Starting a New Family Nature Club: The practicalities of going from the inspiration to the realization

Inspired by participation in a Children and Nature Network (C&NN) Grassroots Gathering, in the fall of 2013 I began planning to start a family nature club in my hometown of Columbia, Maryland.  The C&NN has created a Nature Clubs for Families Toolkit that is an essential guide to creating a new club. My copy became quite dog eared and note-filled as I sought to heed the guide’s credo of “Do it yourself. Do it now.” I mulled over club names and settled on Columbia Families in Nature (CFIN). I considered frequency and times to hold the club outings and settled on Sunday afternoons from 2-4pm on most weekends of the year – with three outings during each of the warm months and two during the cooler months. I decided to launch CFIN on March 23rd, 2014 to celebrate the spring equinox and proceeded to select dates for all the outings for 2014 – for a grand total of 25. 

By the beginning of 2014 I was ready to start bringing my vision for CFIN to life.  My first step was to build the website – www.columbiafamiliesinnature.org.  My next step was to develop a list of community contacts to send information about the club to.  The list included the PTAs of every elementary and middle school in my town, local politicians, community centers, pre-schools, environmental organizations, religious organizations, mom’s groups, Meetup groups, outdoor enthusiast groups, outdoor equipment stores, and more.  I was pleasantly surprised by how many points of contact I was able to come up with once I started thinking through who is engaged in similar efforts (kids, outdoors, families, environment, education, etc.).  As a way to actively reach and engage these different networks I set up a Facebook page that I used to drum up interest in my outings in the months leading up to March 23rd.  Within a few hours of going live on Facebook I had my first family sign up for our first outing. Within two months over 200 people had liked the Facebook page and over 120 people had signed up for the first outing – a number so large I had to close the outing to any further registrants several weeks in advance.

Concurrent with my push to get the word out about CFIN, I was working on the details of preparing to actually hold the outings.  I worked with those responsible for managing the open space in my community, the Columbia Association, to select good locations for each of the March through May outings.  It turned out that I needed to have a formal licensing agreement with the Columbia Association to bring organized, advertised groups of people on to their open space properties, so that was a process that required some  time and attention. I also worked to prepare basic materials such as fliers and registration forms with liability and photo release waivers. The C&NN toolkit has very helpful templates for these types of documents.  Originally I intended to make pre-registration optional, but based on the strong level of interest in the first outing I shifted to requiring pre-registration and asking people to complete the form online using Survey Monkey.  I purchased collateral materials to help make the club a bit more “official” such as business/loyalty cards, a yard sign to help people know they were in the right place, and bandanas with the club name on them that parents can have their younger children wear (orange ones) and that my family and other volunteer “guides” can wear to identify themselves (yellow ones) during outings.  I also bought supplies for our backpacks such as first aid kits and materials such as magnifying glasses, binoculars, nets and field guides.  

By early March most everything seemed to be in order for our first outing and I was eager to get past the threshold of preparation to actually having CFIN.   A very helpful step in thinking through both my preparations and the reality of actually facilitating my first outings was to speak with Janice Swaisgood, the National Coordinator for the C&NN Natural Families Network.  She was able to provide constructive insights and assurances based on her years of experience leading the family nature club her family started in San Diego and working with the ~190 family nature clubs registered with the C&NN.  Spring came very slowly and in fits and starts in Maryland, so that made our first few outings an extra adventure as we experienced large changes in temperature and weather week to week.   A reflection on the first three CFIN outings and lessons learned in the shift from planning to doing is forthcoming.

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