Getting Families Outside
Everyone needs nature, and nature needs everyone.
That’s one of the principles that guides Families in Nature founder Heather Kuhlken as she works to get more and more families to spend time outside.
When she formed her group, which began as a family nature club in Austin in 2008 before turning into a nonprofit in 2014, she wanted to create opportunities for families to spend more time with each other, to learn science through hands-on outdoor education and to spend more time in nature, which has been shown to have positive mental, emotional and physical benefits.
She’s accomplishing that. Her group calculated that its members have spent more than 200,000 hours in nature since 2015 — camping, paddling, hiking and learning about the natural world. Families in Nature has spread from its Central Texas roots to other parts of Texas, other states and even a few foreign countries.
One of her next big projects is her Ecologist School curriculum, which consists of 1,500 lessons on teaching science outside. It’s being published by Texas A&M Press.
She’s stayed true to her family-oriented approach, which differs from other age- and gender-divided groups.
“I wanted to create something for siblings and parents to spend time together and for families to build communities,” she says. “I saw nature as the best place for those relationships to develop.”
She also saw, though, that not everyone has equal access to parks and nature.
“I realized there was a major barrier to participation for a lot of people,” she says. “My focus very quickly included creating equitable access to nature. There were a lot of people, including my friends who lived in other parts of town, who didn’t really have access to parks and didn’t feel comfortable going to parks.”
Kuhlken knows that diversity is a strength, and she and her staff spend much of their time encouraging diverse participation in the outdoors and have had families from all different backgrounds camping and going outside together since the beginning.
Families in Nature created a leader development program to recruit and train diverse leaders to start nature communities in schools, faith organizations and neighborhoods.
Projects include a gear library, which “lends gear to under-resourced schools and groups to make sure they have everything they need to go outside and learn outside,” Kuhlken says.
It runs “campus campouts” to allow families at under-resourced schools to experience camping by having campouts on school campuses, and hosts “bat paddles,” where families paddle canoes to watch bats emerge from a downtown Austin bridge.
“I would like to be sure everyone has the same access to nature,” she says. “Nature is for everyone. And if conservation work is to be accomplished, nature needs everyone. We need a diverse next generation of conservationists.”
Chase Fountain | TPWD
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