Here at Tiny Big Adventure we are always looking to inspire families to get outdoors and this week we’ve found a really interesting guy who is absolutely committed to not only using outdoor adventure as an integral part of raising his own kids, but also organizing other families to embrace the same values and experiences. He’s even written a couple of books about it! Meet Jason Sperling and find out why he started his own Family Nature Club.Here’s Jason…
The children huddle close in a makeshift teepee situated on woodlands dusted with snow and sunlight.
9:05 AM. Blue skies crash down upon perfectly smooth snowy surfaces—the roofs of a series of ponds that weave between woodlands and waterfowl. It’s such a gorgeous day.
My phone rings. It’s one of the dads who is lost and needs directions to find the trailhead. I quickly reorient him. Then a text comes in. It’s a mom who lets me know their family has decided to come, and wants to make sure they know how to find us. I refer her to the map I posted on our Facebook group that shows the location of the makeshift teepee, where we’ll make basecamp.
This was the beginning of a beautiful day at one of our events for our family nature club, a community of families committed to getting our children to go out and play every weekend, in every condition, all year round.
Where did “go outside and play” go?
The environment for parenting has changed dramatically. There is an increase in dual-working parent families and single parent families, and an increase in the emphasis on making sure children prepare for the future or “get ahead,” all reducing the quantity of unstructured free play time.
According to studies in 2001 and 2006, children’s free play and discretionary time declined more than seven hours a week from 1981 to 1997 and an additional two hours from 1997 to 2003.
Educational institutions and other structured programs foster the belief that learning requires adult-led activities, and devalue child-led playing. While there are exceptions, there is little evidence that children need more than what generations (centuries, in fact) of children have used as their tool to learn: play.
Parents’ fear of allowing children to roam independently at early ages has led to a decline in the use of the outdoors as a learning and play environment. The concept of “go out and play” has, for the most part, gone out with the bathwater.
Indoor vs. Outdoor Play
Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the U.S. and today the country has some of the highest obesity rates in the world.
Similarly, more children are diagnosed and treated for ADHD now than ever before. Likewise, early child educators are noting a dramatic increase in the number of children who are behind in their sensory integration, and you can find a plethora of articles that correlate the loss of play with a rise in sensory development issues.
At the same time, children are spending more and more time in front of screens. “According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of two hours a day and kids and teens eight to 18 years spend nearly six hours a day in front of a screen (TV and computer).
How can this not interfere with physical activity, time outdoors, and social interactions?
The Changes in Childhood Independence
Across the literature for early childhood development, much attention has been given to the changes in how parents raise their children.
Children were told to “go outside and play” in previous generations, and there they would find many other children doing the same. This gave them access and freedom to interact and play.
My favorite story that demonstrates how dramatically childhood independence has changed is about the Thomas family in Sheffield, England. This story, captured in an article from Daily Mail clearly describes how children’s independence in where they played dramatically shifted over time:
• Great-grandfather George (age 8 in 1919) was allowed to walk six miles on his own to go fishing.
• Grandfather Jack (age 8 in 1950) was allowed to walk one mile on his own to the woods.
• Mother Vicky (age 8 in 1979) was allowed to walk ½ mile on her own to go to the swimming pool.
• Son Ed (age 8 in in 2007) was allowed to walk 300 yards to the end of the block.
There seems to be a multitude of reasons for the dramatic shift. Some of these include:
• Dual-parent working families and single-parent families that require children to be put into structured day care programs.
• Larger homes, more homes, HOAs, and generally denser populations creating less publicly available outdoor space to roam.
• Heightened media attention to the dangers of children playing outdoors without adult supervision—whether real or unsubstantiated—causing parents to fear allowing their children this independence.
• A greater emphasis on the need for children to begin academic preparation to ensure later success as adults, causing parents to put children into programs that promise to educate them.
• Products and programs geared to improving children’s physical and developmental capabilities, such as electronic toys, sports, and arts programs, causing parents to schedule structured activities.
While much of the research shows that many of the reasons for reducing children’s playtime outdoors are unsubstantiated, the fact remains that children do not range far from their homes. Thus, if one values outdoor play, immediate solutions require adults participation and organization.
Why I Started a Family Nature Club
I never imagined myself as someone who would organize outdoor events for groups of families. But I desperately wanted a solution for my children to ensure they enjoyed a childhood as rich with nature experiences as I had.
I desperately wanted:
- More unstructured outdoor play, and for my children to enjoy independence and interact with nature devoid of adult agendas, following their own whims. I wanted to give them long stretches of time on a frequent basis.
- Experiences in which our whole family could participate with friends and parents, regardless if I had a daughter or a son. While Boy Scouts worked well for my brother and me, my desire was to find activities that would allow my children and family to enjoy those experiences together, and not put the children in separate gender-based groups (such as the Boy Scouts is in the U.S.) where parents were not participants.
- Deep interaction with nature—not experiences in urban, manicured settings or those that maintained a distance from nature and viewed it like a museum exhibit. I wanted to get my children into the wilds and wilderness so that they could touch, see, smell, and develop a lifelong bond with nature like I had.
What I wanted was an easy way to organize an epic group of families. The family nature club concept is an evidence-based proven solution to these and more challenges faced in modern childhood. Quite simply, it is eager to adventure with us all the time!
“a group of people interested in connecting children with nature on a regular basis for nature-centered experiences to instill wonder and engendered curiosity.” —Richard Louv
9:10 AM. Several families have arrived now at the trailhead, and it’s time for us to head to basecamp. We visit the ponds regularly, and the children know it well. They tear off into the woodlands; a billow of snow swooshes into the crisp morning on their heels.
When we arrive to basecamp, the children spot the teepee. It’s been decorated by the snow queen, they announce. They promptly burrow through slits to huddle like a tribe of elders planning an elaborate journey together in secret. Geese traipse across the horizon. It’s still sub-freezing as another family and children arrive at basecamp. Their happiness is contagious as ever, and the new arrival quickly joins in the fun. After some time playing in the teepee, we begin exploring the frozen ponds.
The children take turns with a hatchet and shovel, digging through the frozen surface of the ponds.
10:40 AM. We’re out on frozen ponds in the middle of the winter wonderland now. It’s only 16 degrees but the children are dressed well and staying warm, passing a hatchet around and one by one taking swings at the ice.
The head of the hatchet smacks the ice and children lean in, quickly drawing instruction from parents to move back from the swinging of the blade. The hatchet is passed to the next child. More swings. More leaning in. More instruction to move back. And then . . . .
They break through the ice! Well, at least their hole is deep enough for . . . “Water!” The hatchet is discarded and they scoop at the slush in the hole like this was an oasis in a desert. Eventually, we pack the hatchet away and run to other frozen ponds, exploring for hours in this winter wonderland.
Our relationship with nature is, today, precarious. Getting children to go out and play is more difficult than ever, and more important than ever for the health of our children and families. Whether you organize a structured family nature club or just consistently take your children outside and into nature, you are a champion for your family and I salute you.
ABOUT JASON SPERLING
Jason is raising two whippersnappers in Boulder, Colorado. He found and leads a human-powered adventure club for families and is the author of several books that help parents get their children outdoors and reconnected.
VIEW FULL PROFILE
This post includes excerpts from two of Jason’s books:
The Backyard Play Revolution
How to Engage Kids in Simple, Inexpensive Outdoor Play and Increase Child Health and Motor/Sensory Development
How To Build A Family Nature Club – 15 Steps To Disconnect From Technology And Reconnect With Nature, Yourself, Friends, And Family.