Families are spending more and more time outside these days. But when you get out of the house, do you have a hard time finding something to do? Let’s be real: You can take only so many walks around the block with the kids before boredom sets in. Fortunately, Families in Nature (FIN)—an organization that works across Texas—offers some 1,500 lessons that will create a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world around us.
We talked to Heather Kuhlken, FIN’s founder and director, about how to get involved—and why it’s important to nurture a love of nature.
What’s the goal of FIN? It’s our vision to inspire all families to fall in love with nature and foster the next generation of conservationists. We teach science outside to families, and we’re extremely focused on inclusivity and equitable access to nature while also getting field science experiences and family time together outdoors.
What kind of activities does your organization typically host and promote? We take a holistic approach to getting families into nature and teaching science outside. We have a travel program, camping trips and campus campouts, among others.
The basis of all our programming is what I’ve called The Ecologist School. It contains a large amount of information about how to teach all ages together, how to engage families, how to schedule events when everyone is so incredibly overscheduled and why nature is important to health and education—especially now during COVID, because of everyone’s stress levels. It also has a curriculum that I’ve written that has about 1,500 lessons to teach science outside.
What topics are included? The curriculum is divided into 16 branches of science relevant to ecology, [including] ornithology, meteorology, climatology—which focuses on climate change adaptation and solutions, not on causes—and things like marine biology and anthropology and paleontology. You can earn a badge in each of those branches of science. And then concentrically, it’s got STEAM, outdoor skills, volunteerism and leadership.
You can work on the badges at home. We’ve just released six sample lessons in each branch of science that we’re putting on our website, one week at a time. And teachers and parents can do those lessons and order the badges on our website. The idea is that we’re supporting at-home learning.
We work a lot on teaching hope and solutions—really inspiring people to love nature and giving them the space to love nature.
You have nature communities all over the state, including here in North Texas. How does that work? We have a guide development program, where we train people to teach what we teach. And once you’ve gone through our guide development program, you get the whole curriculum. Normally, we do guide development in person. We’re doing it online starting June 16, and our website has information on how to apply or sign up. So, parents could do that and then have tons of activities to do over the summer and next school year. Teachers, as well—we’re hoping a lot of teachers will join us to get access to this resource.
We also encourage our guides to form their own nature communities. [That’s] where we get several groups, several families together and go out into nature. And you can use the curriculum to think about what you want to do in nature. It’s very open-ended; it’s very hands-on, play-based activities. A group with all ages can learn together.
Where are the nature communities here? We have a newly trained guide who is in the Flower Mound–Denton area. And then we have one who is also fairly close to Denton. She runs a program called North Texas Kids Outside—separate name, but her program is part of FIN—and she is happy to have anybody go to her website and sign up for her mailing list for whenever in-person programming starts again. She’s an excellent guide.
How have you handled the changes caused by the pandemic? It actually was a pretty easy switch. I mean, it’s disappointing to not be able to do in-person programming. We had a lot of Title 1 schools that were signed up for our travel program and campus campouts this spring and next fall. It’s sad we can’t teach them how to camp and how to build a fire. But pivoting to offer those lessons for free, doing online guide development instead of in-person, it wasn’t that hard of a switch.
Why do you believe it’s so important for families to get outside together? Actually, COVID is emphasizing what we believe, with everyone together now. Siblings are getting to see each other as an ideal playmate because they’re the only ones they can get to. Families have to spend time together, and people are working from home. Parents are getting time with each other.
And I have three kids—we’ve gotten to a point in time where the overscheduling, the drive to do everything all at once, was so strong that we were just in our cars all the time, dividing and conquering. “You take this one to soccer, and I’ll take that one to violin. I’ll take this one to swimming, and you take that one to Chinese lessons.” It was just nuts.
I feel like it was headed to a place—and was already in a place—that was not ideal for human health and family health, and for learning, honestly. I think everyone was very stressed. Exercise was not as big of a priority, and play was not happening as much as it should. Kids were not getting outside. When people are stressed, they’re burying their faces in their computers, playing video games or something else instead of connecting with each other, which actually is better for lowering stress.
And there’s so much research now that going outside lowers stress. I think that the world seems to be realizing that they want and need nature more than anything else right now.
FIN fun awaits
Getting involved with FIN is easy.
Visit familiesinnature.org/ecologistschool and download the lessons. “Families can just open those pages and do the lessons at home,” says Kuhlken.
Join an existing FIN nature community. “If you want to join the community in the Denton area—North Texas Kids Outside—you can go to ntkidsoutside.com. Once in-person programming begins again, she’ll start offering activities.” Email email@example.com for information on the Flower Mound-Denton group.
Attend online guide training in June. “The application and registration are on our website under ‘Our Programs.’ [Participants] can get the whole curriculum and start their own nature community … and that’s pretty easy,” shares Kuhlken. “We teach people how to start a Nature Community within their school or neighborhood or group of friends or classroom, and we help teachers learn to teach their students outside in nature.”
Photo courtesy of KuhlkenPhotography.