Reflections on and lessons learned from the first three outings of a new family nature club

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: 

  • Use technology – Survey Monkey is free for surveys with ten questions or less and using this for pre-registration (including liability waivers and photo releases) minimizes having to do paperwork onsite, which is cumbersome and time consuming.  I am also sending a link to a really quick “survey” after the outings to gather feedback on people’s experiences so I can learn about what did and didn’t work and make improvements.  Having a website that is the clearing house for club information and augmenting that with a Facebook page that is frequently updated with relevant articles, outing reminders and updates, community opportunities, photos, etc. is a great way to generate and maintain energy around the club.
  • Pre-hiking the outings the week or so before is essential – this ensures that the planned walk fits within the allotted time, helps to identify the initial gathering place as well as stopping spots along the way (these are important so the kids can play and explore), and allows me to make note of interesting features that we will encounter, which I assemble into a half page visual and audio “scavenger hunt” that I hand out.  This scavenger hunt seems to really help people connect with their surroundings and it gives me places to hone in and incorporate casual teachable moments.  That said, some of the best moments in our first few outings have come from unexpected “gifts” from nature – the toad that crossed our path, the snake on the bank of the creek, or the deer antlers on the bank of the river. You can’t plan for these things, but being familiar with your environment can make it easier to be attuned to where you might have opportunities for nature to present itself in unexpected ways.
  • Social management matters – If you are expecting larger groups, it is very worthwhile to have several “volunteer guides” who can help you to manage the group.  For me, this has come in the form of family members as well as several girls scouts using their service as a project, who have helped by occupying the group during the beginning stage while people are checking in and gathering  and by being “sweepers” who took up the rear to make sure no one was left behind. Bubbles seem to be a great way to give the kids a focus before the hike starts and I saw a lot of parents looking over the scavenger hunt while we waited to start. I also found that handing out name tags was very helpful in putting names to faces - for me and everyone else. Some sort of casual “ice-breaker” is also good – we have tried putting animal names on people’s backs (those that can read) and having them ask others yes or no questions to figure out what they are.
  • Light leadership – I am very comfortable in the logistical planning role and also in smaller group dynamics, but as a relatively introverted person actually leading larger groups is a bit outside my comfort zone.  However, when families show up to these outings they are looking for some leadership, especially at the beginning and to some extent in closing out the event.  I have been making a point to be the one to sign people in so I can really welcome them and try to make that initial connection strong. Then as we are about to get started I have used the “Clap once if you can hear me…” technique to gather the group’s attention and set expectations for what we are about to do. I tell people the general route, emphasize that parents are responsible for their kids and are encouraged to go at their children’s pace, and that there will be leaders and sweepers so the group stays loosely together as well as points where we will all converge for play, exploration and snack breaks.  While we are walking I have been finding good places to gently lead people off trail to check out neat features and try to model fun, respectful exploration (i.e. it is totally ok to explore the creek and get a little dirty but let’s not trample the wild flowers on the way) while also sharing interesting information about some of the natural features we are having the opportunity to be around.

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!  

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