas, following their own whims—not just by putting them in a day- or week-long program, and not a short after-school program either. I wanted to give them long stretches of time on a frequent basis. Even with activities that are more adult-guided, I wanted to ensure they were complemented with intentional space and time for unstructured outdoor play.
- Experiences in which our whole family could participate with friends and parents, regardless if I had a daughter or a son. While Boy Scouts worked well for my brother and me, my desire was to find activities that would allow my children and family to enjoy those experiences together, and not put the children in separate gender-based groups (such as the Boy Scouts is in the U.S.) where parents were not participants.
- Deep interaction with nature—not experiences in urban, manicured settings or those that maintained a distance from nature and viewed it like a museum exhibit. I wanted to get my children into the wilds and wilderness so that they could touch, see, smell, and develop a lifelong bond with nature like I had.
- Something that was easy to coordinate with a consistent community, rather than a series of one-off play dates where a cancellation could ruin the plan, or result in me spending hours and hours researching and registering for a variety of programs that would put my children into one new community after another.
What I wanted was an easy way to organize an epic group of families eager to adventure with us all the time!
The family nature club concept is an evidence-based proven solution to these and more challenges faced in modern childhood. Quite simply, it is “a group of people interested in connecting children with nature on a regular basis for nature-centered experiences to instill wonder and engendered curiosity.”—Richard Louv
The idea of starting my own club for my daughter filled me with excitement. But we also had a newborn son…so I chose not to act. I finished the book and tucked it away.
The book sat on my side table for a couple of years. Then, it happened.
In the spring of 2015, my family and I decided we were ready to try building a family nature club. My children were then five and two, and needed much more outdoor time with friends. As much as I didn’t want to give up my solitary claim on our family activities, I knew it was time. We began our club with a good dose of hesitation and apprehension, organizing just a few friends and infrequent multi-family events in nature. Over the last year we have slowly and gently grown the club, inviting new folks as the children joined new classrooms and communities. Today, I plan weekly events for our club, and have events that have drawn dozens of families. Our family nature club brings immense joy to our children and family. It’s building a community I never would have imagined being a part of, and giving our children an experience in nature that is profoundly fun and both developmentally and educationally valuable. Others across the world echo almost the exact same sentiment and results for their children and family when participating in such clubs.
The concept of a family nature club is easy to understand and implement. It is flexible and powerful. It crosses gender, race, and socio-economic barriers—truly a community-building device. It forges a lifelong bond between people and nature—our home and mother, and what sustains our presence here. As I discovered this potency, I began to wonder why more people are not aware of the family nature club concept. Why, if the concept has been around by name since 2006, and previously in effect for decades, is it not mainstream and known everywhere?
This Book Is Powerful
The life I have created from following the ideas and practices I share is purely amazing. I see it in the eyes and smiles of my own children and family. I have received accolades in person and through the grapevine about the experiences my community has created from what I share in this book. People frequently come up to me and say, “You are a rock star!” Well, no I’m not, but the concept of family nature clubs is!
I stand behind every one of the steps you will learn here—I have experienced the success of them firsthand, and there is mounting evidence of their effectiveness.
Unplugged is the culmination of what I have learned in over four decades of personal experiences and skill mastery in nature, becoming an experienced outdoorsman, and now running my own family nature club. I don’t just talk the walk—I walk the walk. And with this book, you can too.
Why Did I Write This Book?
This book is an effort to increase the awareness of family nature clubs. It’s stunning that more people haven’t heard about them.
The goal is to inspire you to move into action! The focus of the following pages present short vignettes of our experiences intertwined with the simple steps you can take to build your own family nature club.
Reach for Your Dreams
If you’re like me, when you became a parent it was like walking into a foreign land with little to guide you. Hopefully, you began your parenting journey with high hopes for the life you’d craft for your children and family. But then, all of a sudden, you have a baby to take care of . . . and after that a toddler. It’s a challenging, overwhelming time . . . and as you slowly emerge from the sleepless nights and start to orient to this new landscape, you just might remember the dreams and wishes you have for your children. Finding the right balance between work, your relationships, and your family is challenging. Being a good parent is hard, and being a great parent is absolutely harder.
With good intentions, persistence, and commitment, you can achieve your greatest dreams. My hope is that this book will give you a valuable tool for your journey and help you take those intimidating first steps. I promise you this: If you read this book and follow the steps, your life will be greatly transformed!