My wife, Janice, and I founded a family nature club recently. We have monthly (at least) Saturday outings, but already a second smaller group has broken off to establish "Wilderness Wednesdays"--nature outings every Wednesday from 10-12.

Today brought home to me why we are doing this—it’s fun! You know, there are lots of reasons to get your kids out in nature, just like there are lots of reasons to teach your kids reading, writing
and ‘rithmetic. But what sustains an activity like this is the sheer enjoyment
of it. How many of us keep going to the gym if we really don’t enjoy it?

So, we went on a canyon exploration on Scripps Ranch “trail” #21. But within minutes of leaving our cars, we weren’t on the trail. We were by the creek, visiting the chaos created by our recent
storms—downed trees, upturned roots (creating wonderful little muddy caves
underneath), and piles of debris left behind by the rushing waters. Most of the
debris was of the natural variety, but there is a nice couch cushion there for
the taking, lodged in the mud. My oldest son, Owen, took great pains to ensure
that there was no patch of clothing clinging to him that wasn’t caked in mud. A
good dip in the creek cleaned most of it off.

Five families showed up today and they were all troupers, real pros at canyon exploration. These moms needed no guidance, no “how-to” classes, to point the way. They just sat back and let the kids take
the lead, occasionally stepping in to establish an appropriate boundary (“Son,
don’t wave that stick in your friend’s face!”). Dams were built, piles of
debris conquered, and “axes” (stick with a right-angled sharp edge) were used
to excavate the dirt brought up with the tree roots.

What struck me was the sense of community, communication, and common purpose that quickly emerged. Parents stepped in to help or co-experience nature with all the kids, with little regard to how much
DNA they shared with the child. Snacks were shared, with dozens of grubby
fingers reaching into the communal snack bags.

It was hard to keep track of which kid went with which parent. Moms were lifting and assisting kids trying to get over, under, and around the many obstacles the storm had thrown in our path. If
you’ve ever read Going on a Bear Hunt
to your child, you’d be thinking “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it. Oh no!
We have to go through it!” That was absolutely our experience, minus the bear
chasing us back home!

One mom, Ying, was amazing, coming to the rescue of Amanda’s son, Taylor, whose foot got caught in a tangle of downfallen branches. To execute the rescue operation, Ying had to nimbly jump, stumble and
stoop around a 20-foot barrier of debris and fallen trees. (I hurt my back
recently, so was in no shape to perform my manly rescue duties.) Everyone pitched
in like this, but Ying gets the gold star.

The other thing I enjoyed so much about the outing was the conversation. Too often, when families get together, the conversation goes one direction or the other. In one extreme, parents talk
grown-up talk the whole time and virtually ignore the kids. In the other, they
just focus on the kids and don’t get to have some good adult conversation. What
struck me was how the conversation, standing under the eucalyptus, moved easily
back and forth between kid-focused enjoyment of their experience and
“intelligent” adult conversation. I think nature brings this out in us and have
found time and time again that I get to know people better in the woods than at
a cocktail party.

This was my first Wilderness Wednesday. Although I co-founded the FAN Club with Janice, I’m a working dad and usually spend my Wednesdays in the office, writing, emailing and talking about nature,
instead of experiencing it (I’m an ecologist with the San Diego Zoo). Now I
know what I’m missing out on. I enjoyed this so much that I’m thinking of
looking into a 4-day workweek so I can join in on the fun every Wednesday!
Thanks to Janice for having knee surgery, forcing me to stay home and “take
care of the kids!”

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Comment by Ron Swaisgood on February 17, 2010 at 1:45pm
Thanks, Chip. Hey, did you try camping yet? We're about to organize a FAN Club camping trip soon. We did it last year with several families before we officially launched the club.

Amy, love your holiday tradition. We've long had the family tradition of a hike on Christmas (to work off the pie and turkey) and New Year's Day (in the old days sans kids, to work off the alcohol from the night before...not too much of that these days). This year we invited our FAN Club to join us on New Year's ('fraid to say the boys never got out of their pajamas on Christmas Day, now that new toys command their attention for longer). We had about 20 or 25 families join us for a spectacular, sunny Southern Cal day. We snacked, but your party on the trail takes this to a whole new dimension. Now, we'll have to try that.

Our idea, to try soon, is "canyon coffees." We plan to meet and drink coffee, eat Danishes, and chat using multi-syllabic words with others in the over-20 (or way over 20 in our case) crowd, while we let the kids run amuck, looking for rattlesnakes and poison oak, unsupervised. Or something like that.
Comment by Chip Donahue on February 16, 2010 at 5:28pm
Thank you so much for sharing your story. This is so wonderfully inspiring!
Comment by amy pertschuk on February 8, 2010 at 12:19pm
Sometimes it's hard to describe the benefits of time in nature with family, friends, and community. I think your comments about the way we interact in nature vs. a cocktail party are right-on. That was my thinking when, last year, we switch the venue of our holiday party from our living room to a nearby hiking trail. We piled a cart full of food and warm beverages and took it with us to the end of the trail where we toasted and talked and watched the kids climb rocks and run down the beach. Fantastic. So now our "Out is In" party is an annual event. I'll send you an invitation next year -- or hey -- you could throw one too!

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