By Janice Swaisgood
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, my first inclination was of course to get outside, hit the trails, connect with nature even more, as well as my family, and myself. I wanted to schedule more outings for my Family Nature Club. Research now abounds as to the benefits of connecting to nature, so why not? For a split second, it seemed like a great idea. I quickly realized, however, that gathering people anywhere was not the right thing to do right now. As much as I wanted to organize nature escapes with Family Adventures in Nature, I realized that those connections would need to happen differently.
Believe it or not, I think that now is the time for Family Nature Clubs to grow and thrive. In fact, they may be needed now more than ever. The majority of populations around the world are experiencing isolation and shelter-in-place orders. Children are out of school. Sports and other organized activities have been suspended. Many adults are working from home, juggling how to continue their work while also supporting their children’s distance learning. We need to connect and support one another. Many families will have a bit more free time, and be eager for beneficial things to do. That’s where Family Nature Clubs come in.
If you are already part of a Family Nature Club, reach out to the organizer. Share this article with them. Let them know that you need the club and want to “connect”. If you aren’t in a club, find one, or think about starting one yourself if there’s not one in your area. The Children & Nature Network has the research to back you up, and even a toolkit to help you get started. They even created a new website called FindingNature in response to the COVID-19 crisis, with more information, inspiration, and resources.
If you already organize or lead a Family Nature Club, consider doing the following.
Send regular emails or blog entries to your Family Nature Club. First, find a way to connect to and acknowledge what is happening in your specific community. Use that connection to help others realize that now is the time to connect to nature and each other, but that it will just look a bit different for now. Remind them, sharing research links if you’d like, that by connecting to nature, even differently than we are used to, we will still reap a multitude of benefits by doing so. If you are aware of specific concerns in your group— additional anxiety or fear due to the pandemic, restricted access to regular hiking spots, etc.— address those head-on. You might even talk with some members or do a survey to find out what your families’ “nature” needs are right now.
Stay up-to-date on nature access in your area. Where can people find nearby nature? Are you rural? Families will then likely have good access right out their front doors. Are you suburban? Can families safely walk in their neighborhoods and still maintain social distancing norms? Maybe you are in an urban area. Sidewalks hold secret treasures! Balconies and patios can often hold a plant or two, and new things can even be planted now. Your community will probably be different than mine, yet we have so many shared resources at the same time. Get creative. Get connected.
Provide information and inspiration. Many families are likely feeling overwhelmed by our sudden and ever-changing circumstances. As a Family Nature Club leader, you have the ability to help alleviate some of the stress and anxiety adults and children may feel right now. Use your regular communication tools to share information about nature that is relevant to your community. You can also inspire your families to leverage some of their “downtime” to make connecting to nearby nature a regular part of their family routine.
Share resources. In your regular communications, share one or two links and/or simple activities that can be done at home, or close to it. As you curate resources that are appropriate for your community, also think about providing a platform for families to share their own ideas, including pictures of their family connecting to nature. If you don’t already have a website or online organizational tool, consider starting one up using one of the many free website builders (it’s pretty easy, I promise!). This will provide you and your families a central location to find and share resources and inspiration! Don’t forget to include “nature-connecting” apps like Seek by iNaturalist, or Outdoor Family Fun With Plum, and Nature Cat’s Great Outdoors, both by PBS Kids.
Recruit! Spend a little time on social media platforms, and sites that bring people together online, like Nextdoor. Plant seeds by posting “user friendly” research on the many benefits of spending time in and with nature. Share a simple nature-based activity or two for kids or families to do together at or near their home. Invite families to reach out to you for more information. Periodically, share an invitation or a link to your club. Many families are seeking out authentic, meaningful things to do, so leverage that desire, and direct it to connecting to nature with your Family Nature Club!
Organize virtual outings and activities. Now is the time to come “together.” You are likely already using some sort of platform for virtual meetings, like Zoom or Skype. There are no limits on virtual connections! Connect like this on a regular basis if possible, whatever that might look like for you. Each “meeting” could start with greeting one another, and then something more specific. Front-load your families with the “share” opportunity they will have for that meeting. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
Share how you have brought the outside inside
Challenge your families to make miniature fairy houses or gnome homes, built from “loose parts” like twigs, leaves, feathers and pebbles. Or perhaps a child-curated “Natural History Museum”, showcasing natural artifacts that were responsibly collected from nearby nature.
Share your favorite houseplant or your “balcony butterfly garden” This could be aimed at adults and/or children in your group.
Share a quote from or fact about your favorite naturalist or environmental champion from around the world. John Muir, Wangari Maathai, Greta Thunburg, Barack Obama, and Jane Goodall, are just a few of my favorites, and don’t forget to highlight champions from your own community!
Share a picture of your favorite local native plant or animal, and one interesting fact. You could even collect the pictures and facts, and make a digital “book” for your club to enjoy! Encourage families to learn about their local flora and fauna, or even start or add to their native plant garden!
Those are just a few ideas that will hopefully inspire you to get started with your own Family Nature Club. To keep it simple, you could structure your regular communications with your club to challenge your families with a specific activity idea (like the ones listed above). Follow that up with a virtual meeting, giving adults and/or children the opportunity to share what they did!
I know that you know the many benefits of an up-close and personal relationship with nature, and I hope that you will share that knowledge, that passion, with your community. I also hope that you also believe that we can use innovative ways to connect to nature - and each other - now (and always). Some of that connection will be virtual, perhaps for now, which will only strengthen our bonds and our priorities as we forge ahead during this crisis. We will eventually emerge, stronger together, able to find nature and each other in new, creative ways. We can help ourselves and others discover, or discover for the first time, the power of a deep relationship with nature. We can, and we should.
Janice Swaisgood is the former Director of C&NN's Natural Families initiative, leading the growth of Family Nature Clubs worldwide. She is currently a second-grade teacher at High Tech Elementary.