I'm often asked the following question, or one similar to it, so I thought I'd post it with my response here, for discussion. This is also the story of how our club got to be what and where it is currently.

"How many kids/adults in each club (average/max/min)? Is there any upper limit -- either by your experience, or by design?"

Our club, Family Adventures in Nature, is set up a little differently from most family nature clubs I know of (if there even is a typical structure, certainly no required one). We got officially started last November, but my husband Ron and I had been talking about it for a while. We read Louv's book and were inspired to take what we were already doing as a family and share it with others. So, simply by word of mouth and posting a couple of fliers around local parks, we had over 20 families show up for our inaugural hike last November 13th. Boy, we better get an anniversary celebration planned! Our first anniversary is coming up soon!

Anyway, over the next several months, we continued to plan hikes, usually twice per month, and usually had between 15 - 25 families show up (some repeats, some new... spreading only by word of mouth at this point). We started using "BigTent.com" as an organizational tool and added Facebook to the mix sometime in the spring. Also during those first few months, a friend and I talked about her doing more regular hikes close to home. Hence was born our concept of "Nearby Nature Community Networks" (NNCN). Her group has been meeting every Wednesday ever since and she named it "Wilderness Wednesdays". I started to notice other people who had joined the big group were coming to her weekly adventures too, often from pretty far away. This made me wonder how we could start up and encourage more smaller clubs, closer to home. After talking with a few people that I thought might be interested in becoming leaders, the NNCN idea began to grow. I also added a few profile questions for people to answer when they joined "Family Adventures in Nature" on BigTent.com, including how "involved" they wanted to be. You can join our group as an "observational member" if you'd like to see what types of activities we do, and see the questions. Simply go to www.FamilyAdventuresinNature.org. Anyone can of course join us on Facebook: Family Adventures in Nature.

Anyway, new leaders emerged and I tried (try) my best to foster and mentor their growth -- and my own! This was all new territory for me. We've now had 5 "Nearby Nature Community Networks" start, and four of them are going strong. The fifth group's leader has had a rough summer personally, and is now pregnant again so I'm not sure what will become of that group now. Each of these groups consists of members that live nearby geographically, and they meet on a weekly or biweekly basis. The number of attendees for each of these groups ranges from 6 - 20+ and varies quite a bit. I'd venture to guess that the average attendance is about 6-8 families, or 20 or so participants (adults and kids together).

So to recap, we have what you could call a "mother" group that has some 300+ families (according to our numbers on BigTent and Facebook, combined much higher, but there is some overlap). Within that group, there are 5 subgroups that meet in nearby nature, within about a 10 minute drive (or less) from the leaders' homes. Any group member is welcome at any adventure, but we encourage people to attend as frequently as they can, particularly if they have an NNCN nearby. We do not have any upper limit set, nor do I see the need to at this point. The highest attendance we've had at an event was a little over 80 participants. There was a wildlife presentation by a local rescue group, then a hike in the preserve. We were shocked, nervous, but very happy for the attendance "problem" of so many people. We handled it the way we always to when we have a larger attendance: start out together and encourage people to follow their children's lead. The group naturally spreads out and there weren't any problems at all. A group of that size really provides a different experience than being out on your own (the other extreme), but they are both valuable for different reasons. More on that later if you're interested, including how we start out each adventure.

That's it for the size of "Family Adventures in Nature" and its NNCNs, including the basic story of how we "grew up" our club. I'll get more into what we do with our new leaders and so forth in another entry. Our goals for the next year are to sprout and grow up 5 more NNCNs, reaching into more geographically diverse locations in San Diego. We've got a large county and there are a lot of untapped areas. The challenge will be to find new leaders. Ultimately our goal is to simply inspire more families to get into nature on a regular basis with their kids.

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Inland Empire Kids Outdoors is approaching 630 families (member sources include Meetup, Facebook, Yahoo Groups, mailing list). Our model has changed significantly over the past several months and I think that change has been for the better. I recently left southern California and informed the group that in my absence, we would be working on a decentralized leadership model that would include a greatly expanded core-leadership group. I have stayed on to help with administrative/back-end stuff and over the past few months several parents have come forward to take over leadership. These parents represent the entire I.E. geographic area, so suddenly we're seeing greater diversity in the geographic distribution of our activities. The result is that we now have a much stronger commitment to developing nearby nature opportunities.

We've also taken some time to look at the overall function of our group. While we've had some big attendance numbers at outings we plan ourselves, our typical attendance is a very comfortable 20-30 people. We've found that many people join the group to learn more about what is going on in the region and then participate in outdoor activities as a family after reading about the activities on our group pages. Because of this, we are starting to post lots of public events on our calendar, such as public hikes that are provided at local nature centers. So while we still offer activities that are led by our members, we also try to connect our group with events and activities that are going on throughout the region. This is filling a communication gap within the region and fosters better connection between families and nearby outdoor opportunities in their communities, opportunities that these families would not have heard about otherwise.

We've spent a lot of energy on developing nearby opportunities throughout the region and one of our long-term goals is to encourage more parents to branch out and start groups on their own. We're offering support by helping developing groups start out on social network sites and we're working on obtaining a small amount of funding to provide startup kits for local leaders that will include basic things like a backpack, a few magnifying lenses, etc. Potential local leaders have indicated that these simple tangible items will help give them an extra "boost" when leading outings.

Right now I'm starting to feel like we're getting to be too big for our current location on Meetup. We're looking into eventually migrating over to Ning or even just working off our own standard website. We need an online venue where parents in various neighborhoods and communities can connect and network, and I'm not sure if Meetup is going to work for us in that capacity. I don't see us placing a cap on membership, but eventually we're going to have to figure out how to stay connected with everyone while still fostering growth within local neighborhood groups.

A challenge in all of this is that we are 100% powered by volunteers, so everyone is juggling I.E. Kids Outdoors with other equally important commitments. There's no stipends for leaders or anything like that, so I'm finding that it's taking a bit longer than anticipated to reach some of our goals. For our group, being operated by volunteers is really part of the overall character of our group and reflects an amazing amount of commitment and interest in this initiative within the Inland Empire. There's no incentive for keeping the group going other than the personal motivation of our leaders. When I had to move to Oregon I was so worried that the group would start to crumble, but I have been completely surprised by the outpouring of support from the great people who have stepped forward to keep our group moving and growing.

On the subject of size, I'm starting to wonder how long we can continue to exist under the purview of volunteers. Eventually we're going to start hovering around 1,000 member families. At what point will this be too much for our volunteers to shoulder? Our group has always taken so much pride in our grassroots, volunteer-managed structure, but at some point the volunteers are going to start feeling overwhelmed. Will I eventually need to hire someone to manage things? And if so, how will that person be paid? If we don't want to hire someone, would we be better off breaking down into smaller groups? Considering our fast growth, these are questions that we're going to have to seriously consider over the next 1-2 years.

Wow, Janice  What a great model! and proof that people are looking for ways to

get outside with with other families. Reminds of the movie Field of Dreams - built it and they will come. Thank you for the inspiration!

The Anchorage Outdoor Family Network started in October 2010 and is now 307 families strong. Our two weekly stapple events are Taiga Trekkers family hikes and Skedaddle, an outdoor playgroup. With lots of other events thrown in the mix. We are a co-op of sorts and ask members to organize at least one outing/event per year to maintain membership. We use the meetup site to organize events. This site is great because it allows members to organize events. Our success has us currently working on becoming an official non-profit and broadening our scope to become the Alaska Outdoor Family Network with Anchorage and other communities chapters.

I love it Harmony!

You'll have to keep us posted on your status of becoming a non-profit. Something we've toyed with as well, but I'm intimidated by all of the legal and paperwork aspects of it. We may just look for fiscal sponsorship instead and go that route for a while. Not sure yet. I'll be eager to learn about what you learn along the way! Keep up the great work!

I have a totally different model based on how much I can personally handle.  When Janice and Wendy and Harmony talk about 300-600 families, I get excited about your reach and influence!  Amazing!  However, it makes my palms get sweaty thinking about organizing events so BIG.

I'm more comfortable writing about my family outdoor experiences and hope to set an example for the 14,000 unique visitors/month to my family blog guiding people to parks in our area. However, I do run a small monthly Nature Play Club with our family and 3 other families.  It makes it very easy to plan, change locations, and give everyone a voice.  We rarely miss an outing and the families have become ambassadors and suggested to their friends and families to start other clubs.  I also know of many MOMS Clubs in the area who have "nature playgroups" and I interact with their leaders on my blog.

So, just to provide another perspective, leaders can make their efforts as big or small as is personally comfortable.

Michele, We don't ever have 300 people ever showing up at events. That would be overwhelming! The most we've had at any one event is about 50 and that is kiddos and parents combined. Our meetup page has 300+ members, many of which  have yet to make an outing but use us as a resource to get ideas of things to do with their families when their schedules permit. There's a core of families with kids around the ages of our (the organizers') kids that meet up weekly, even that number fluctuates drastically with weather and seasons. While we function off the co-op model hoping all members plan at least 1 event per year, that is not what happens in reality. Though many have donated their help in other ways like designing our logo, helping us with the tax forms associated with being a non-profit and having their family businesses sponsor us. That said we chose the co-op model so that all the weight is not on our shoulders and many of our dedicated members help distribute the load. Our hiking group and outdoor playgroups can run themselves now. We just pick the location and post it, and if we the outing host can't make it due to a sick kid or whatever, the group continues on without us. Many of our events are piggy backing on other events in the community. If someone sees something interesting happening at the Eagle River Nature Center for example they will post it with all the pertinent info. As the title of our group entails we are more than anything a network and a resource.

Michele, you make a good point -- there is no one best type of family nature club and any "leader" needs to do what is best for them and their family. Ultimately, we all reach many people in one way or another and that's what the point is, really. I think we likely all have a lot in common, especially when it comes to why we're doing what we're doing. It's good for us, it's good for our families and it's good for our communities. That's true whether we're reaching one family or 500 or 14,000. You are blessed as a being a good writer and you're using your talent to inspire and motivate thousands, literally!

Harmony also makes a good point. We never have that many folks show up for one outing. The most we've had at one was about 80, but we had a live animal presentation before the hike at that one. We probably average 45-50 kids and parents (and I use that term to include aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc.) together on our "big" weekend adventures. The average is closer to 10 - 20 for our "Nearby Nature Clubs" that meet weekly, during the week (more or less a playgroup that hikes and adventures).

Anyone else want to share their model here? I'm always so inspired by what others are doing!

Janice and Harmony -- Okay, so 10-20 is what consistently happens at my nature club.  But it's nice that you have a forum for suggesting outings that people can take on their own. Thanks for describing "how" you both do it in such detail. That helps.

You are right about numbers -- reaching ONE family is awesome!  I get a great feeling when I hear back from even one reader.  So even if someone wants to take their not-so-nature-savvy friend with a family out into nature, that constitutes a nature club in my opinion.  Kind of a nature buddy system!


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