Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   



Giving back to Nature

Add an element of service to your next outing.

A  family kneels on the ground around a small plant with magnifying glasses. An excited child runs by, waving a sweep net (a dowel, a coat hanger and a white pillowcase), on the hunt for insects. Wildlife biologist Craig Hensley is giving a crash course on native milkweed, while a nearby group of kids and adults debate the identification of a butterfly they’ve just spotted. A 2-year-old and an 11-year-old put their heads together to marvel at a caterpillar.

All this curiosity and wonder — and fun — emanates from a day of butterfly volunteering at Guadalupe River State Park, where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and Texas Master Naturalists are conducting a longitudinal population survey and counting monarch eggs. Children, with their youthful visual acuity, are especially adept at finding those tiny white butterfly eggs on the milkweed leaves. They’re proud of their skills on this microscopic Easter egg hunt, making new friends who join up for a river adventure later.

“Only direct experience with another living thing can elicit the most startling and personal sense of wonder,” writes Children in Nature founder Richard Louv in Our Wild Calling.

This simple experience with butterflies is fostering a love of nature, which is the foundation of conservation.

These transformational nature experiences can be found for all interests, incomes and capabilities through TPWD and organizations like Families in Nature, Camp Fire, Audubon, park “friends of” groups and more. The aim is to foster curiosity, hope, a deep sense of place and connection to family/community while having fun outside.


What do we do out here?

In this screen-saturated world, kids aren’t sure what to do outdoors, how to start playing. Most kids now spend drastically less time in unstructured play than their parents did as children. One of the best ways to grab a child’s attention is to ignite their curiosity.

Outdoor projects are ideal because they create deep impressions — they invite us to look closely at another species, get our hands dirty in the mud, submerge ourselves underwater or build something that will last.

These experiences build a sense of connection while encouraging curiosity and the learning that naturally follows. Volunteer projects allow you to get intimate with nature while contributing to science or conservation.

Start with a planned activity, such as one of these projects, but leave plenty of time for independent, unstructured play so people can follow their curiosity and have their own adventure.

Hope is another essential element of developing a deep love of nature. Young children can watch caterpillars in their yard or feel the softness of leaves to connect to nature’s wonders before they begin to fear the future of the planet. We have been so proactive about teaching the planet’s environmental dangers that many young people are developing an eco-anxiety that leads to disconnection and apathy, rather than conservation action. 


A Sense of Place

In childhood, we develop an attachment to the places we visit often. Visit the same spots in nature over and over, watch the seasons and water and plant life change over time. Get to know the place.

My children have been camping twice yearly at Pedernales Falls State Park for 15 years. They know every rock in the river where we swim. They notice when monarchs travel through or sandhill cranes fly overhead. They feel an ownership of the park because it is so familiar, and so loved. This connection to place helps them feel the desire to care for it.

The kids pick up abandoned fishing gear on the riverbanks, encourage kids to stay on trails instead of cutting new ones and do a sweep of the camping area before we leave, without being asked by an adult. Kids who feel as though they can make a difference are more hopeful about the future of the planet and about the conservation of their place. They begin to want to volunteer. Even young children can help with conservation projects.

Volunteering teaches kids leadership skills, builds self-esteem and leads to overall happiness. When you volunteer as a family or with friends, you can create lifelong memories by sharing those experiences together. 


Adventure for All Ages

Of course, you don’t have to be a parent with young kids to go off on adventures that are centered around service. Grandparents, other adults and teens gain huge benefits from volunteering. They can feel a sense of agency and hope from making a difference in the future of the planet and giving their time to a community or place. Teens gain even more from leadership skills, résumé building, connection to community and healthy time spent outside in nature.

Time in nature close to home has so many benefits, but time immersed in unfamiliar, wild nature can create indelible memories that come from the wonder and awe at seeing new places or watching wildlife you don’t see every day.

One year our group traveled to Cozumel, Mexico, to learn about coral reefs and marine life. In total darkness, we walked out onto the beach one night and met the government ecologist in charge of sea turtle nesting. Our headlamps were turned to the red light setting so we wouldn't bother the enormous sea turtle that had just dug a hole so large that I could have curled up in it. We watched her lay her eggs and cover them with sand and then walked farther down the beach where baby turtles were just beginning to emerge from the sand. The families protected the pathway and watched in awe as the tiny turtles made the treacherous trip toward the moonlit ocean. The next morning, the kids enthusiastically removed every speck of trash from the nesting beach where they spent a wondrous night just a few hours earlier.

Consider going on your own big adventure, or one close to home, and make time to volunteer to deepen your experience.

Adventures for the Young


Take a nature walk or go camping, with lots of undirected outdoor play. See what kids discover on their own.

Attend a summertime sea turtle hatchling release on the Texas coast.


Make seed balls to plant native grasses. Mix powdered clay, water, soil and native grass seeds.

Create a butterfly- or bird-friendly garden filled with native plants. Binoculars or a magnifying glass give you a front-row seat.

Provide a backyard habitat with sources of water, food and a place to raise young.

Build an insect-viewing station with a bug hotel, native plants and water.

Families at Work/Play

Clean a creek or beach. Bring a container and carry the trash to a dumpster or recycling bin.

Count monarch eggs with your local Master Naturalists or TPWD.


Participate in educational bird banding. Imagine watching your child hold a wild bird, feeling its heartbeat before it flies away with a new ID band.

Skip using plastic for a day, week or month by avoiding straws, to-go containers, bubble packaging, grocery sacks, etc.

Contribute to citizen science online with your observations of sea turtles, birds (eBird), reptiles (herpmapper) or other species (iNaturalist).

Build and install a birdhouse, bat box, owl box, bird feeder or insect hotel.

See an imperiled or formerly endangered species in the wild (American alligator, brown pelican, bald eagle, whooping crane).

Advanced Conservation Trips


Do a river or bay cleanup in a canoe.

Build a hiking/biking trail.

Rehabilitate a wetland or riverside area with native plants (with your local conservation organization or “friends of” park group).

Help build an oyster reef; plant mangroves or an artificial coral reef.

Volunteer at a sea turtle hospital or the Marine Mammal Stranding Network.

Volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary.

Participate in the Christmas bird count at your local park or preserve.

“Rewild” an area with a degraded habitat to create a native plant area.

Dream Big, Go Far


Get scuba certified and monitor/plant coral with the Coral Restoration Foundation or become a Reef Check volunteer. 

Monitor sea turtle nests and hatchings in Costa Rica, Puerto Rico or Mexico.

Tag baby sharks with Families in Nature in Costa Rica to contribute to research and protect the marine sanctuary.

Volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary on another continent.


For more information, visit familiesinnature.org

Heather Kuhlken is the founder of Families in Nature.

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