The first outing of Columbia Families in Nature (CFIN) was on Sunday March 23, 2014 in Columbia, Maryland. We had over 120 people signed up before I closed the event to any further registrants because 1) I didn't know what I would do with that many people on a hike and 2) I had paid to have the Maryland Department of Natural Resources come out and give a Scales and Tales presentation and I would have to pay extra for every person over 100 that showed up. I learned a couple of great lessons from this. First, initially I didn’t plan to “require” pre-registration, but due to the strong level of interest in our outings from the outset I decided to set up an online pre-registration form. This has been really helpful for my planning purposes, to get a bit of extra commitment from people to show up, and to minimize paperwork at the event. Second, there is definitely attrition from pre-registration numbers on the order of about 25-30% and it is weather dependent – in inclement weather these numbers can be higher and in good weather the attrition can be offset from people showing up who didn’t pre-register. Third, it was really helpful to have a stationary “event” for people to gather around for the first outing when people (including me) were just trying to figure out what this family nature club thing was all about. While I was busy welcoming people and getting them signed in and set up with their hand-outs everyone could gather in one spot for the presentation of and about local wildlife. This took some pressure off of me, gave a neat extra bonus to being at our first event, and minimized issues of waiting for people to arrive before starting to hike. After the 45 minute presentation we got started with our hike, and that was a good thing because on this momentous day it was a high of 43 degrees, grey, windy and threatening rain. The approximately 75 people that came out were quite cold and a getting moving was essential for helping us warm up! We did an easy, mostly paved walk around the lake at the center of Columbia and it seemed that everyone enjoyed themselves. I did my best to move throughout the group and talk with each family for a few moments while also seeking opportunities to point out natural features on their scavenger hunts (more on this later). When the outing was over I felt excited, relieved to have actually launched CFIN, and wanted a nap.
If I thought the weather during our first outing was challenging, the second outing sought to prove me wrong. I have taken to sending out emails with outing details on the Friday night before each outing to the people who have pre-registered. When I sent out the email on March 28th for the March 30th outing the weather looked like it would be in the upper 50s with the chance of light sprinkles. I said it was rain or shine and encouraged people to dress for a little rain with the adage that there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing. Well, come Saturday (12 hours later) the forecast was a high in the mid 30s, driving rain, wind and a chance of snow. I hemmed and hawed over whether to cancel all together but ended up sending out an email telling people that we would shift to an indoor location – the local nature center. Twenty families had signed up for this outing, and about eight showed up despite very inclement weather. We ended up watching a beautiful, heavy snow storm from the wide windows of the children’s room in the nature center and doing their indoor scavenger hunt. It was a cozy, nice time – those that were there were glad for the opportunity get out of the house and let their children burn off some energy. The moral of this story is to have a back-up location for when the weather is just too cold/wet/windy etc. to enjoy being outdoors with children.
Our third outing was on Sunday April 6th. We finally had beautiful weather. It was in the upper 50s for real this time and sunny. Twenty-two families showed up for this outing, for a total of more than 80 people. I was a bit daunted as the people kept showing up, including several “walk-ins” that balanced out the “no-shows”. Fortunately, 1) I had several volunteers in the form of 13 year old girl scouts there to help guide the group, 2) I had packed big tubes of bubbles that the girl scouts blew for the kids to play with while I was handling sign-in (my husband was wrangling our 4 and 1 year old children) and waiting ~15 minutes for everyone to show up, 3) I had pre-hiked the route and had planned several neat natural features to share with the group and places to stop for people to regroup. It was a really fantastic outing and I started to feel like I was getting into the groove with leading this family nature club. I was buoyed by the positive feedback that I received both in person during the outing, on our Facebook page after I posted the update and photos from the outing, and in the post-survey I sent to people. It was also neat to start seeing familiar faces – three families have came to all three of the first outings.
The big take away thoughts after our first three CFIN outings are:
These first three outing have been great learning opportunities for me as a new family nature club leader. We are still in our infancy, but I feel like we are already starting to toddle and will soon be hitting a solid stride and be off and running. That is good because we have 22 outings remaining in 2014! It is going to be a great adventure!