How to Start a Nature Group for City Kids

San Francisco families started a group to explore the lifecycles of bees and butterflies and to introduce their kids to basic ecological concepts. Here's how they did it.

I was two minutes late. 

For me, this is pretty good, especially at eight in the morning on a Saturday. Toting a large cardboard box, I hurried into a small parking lot, which at the moment looked nothing like a parking lot. Instead of cars, the lot was filled with music, organic fresh veggies, and families—as it is every Saturday morning, when it hosts a modest farmers’ market here in my San Francisco neighborhood of Noe Valley.

My friend Olli Doo was already at our assigned table, a cup of coffee steaming in her hands. “I brought the pots and seeds,” I said, opening the box and showing her the peat pots and packets of cosmos and snapdragons I had purchased a few days ago from Sloat Garden Center. “What do you have?”

Olli rummaged through her bags and revealed an array of art supplies and hand-drawn paper puppets of caterpillars. “I’ve got the puppet show and some pipe cleaners to make the butterflies,” she said. “Jessica and Lyda are bringing the tissue paper.”

“Cool. Who’s bringing the soil?”

My question was immediately answered with the arrival of our friend Beth Saiki. “Here it is,” she said plopping down a big bag of enriched dirt.

Within minutes, we had set up our table and were reeling in customers with a build-a-butterfly craft project, and flower seeds nestled in peat pots for folks to take home.

All these pots and puppets and seed packets were funded by the city of San Francisco. The year before, Beth had come across an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about First 5 San Francisco Parent Action Grants, which are funded by a 50-cent tax on cigarette packs.

“These mini-grants are available to parent groups to design and implement a project that will promote the well-being of children ages zero to five, and make a positive difference in the community,” says Beth.

She and some other parents in our community of Noe Valley friends brainstormed ideas for a focus—world dance traditions? Physical fitness? Beth noted that the honeybees that visit her garden constantly fascinate her daughter Plum, then three years old, and they had done a simple study of a butterfly’s life cycle.

“We felt these insects would provide a wonderful opportunity for our children to learn about the natural world, ecological interdependence, and the importance of caring for our environment,” says Beth, who put together the proposal with another parent, Jackie Adams.

Happily, First 5 approved the application. We gave our group the simple name of Bees and Butterflies.

The grant requires groups to involve at least twelve families. This was fairly easy, as we already had several Saturday farmers market friends. Acquaintances from our kids’ cooperative preschools also signed up for Bees and Butterflies.

With the grant funds we took a couple of field trips outside the city. The first was an overnighter to Pacific Grove, CA, two hours south of San Francisco. Monarch butterflies over-winter there on their migration to Mexico. We also visited Gabriel Farms, an organic fruit orchard in Sebastopol, CA.

“The orchard was in bloom, so it was exciting for our children to observe pollination at its peak,” says Beth. “We also learned about beekeeping and participated in a honey extraction demonstration.”

Other group activities included brunches focused on a bee or butterfly activity like making beeswax candles and planting gardens in our backyards—now we hope to create a bee and butterfly corridor in our neighborhood.

The Saturday we arrived at the neighborhood farmers’ market, we were reaching out to the larger Noe Valley community through a booth—which the market directors graciously let us do free of charge. In addition to giving away cosmos and snapdragon seeds—honeybees and butterflies adore them—and providing the free arts-and-crafts project, Olli and her husband Jeremy (who happens to be the editor of Shareabe.net) put on a puppet show of the classic picture book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. And our kids, most ages one to four years old, dressed up in butterfly and bee costumes and literally buzzed around the market flying their tissue paper insects. One of the dads, Axel Huesemann, filmed everything we did—and he made the movie that you can watch at the top of this page.

For Jessica Mass, the farmers’ market booth is her favorite group event. “People were into it,” she says. “It had nothing to do with buying anything and it was this fun community activity. People could take the seeds we gave them and build this bee and butterfly corridor. Plus, the market has meant so much to us in terms of community because it’s how we came together with folks.”

How You Can Do It Yourself

Community building means the community is always evolving—it’s organic and prone to change. Perhaps some families move away or become wrapped up in their kids’ soccer league or simply get too busy to check in. To lend some stability, parents should consider forming a formal group, as we did. Getting the grant just made it official. Whether it’s teaching your kids about their place in the ecosystem or turning them on to world dance traditions, creating your own focused community-building project is a great way to learn something new and strengthen those unifying bonds. Here are some tips for forming your own parent action group:

  • Pick a topic you love. The goals of some other First 5 San Francisco groups included providing kids with low-cost music classes, hosting free family movie nights at a local recreation center, and funding a small preschool cooperative. In our case, because our kids were already captivated with bugs, studying bees and butterflies was a no-brainer. Also, at the time we formed our group, the mysterious reduction of the world’s honeybee population was a hot news item, so there was something for the adults to explore. Beth advises to “make the project fun, make it simple, make it multifaceted and multidimensional. Learn as you go—don’t feel that you need to be an expert on the subject before you plan or even start the project. Half the fun is learning together as a group—adults and children alike.”
  • Join a committee. Maybe it was the nature of our grant’s requirements, but meeting regularly and setting up a calendar of events became key to keeping our group going. At least a core of four to seven parents should meet every other month (it becomes a sort of parents’ night out—no kids allowed!) to discuss upcoming events, organize what needs to get done, and work out the schedule. Beth encourages the formation of subcommittees. “These subcommittees can also recruit members of the larger group to help them organize the project activities,” she says, “and will help to ensure that no one person or persons carries most of the project load.” But strike a balance between over-planning and planning too little. “Planning meetings shouldn’t feel like work,” says Jessica. “You’re not starting a business.”  
  • Get out the calculator. Sit down with the planning committee and figure out how you’re going to pay for all of this fun stuff. Our First 5 San Francisco grant gave us $3,000 to spend on our project, but it didn’t cover everything. Do a Google search to find out if your local government entities or foundations offer any similar grants. If you can’t find any, that’s okay too. Beth suggests asking local merchants for discounts, negotiating a good group rate for a hotel stay, and soliciting in-kind help and guidance from local experts. Also, figure out how much each family can contribute from their own coffers.
  • Choose your friends wisely. Maybe it seems backwards to pick the members of your group after forming the group, but there is good reason. Most likely you’ll start off with a core group of families—we had five and then added seven. We were all passionate about community building and eager to teach our children as well as ourselves about the impact of insects on our environment. “New people keep the group fresh and make it about something more than just hanging out with friends,” says Jessica. Beth adds, “Find out what group members would like to contribute to the project. Is a group member good with arts and crafts? Is another group member great with graphic design? Identify and draw from individual assets within your parent group.” 
  • Keep in touch. Organizing a larger group of twelve or more families can be a little tricky, but it's also fun. Cost-free communication aides like Yahoo or Google Groups (assuming most if not all your members have internet access) help in streamlining communications. Whether it’s an online community website, mass emails, or an old-fashioned phone tree, make sure group participants are staying in touch with each other. You don’t want to lose momentum, and you certainly don’t want anyone to feel left out. If one of your group’s goals is to educate the wider community, contact your local media outlet about doing a news story on one of your events. And don't forget to appoint someone to take minutes at those planning meetings. Having a written record will come in handy when your toddler is crying for a snack and your addled brain can't remember what subcommittees you're on.
  • Oh yeah—have fun. Get the group started with something simple like an orientation party that includes a potluck and arts-and-crafts. Make the atmosphere casual so there’s no pressure on you or the children. “The first major group activity should be fun and relaxing and give the group an opportunity to bond,” Beth says. “It should generate enthusiasm for the project and excitement about activities to come.” Jessica also points out that being flexible makes things easier. “Sometimes plans change,” she says. “There's an objective you start with and then there's the actual outcome.”

All photos by Jackie Adams, Ezra's mom. Video at top by Axel Huesemann, Linus's dad.

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