Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Nature Club: An Overview

I have been organizing a Nature Club within our homeschool group for about 4 years now. Our scheduling of activities is posted through our MeetUp group. We meet two Fridays a month, sometimes one extra if activities and time allows. I keep the time and day of the week consistent to ensure a fairly regular attendance of families so that they can build upon our activities. This also sets families up to use materials, supplies, field guides, tools, journals, etc on a regular basis and then they feel better about their purchases. I also then know that a majority of the kids/families then have gear to use for specific activities. The one item I request for all kids is a nature journal and pencils. This is a very inexpensive request that is doable for just about anyone. Any age is able to journal -- on a drawing level. If necessary they can bring paper on a clip board to work with and use at home as they please.

I prefer to give a month or two lead time on the activities. This time allows families to create studies at home around what we might be doing in Nature Club. Many families really do appreciate this! I love to hear what they are doing at home, what books they read ahead of time, what collections they have started, what new tools they are now using and other adventures they have enjoyed related to our group experience. The kids are always so excited to share with me. Always a treat!! I also do my best to group a couple in a row in related themes/topics. This isn't always the case, but if I can do a couple of forest scenarios, tree/botany, beaches, birds, etc then again families can build further at home with the theme.

A Nature Club outing on average runs about 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Rare occasion we will run longer if the activity needs it. Hikes will usually run 2-4 hours. Some of our local nature center field trips that are ran through their education departments usually run 3-4 hours. I only do a couple of these a year as to not overwhelm families or require to much of their time. If an activity requires longer drive time then I do my best to offer a bit of a longer experience so that a family feels it is justified, both time wise and gas wise.

I have a couple of local nature oriented organizations that I have worked with routinely and have built a nice relationship with that we use for some outsourced events each year. I have attended their teacher trainings, used their materials and have proved our group to be of consistent attendance, prepared and willing to adapt to their programs. Having these connections has been wonderful! It offers outside educators outside of myself with a different influence and often times introduces new to homeschooling families to these groups. Sometimes outsourcing these activities with local groups has caused our traditional scheduling of a Friday to be altered, but typically that is well received.

At times an activity might require a small fee. If it is super minimal, then my family will cover it as we enjoy the Nature Club experience for our family/children. If it adds up though, then I pass this small fee (to cover the materials) to our families. If it is small, like $.50 or a $1.00 then I might collect the day of the activity from each family, often on an honor system. If it is more than that I will collect ahead of time through PayPal. 99% of our families have come on board to PayPal and it has really simplified life. If you do use the route of PayPal it takes 3-4 working days for funds to transfer to your bank account for use, so plan accordingly. At times a family might 'donate' a couple of dollars to what I do, this is always rolled into a future Nature Club outing and helps to keep costs down. Other than that, our Nature Club is completely free and I do my best to keep it that way. If I do have activities I'd like to do that will cost money, I will work hard to keep it trickled throughout the year so that it is affordable for families. I will offer several free events and then a small fee based one or two, then a series of free events.

Just like staggering the cost of events versus free events, I also do my best to stagger the locations of our activities. While many will work well in parks located near my home, I do try to branch out to different areas that other families live or further out of our neighborhoods/towns. I do use parks or woods near me because I know them best, I can pre-visit easier to plan out an activity and know what amenities are on hand. I will always attend a park, trail or location prior to ever using it. This way I am truly aware of what the quality is like, how well it is attended, if it feels safe, if it offers amenities, to see what parking constraints might be, to know if a park use fee is applied, what the habitats are like and how easy it is to access them safely. I never book something site unseen.

As for ages in our Nature Club, nature is for any age. Infant to adult. What a person puts into it is what a person will get out of it. While some 'activities' we do might be geared for older or younger kids, they can be adapted and still used well. I shoot for multi-age and it is up to each family to work with their children to make accommodations or through conversation and questioning bring it up a notch. We usually have all elementary aged kids to some early junior high aged kids. This is mainly because this particular homeschool group is naturally heavily weighted this way. That said, it really just depends on the person. I have found this is the most challenging part... feeling like I need to meet every person's needs, perfectly. I never enjoy the feeling that an older kid just wasn't into it or it was a little to difficult for a younger child, but reality is I cannot meet everyone's need exactly. I have come to terms with that. Leaving almost all activities somewhat open ended with the results is what makes it their own experience and allows for the depth in which they will take that experience. All I do is offer the opportunity or activity with a bit of guidance or instruction and then it is up to them to run with it or do the bare minimum. For the most part, everyone is great and enjoys them selves!

As for the term 'activities' -- we are not just a hiking club, a free play group or a nature trail club. I look for different activities that will help kids learn a bit more about the natural world, possibly experience something that they may not have done before or an activity that just works better in a larger group setting vs always in a small family unit or alone. Sometimes an activity is more structured, in the project concept, and sometimes it is wide open in terms of interpretation. Sometimes we do just meet and explore or play in nature and sometimes we gather to hike or nature trail an area that feels a bit safer in a group. I do my best to mix these up. Activities are almost always a go no matter the weather. Few structured things might need rescheduled, but they are very far and few between. We live in a fairly mild climate with some rain, some cold temperatures and sometimes a little thunder storm but unless safety is an issue Nature Club happens. We really encourage families to outfit themselves and kids well for weather, come prepared with back up clothing/towels/shoes/food/drinks/materials, etc.

This is a basic overview of what I do with our Nature Club. I have really learned from experiences over the years. I have a better idea of what works, what is a hit, what is a flop and what might be difficult. I have worked on communication with students and parents. We have put some guidelines in place in terms of attendance with our homeschool group as a whole and that has really helped with follow through in our group. I am always open to suggestions and even open to other families or youth taking the lead on a Nature Club activity (great for our teens). Knowing what folks might be looking for has helped to keep things running. Always being on the lookout for new ideas, books, resources, tools, groups, organizations, trails, parks, people and subjects is a constant! I am always ON when out and about in terms of new things that might be a great fit for what we do. This has helped to have our group grow and our attendance be wonderful. I am grateful for our group and look forward to many more years with our Nature Club.