Saturday, May 10, 2014

4 Steps to Beginning a Habitat Explorers Outdoor Co-op {with a Free Editable Invitation}

Spring has sprung and with it comes a seemingly constant impulse to take learning outdoors.

So, that's exactly what my family and seven other families are doing this May and early June as we enjoy a four-session mini co-op that I developed called Habitat Explorers.

Want to create your own Habitat Explorers co-op?  

To borrow my ideas, it just takes four steps.

Step One:  Pause and Pray!

As with anything in life a "good" idea is only truly  "good" if it aligns with God's will for our lives  So, before moving forward with initiating a Habitat Explorers group, I prayed about a number of things.  Among the questions I waited on the Lord to answer were "big" general ones and "small", specific ones:

  • Co-ops and clubs have proven themselves to be "right" for my family, but is right NOW the "right time" for me to initiate and lead this group?  Would doing so enrich our lives or would it tip the already precarious balance I try so hard to maintain?  Lord, do you want me to lead this and, if so, do you want me to do so now? 

  • Our family loves to get outside, especially when the weather is welcoming.  Would dedicating a large portion of our "learning time" on a given day each week to exploring the great outdoors in fellowship with others be fruitful for us and for others?  Would it bless us all, bringing us in some way closer to God, closer to one another and closer to meeting our given missions as we understand them?  Would it help us develop knowledge and exercise skills?  What would be the right balance of "learning" vs. "fun" time at each meeting?
  • More and more, I try to allow my my faith to define and direct everything I do in life, whether quietly or overtly.  Should this co-op be overtly faith-based or simply one that allows participants to grow with God through interacting in His amazing creation?  Should I incorporate Bible verses, stories of faith, the Catechism, communal verbal prayer and other such things into co-op sessions or simply encourage space and time for the Spirit to work in me and in other folks without planned catalysts? 
  • There is such thing as too much of a "good" thing when it distracts us from other things we should be doing.  Thus, how often should our co-op meet, for how many weeks and for how many hours each time?

  • God has created so many fantastic places!  Which one should we base out co-op at?  Of the many wondrous things we could explore there, which should we focus on? What overall learning objectives should we cover during co-op and what types of specific activities will best help us meet those objectives while also enjoying fellowship?

  • Co-ops can take many forms.  A "basic" of all co-ops though is that duties within them are shared.  What duties would best be shared in this co-op?  Planning?  Supplies?  Lesson leading?  Something else? 

Step Two: Share and Set Details

Over the course of several weeks, during quiet time alone, in the back of my mind during busy times with my children, as well as through conversations with other folks in person and online, answers to my prayers and questions became clear.  As they did, the "right" frameworks for our co-op were defined.

We would meet four times over the course of five weeks at a single local conservation area.  We would not rotate to different conservation areas for several reasons:

  • Past experience with a Fall Art and Nature Club that I had created and led proved that "new" areas beg to be fully explored and, sometimes, the joy of exploring such areas usurps time that for planned activities.  By sticking to one conservation area, we might better ensure that participants enjoy a balance of spontaneous exploration and planned "learning" objectives.

  • My Art and Nature Club experience also proved that my children and their friends thoroughly enjoy building huts and shelters.  By staying at one location for all four weeks of the Habitat Explorers co-op, we can afford our children the opportunity to create and add to structures week to week, thinking and planning in between times.

  • The conservation area I chose has multiple habitats within one relatively small space.  It is a "just right" fit for our objectives, so why spend time and energy looking for other locations simply for the sake of moving the group around from week to week.  Later co-ops and initiatives can do that!

These location details sorted out, I, then, moved forward with the week-to-week planning: During Session One, we would focus the specific topics of Etiquette for Naturalist Explorers and Introduction to Habitats.  During each subsequent meeting, we would focus on a specific habitat, spending one week on Woodlands, one on Meadows and one on Rivers and Ponds. 

Each meeting would be three hours long and would include:

  • a Meet & Greet and a Mini-Lesson
  • a Hike, Nature Observance/Exploration
  • Lunch, Sharing, Stories and Journaling
  • another Mini-Lesson
  • Free Exploration Time 

To keep the group manageable, the co-op size would be capped at 15 or so participating children.

To facilitate communication, we would use a private Facebook group.

Shared responsibilities would include providing supplies, helping with planned field activities and managing children.   

Since the co-op would only include one "class" of students, I would do the main lesson planning and facilitating.

All this set, it was time to invite people to join the Habitat Explorers co-op.

Since part of the frameworks for the co-op were set through discussion with several moms from a Sensing the Saints mini-co-op that I had developed for March and April, I, of course, invited those moms to join first.  Then, with these moms' agreement, I reached out to families in a small local homeschool support group that some of us are a part of as well as to some other homeschooling families that live in the same town as the conservation area that we'd be meeting at is located.

The group filled quickly, and, although, I admit, I was tempted to broaden our invitation to a larger homeschool network in our area, I did not.   

For while I would have loved to have offered an open invitation to anyone and everyone to join our Habitat Explorers co-op, prudence told me to keep things relatively small this time. 

Habitat Explorers is first outdoor co-op with planned lessons that I have initiated.  The frameworks, including participant limits, came to me through thought and prayer.  Ignoring them would not be wise.  So, I decided NOT to keep inviting more people once our "limit" had been reached.

Of course, you can decide your own limits.  Thus, for your ease, I am sharing an editable Habitat Explorers invitation (with a partial preview below).  It is the notice I used on the local homeschool support group board to invite others to the join the co-op.  Please feel free to adapt it when creating your own Habitat Explorers co-op or club, and, as always, please be kind enough to share its origin with others by providing a link to this post or to Training Happy Hearts in general.  Thanks!

Step Three: Plan and Prepare!

Once I knew which families would be participating in Habitat Explorers and what ages the children would be, I filled in the planning frameworks with specific activities.  I decided to plan the first session in detail and to ready a menu of ideas for subsequent sessions without planning every detail of them until after each prior meeting.  That way, I can adapt plans for our second, third and fourth meetings based upon whatever unfolds with the children week-to-week.

As for the specific plans:  Planning events and lessons comes naturally to me.  I love digging into what I already know, asking around for new resources and, then, pouring over handwritten notes, books and other materials in order to shape lesson objectives, activities and assessments.  (For the record, "assessments" as I plan things are not tests, but simply observable measures that let me know the kids are "getting" the objectives of a lesson.)   

So, this is exactly what I did when planning our first co-op meeting.  And, then, once I had the lesson plans for our first session ready, I reached out to participating moms to ask if anyone had specific supplies and to let them know what supplies to bring.

(My lesson plan for the first meeting will be shared in a forthcoming post!)

Get Together and Get Going!

Prayers shared with our Lord, invitations made and accepted and plans created and prepared for, the final step to making Habitat Explorers a reality, of course, was simply getting together and getting going!

Sounds easy, right?

Well, as fate would have it, the weather forecast for our first meeting time looked foreboding:  rain and possible thunder storms.  So, we used a poll on our Facebook group to decide what to do:

  • Wait until the morning of the meeting. If forecast and real weather was more then a drizzle, cancel.
  • Wait until the morning of the meeting. So long as the T-storms had not rolled in by an hour before our meeting time, go for it.
  • Who cares about rain?  Get together and get wet!
  • Cancel ahead of time based on the forecast. 

The first option got the most "votes".  On the morning of our kick off date, it was pouring.  Plus, my oldest came down with a fever.  So, our "getting going" was delayed a week.

Best. move. ever.

Instead of mucking through a wet and potentially stormy first meeting, we ended up being blessed by perfect temperatures and beautiful skies.  Not only was the weather absolutely ideal, but the day ended up being so, too.  

I'll share more specifics about our first meeting in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, please feel free to request specific details about anything or to share your own favorite habitat  and nature notebooking resources in a comment here or on our Training Happy Hearts Facebook page I'd love to share forward by answering any questions you might have about starting your own similar initiative.  Likewise, I'd be delighted to benefit our local mini co-op through your tried and true tips and resource ideas!  Thanks!

Please enjoy all the posts in this Habitat Explorers series by clicking this button.  


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