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Risk and Reward in Nature: Can a Family Nature Club Help You Tip the Balance in Favor of Nature?

Let’s get it out there first: I am a risk-taker. Not in the adrenaline junkie sense—I’m no skydiver—but I stray from the beaten path, sometimes quite far from any path. I’ve spent days tailing a transmitter-fitted rhino through the African bush, been four days from civilization in the Peruvian Amazon, and camped alone without sight of humanity for more than a week…before cell phones. But I’m a field biologist, and not the average American parent. But when my kids enter the equation, everything changes. I may not be the typical parent, but when it comes to fears about our children, I get it. Having kids is game changing. As parents, one of the most important decisions we make is how to deal with parental fears.

Personally, I don’t let those fears cause me to lock up my kids. True, I don’t let them roam the woods alone like I did in my childhood, but I do get them out there, and try to give them as long a leash as I can. I push my comfort zone, and my wife’s. That’s what this essay is about—stretching our comfort zones. It’s in our kids’ best interests. We all have different comfort zones, and that’s okay.

As parents, we need to ask ourselves, “what are my barriers to allowing my children have fulfilling and relatively safe nature experiences?” When my wife and I take our kids out, we acknowledge that nature outings are not risk-free. There are rattlesnakes. Spiders, Scorpions. Poison oak. Boulders and trees to fall from. Mountain lions. Getting lost. Heat stroke. Hypothermia. But, statistically these risks are low and the ride home in the car is probably more dangerous. The risk of staying home and stagnating, mentally and physically, is greater.



Sometimes it’s societal pressure. There is no greater shame than being accused of poor parenting, and these comments are powerful de-motivators for nature play. My wife and I get remonstrated for letting our boys play in the chaparral across the street from our house. When we let our kids get too far ahead on the trail or scramble around some boulders, some well-intentioned hikers will remind us that this is rattlesnake country. At times our friends ask, “Why do you choose such remote campgrounds? What if something happens out there?” I have to admit that the prospect of carrying out an injured child is daunting. But, life must have some risk…and it’s the slight element of risk that makes it that much more interesting, both to parents and children.

Mother Nature offers many rewards that far outweigh these risks. The mantra of the movement to reconnect children to nature is “healthier, happier, smarter.” Research shows this to be true. Who wouldn’t want this for their child? Another one is decision-making and risk mediation. I operate under the theory that “helicoptor parenting” will keep kids safe until they reach teenage years and then end up wrapping the car around a telephone pole. Kids need to take risks and suffer the consequences, if they are going to learn how to make good decisions on their own. And the biggest reward stemming from time spent in nature with your children? Quality time and bonding. No place is better than nature at letting parent and child co-experience the world and play, learn and grow together. So, just get out there—you owe it to yourself!


We are not going to revert to “the way it was” but we can’t afford to keep our kids cooped up inside. If you agree that you and your child or children could benefit from more nature play and exploration, then what’s your plan? How will you get nature back on your calendar? Some of us are good at self-motivating, but others will need more encouragement. Family nature clubs, a growing national movement, might be the right solution for you. Joining a group of like-minded families for your nature explorations may address those fears, real and imagined (and exaggerated). Safety in numbers: it’s in our DNA. Engaging nature in a group creates a safe(r) environment for your child to explore and s/he may benefit from other children modeling how to explore more boldly and with greater joy. And, you may well stretch your boundaries by observing other parents’ greater tolerance for dirt, mud, and, yes, risk.

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Replies to This Discussion

Just came across this Helen Keller quote while flipping through Freedom of the Hills: "Security is mostly superstition.  It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

Many thanks, Ron, Ken, and Sylvia, for your replies. It's reassuring to read that you have had similar experiences and it's interesting to hear how you are dealing with them. It looks like tomorrow we'll be a big group again, but last Saturday it was just us and one other family. Both are fine with me. But it leads me to another question: do you actively try to motivate families (existing members) to join your group outings as often as possible? And how do you reach new families? Do you 'advertise'? So far, I've once passed a flyer round at a parent/teachers meeting at our school... Or do you hope that the experiences of families who are already members plus word-of-mouth will persuade others to give it a try? On the one hand, I really don't want to be too pushy about it all and put people off, but on the other I feel that, if I deeply believe in the importance of re-connecting families with nature (both for our sakes, as well as for nature's sake), I should do as much as I can. Achieving the right balance is important...

Hi Jessica.

I also find that when I organize the hike/adventure, during that outing I end up spending more time "observing" my kids from afar as they play and explore with other kids. Ron and I also tend to split up - him at the front and me rallying the caboose. Sometimes that can be a bummer, but at the same time, we are able to find time to still spend time in nature as a family (we just got back from a two-week camping trip around Nevada and in the Mojave National Preserve in California). We don't plan an event every weekend for that reason -- we still need time as a family both in and out of nature. There has to be a balance there, no matter what, or we run the risk of burning out as leaders I think.

I think you know that our club has multiple organizers too, of "Nearby Nature Clubs" that do meet weekly or biweekly, during the week. But that's not the only model that is out there. We do find that having multiple organizers helps a lot, as we are able to plug into events that we aren't actually leading. While some leadership is still expected from others, it really allows us time to focus more on each other. Perhaps as your group grows and you have regular folks attending, one will emerge as a natural organizer too... just think -- if you had one or two other leaders in your group, and they only organized one outing each, that would let you participate as a participant if you wanted to, or even just head out on your own for a more intimate family nature experience with just yours! Time will tell. Just a thought.

In the meantime, I admire that you're already seeing how much other people have come to enjoy and even rely on your outings. As hard as it may be, perhaps you should consider leaving one Saturday open for families to "do their own thing", and that could serve as your time to bond as a family in nature too. Another option that we often take is hosting an adventure on Saturday, then just taking a casual hike or exploration with the boys in nature on Sunday afternoon. So much to consider!!

Keep up posted on your adventures! I think you should start a "new discussion" in this group, telling your story... how and why you started up a club in Cusco, Peru! And post some of those magnificent pictures too!

Take care,


Jessica Groenendijk said:

Great post as always. I completely agree with you; it's about stretching our comfort zones, taking calculated risks, and also, trusting our kids to a greater extent than many (Peruvian) parents seem to be able to...

The Club I started with a friend in Cusco, Peru, a couple of months ago is gathering momentum: last Saturday there were 30 of us (17 kids) and we had a wonderful day out at some Inca ruins called Tipon about 40 minutes drive out of town. Have a look at www.facebook.com/ClubNaturaNinos ... I actually find, though, that in my efforts to involve other families and kids, I end up spending less time bonding with my own kids in nature. I'm so busy organizing and talking to adults, and Saba and Luca are so busy running about with the other kids, we hardly see each other during our weekly half-day outings!! Do you find that as well? Maybe I should alternate, one Saturday just for us, and the next for the club. But already one or two families have come to depend on the Saturday outings and if we don't go, I have a feeling they won't. Perhaps when they become a little more confident, and I relax a little, then we can go for longer excursions (including camping trips) and truly immerse ourselves in nature...

NICE!!! Thanks for sharing that Ken!

Ken Schmaltz said:

Just came across this Helen Keller quote while flipping through Freedom of the Hills: "Security is mostly superstition.  It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

Hi Jessica, another thought is to find occasional leaders to take your place leading hikes, if no one is ready to commit to becoming an organizer of a sub-club. That can get you a needed break, diversify the experience for the club, and help cultivate new leaders gradually. As we talk with other club leaders, we learn there are many approaches to doing this!

I agree with Janice: taking it all on yourself can lead to burn out. I view self care as a plane ride. If the oxygen masks pop out, you have to put yours on before you help others put theirs on or you'll pass out and be no good to anybody. If you don't take time for yourself and your family to breathe, you'll burn out and nobody will benefit from your efforts.


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