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Outdoor playgroup leaders tips

We had an Outdoor playgroup Chat 23 th of Januray with some of our outdoor playgroup leaders, Courtney (Boston area) Debra (Toronto), Kristen (Burlington, Brandy, (North Carolina) Patty (Illinois) Tanya (Calgary Fun Orange County Parks, Slow Family Online , Anchorage Outdoor Family Network ,Tales of Mountian Mama,

This chat was sponsored by Polarn O Pyret Usa and hosted by's safety reflectors


Our partcipants where from Canada and the US :

Coquitlam BC (near Vancouver), Toronto, Peterborgh, Burlington Ontario, Calgary Alberta, DeKalb IL, Charlotte, NC,   Southern and Northern California, New York City, Texas, Boston area, Washington DC, Montana and Alaska.

Here is our Facebook chat :

Liability of orginazing an outdoor playgroup

Tanya : So, here's the first question I wanted to throw out tonight. Is anybody else concerned about liability at playgroups? My husband thinks I should be. I can't imagine anybody would try to sue me if their child got injured in park but it's a crazy world these days.

Patty : We always met in a public spot, so I never even thought to think about that. Good questions.

Debra: Great Question Tanya... and one we've thought about... I know Kari has but as she said - as long as you aren't charging money for anything and everyone is responsible for their own children in a public place then no. If their children get hurt.. THEY are responsible or they could theoretically sue the city if they felt the city should have done something to prevent the accident. I find that most people I've attracted to my playgroup aren’t' like that. And when I tell them that I encourage my kids to take calculated risks and we play with stones and sticks and climb trees well that's their call. (of course your playgroup might have different rules than mine) but I just find that my little talk about the benefits of risks in play tends to keep out those kinds of people from the get go.

Michele: Hi! It's Michele from California. Tanya - I took care of the liability issue with the form from the Family Nature Club toolkit on

Recruiting and challenges

Kristen: I would love to hear about how some of you are encouraging people to join your groups or even convincing them to keep coming.

Brandy: Anyone else feel like participation comes in waves?

Patty: I used to organize a playgroup with a bunch of local moms via yahoo groups and we used to meet at parks. That worked okay, but I got mad at our local city parks (using chemicals, etc.), so I have set up a new group that focuses on getting kids in the wild. Only a few people have been interestedhiking/forest preserves put them out of their element apparently. The big thing is the endless energy in organizing.

Michele: Our attendance comes in waves, too. I just reserve the day for our family to play -- and if others come that's a bonus.

Kristen: I defiantly feel like participation comes in waves currently it is very low tide

Patty: I am also trying to get more moms involved as coordinators and planning. I NEED to plan a yearly long-range brainstorming meeting to see what everyone wants to do.

Debra: I totally agree Kristen and Brandy... It comes and goes. I got really lucky I have this one SOLID participant at the moment it is just she and I. I have a few floaters but I'm currently on a campaign to get more members. Last year I had this AWESOME group.. but then they all left the country or their kids started full day school and that was that. So now there is just two of us. For me the perfect number is about 8... that way you usually get no less than 3 moms (and 3 to 5 kids) and usually max out at 5 moms. That's a perfect size for me.

Debra: @ FOCP thanks for that link! and I think that is a FANTASTIC attitude... just do it for you - and if others come that is a bonus! I kinda do the same thing... I do it because if I know others are counting on me then it motivates me to get out and do it. If they don't show up.. Sometimes those are the best days when I really connect with nature and I wonder why I don't do it more often... (well I don't wonder.. I know I'm lazy)

Brandy: Some days are harder than others, but always for ME and NOT my kids that are standing by the door, gear on, ready to go! "MOM!!! LETS GO! Its a beautiful day!"

Kristen: It is hard to find people like our selves in that it is priority to be outside how are people find these like-minded families? posters?

Debra: @ Patty - of course it is totally up to you... but in my limited experience... I wouldn't try to get more moms involved in co-coordinating and planning. That is just a headache. My advice, not that you asked for it, is to do what you want to do - ask for help.. if you get it great.. but if not - do what you want and as much or as little as you want. I say this because at one time we had this ideal about everyone contributing and different members taking the lead on different activities. What we found is that most people don't want to, or they aren't good at it. We also found that putting in a big effort in the hopes that others with also put in a big effort - isn't always rewarding and then I ended up resenting those that just "showed up" and didn't really help out. But when I changed my attitude and did what I wanted to do.. doing it for me and not expecting them to do anything when they did, or they offered or they asked what they could do.. it was an awesome bonus.. Rather than me being stressed when no one stepped up.. KWIM? and chances are you are a leader Patty... and maybe they aren't and don't feel comfortable doing that.

Brandy: Debra, I agree, too many cooks in the kitchen, not so fun... The only way we all coordinate is if we take a "field trip" someplace different.

Kristen: I agree with you on that Debra - ask for more involvement can lead to big headaches.

Tanya: My second question - what's the best way to get rsvp'd attendance. We've only met once so far (very new!!) and I created a group on facebook so people can find out where we are meeting week to week. Also have an e-mail distribution list going. Still, people aren't always great at letting you know if they are coming.

Debra: @ Kristen, yeah its hard. I've just been made some posters and tomorrow I'll be out with my blue tack and my push pins and scotch tape and be doing all the coffee shops and community boards I can walk to. I also have a little slip of paper with "Beach Club" and the meeting time and place and my e-mail address on it. I carry them around with me and if I meet someone who is already out in nature - I talk with them.. if they seem receptive I invite them and pass them a card. I don't know if any of it helps.. the best members I ever got found me online through google and contacted me before they ever entered the country. (yeah for Kari's website!)

Michele: @Tanya I just had one planning mtg/playgroup where we met and brainstormed ideas for the year. Everybody signed the waiver for the YEAR. If we had newcomers, they signed only on the first time for the remainder of the year.

Kristen: Tanya I have found that people just are not able to know 100% if they are going to be able to come - the day changes so

Patty: RSVP's are has a nice resource for that, but it costs money to have a page. But...maybe people would be more motivated to attend if they invested in the group.

Debra: Tanya... I don't think you ever will get "rsv'd" attendance. That is asking a whole lot of people. Stuff happens. Kids get sick, appointments come up. I think all you can do is show up yourself, e-mail reminders and if the venue is going to be different - e-mail reminders a few times a few days beforehand and that's all you can do. Pressuring people to show up is a turn off for many people. Positive Positive Positive. "can't wait to see you guys" "had fun last week, looking forward to this week" - people will show up or they won't... and remember if they don't... it isn't YOU. They ebb and flow with everyone's group.. I used to teach a kids class that was paid for.. and even then people come and go and forfeit their paid lessons... it just happens.. We have each other to remind ourselves not to take it personally!

Brandy: I think the investment is the relationships you build, more than an RSVP.

Courtney: I started off as a general playgroup for babies and toddlers and as the children have grown our activities have changed and we kind of have different people who cover different areas, i.e. somebody else does the infant meetups since my kids aren't that age anymore and I usually do the outdoor meetups

Debra: Brandy... exactly... the friendships and the kids making friends that are why they come! Make it enjoyable and the odds are better.... but there will still be no shows.. What is funny is often the ones you think you'll never see again could be the hard core ones and the ones you 'clicked' with and you thought would be there never come again... you just never know

Kristen: Debra - I'm glad your struggling with membership as well being so far away from you and Kari the struggle gets lonely. I'm glad to see all of you here talk about outside play

Brandy: Debra, I'm STILL shocked at the ones that keep coming back! One mom and kid was totally not dressed for what we were all doing, climbing up rocks, and I thought, "oh man, she is NEVER coming back..." instead she came the next week with sturdy shoes and all saying "NOW we'll be able to play WITH you guys!" :)

Tanya: Thanks. Leaning towards no wavers for the moment. Like the concept of just showing up to play and if others join us, great. If not - we still play. (got the same advice from Lia with Skedaddle in Alaska) I agree that you will never get 100% guaranteed attendance from parents. Things always happen last minute.

Debra: yeah well Kristen - last year I had an awesome group.. and got lazy about recruiting... but this year it just went to nothing overnight... I have 3 people coming - but 2 of them almost never because one started working part time (often on our day) and the other's kid is in school and too tired to come out after!.. it just happens... so I'm getting back on the recruiting horse so to speak!

How often do you meet?

Brandy: We meet once a week. Twice if we've got a special trip/outing planned...

Kari: Our group meets every week

Tales of a Mountain Mama Sorry: if I missed this, but are most playgroups on the weekends?

Debra: We meet up during the week, once a week.... so sadly usually only moms - it’s hard to get caregivers out. And sometimes dads - we had two last year but now none.

Patty: We meet up during the week in the AM.

Kari: I have mine on a week day and many in AKC is on a week day

Kristen: TTMM we meet on the weekend Saturday afternoon 1-3 at our local park

Courtney: Our meetings used to be in the morning, but now that the children are on all different kids of preschool (or kindergarten) schedules, meeting at around 3:30 in the afternoon works for us.

Brandy: @Patty, I feel like the AM is perfect, first thing of the day :) We've even done a brunch picnic.

Anchorage Outdoor Family Network: We got on a little too late. It was dinnertime here in Alaska. The success of our year-round family hiking group Taiga Trekkers outdoor playgroup Skedaddle, lead us to organize the Anchorage Outdoor Family Network We are now 290 members strong in only a year and a half.

Nature Play (Chicago land AKA Partty)

Where do you meet and what to you do?

Tanya: Do most of you just meet and focus on free play or do you have planned activities, games, crafts... I'm not really into that. I'd prefer to just meet and have the kids interact naturally without structure. I don't feel like being an arts and crafts teacher.

Courtney: Well, of course it depends on the time of year, but our "official" outdoor playgroup actually started in the winter of last year. I thought it was important to have a specific group for these outings especially during the times when it is harder to get people out. We started off with sledding (great turnouts) and snow play and as the weather warmed up we meet at local playgrounds, but mainly parks over playgrounds. We some great parks here along the ocean and rivers where it is easy for the kids to find things to do- throwing rocks, finding snails, playing hide and go seek

Courtney: Recently we went to a local nature center. They have a "museum" inside for the kids, but we didn't go inside, we explored the trails outside. They recently installed some outdoor musical instruments and they have a "storybook trail" where they laminate pages of books and you read them as you go along. They one they have

Brandy: We do both; mostly let the kids just run and be kids.

Courtney: Crafts are a good draw

Brandy: We change up the scenery and I feel like that keeps it interesting enough, more than a "planned" activity.

Courtney: I've discovered that some people don't have faith in their children to just enjoy themselves in nature, i.e. if there isn't' a playground then what will the kids do?

Tales of a Mountain Mama :@Tanya, I agree with that certainly - though sometimes pulling out a parachute or something in the summer is fun!

Kari: I do plan an activity, but is more helping the kids to play. Today we made a river down the hill. It was rainy weather today.

Courtney: People were more than willing to bring a dollar to cover the cost of a craft that their child will participate in. I did a post about a beach craft that we did. We had such a huge turnout that it was a little daunting to be making little holes filled with plaster all over the beach and not have the kids step in them, but at the same time it was a glorious day! So much fun. And the cost is minimal.

Brandy: yeah, and that is STILL just an idea and letting THEM take the lead.

Kristen: Tanya I do a mixture of both. My main focus is free play but I have incorporated a nature craft or some wild harvesting. Last summer we made dandelion syrup so good and fun. Free play is a challenge for some.

Tanya: I do want to do more nature-based "themed" playmate’s though...maybe once a month.

Courtney: Usually we just let the kids play and do whatever they want, but when we have done crafts I have to say that it's definitely drawn in people that we haven't seen in a while or people we've never met.

Michele: Definitely free play. The kids usually come up with things to do that I never would have thought to do. . We are at a different location every time so that usually dictates the activity based on the local nature.

Brandy: It’s interesting to hear about the craft. I wonder if that is more of a "Mom" draw than the kids. I love me some crafts, seriously, but hate telling my kid what to do even OUTSIDE school/home.

Patty: In my experience, people are more willing to meet at a city park than go into "nature." But....I feel that is my job to help them feel safe out there.

Tanya: I think if the Calgary outdoor playgroup is going to have crafts and activities, we're going to need more volunteer leaders because I'll be doing free play and hikes. Nature studies and crafts just aren't my thing right now. I call myself an adventure mom, rather than an outdoor mom. Hiking with my son and exploring my city's pathways and natural areas while walking is my passion. Hopefully we'll attract more moms with a passion for studying bugs, making crafts, building things in nature...

Kari: Doing trips to farms, strawberry picking, maple syrup are great activities too

Brandy: We did the first two last year, along with peach pickingI’d LOVE to try the maple syrup!

Patty: Yeah...what I love it trying to draw on the talents of other moms to help out. I DON'T want to have to do it allbeen there, done that.

Debra: To answer your question Tanya... we have done both in the 5 1/2 years I've been attending AKC. For a long time we always did a singing circle at one point in the play. Mostly because we had people with many languages... at one point we sang frère Jacques in 7 languages! Ha ha ha... but I led that because I enjoyed it. We've done special days like Halloween or midsummer's eve.. Where we've planned things and gone to great efforts.. Totally fun.. but what we found is that people come for those things (hey Kari the Halloween in the park and the midsummer had like 50 families each) but then we never see them again. We thought it might bring people out.. But it didn’t and we had no funding so it was all we! Now - my group has shifted to almost all boys - and none of them are interested in singing although my boy has recently shown an interest so I may just start that again. But I've not done a singing circle in 2 years. We still do wildcrafting or painting the snow with colored water or something... but I'll do something 'special' like that maybe once in 3 or 4 months.. It’s not a regular thing for me. - Especially as my philosophy of 'free play' gets more fleshed out I just let them play.. Away from man made play structures... trees, water, sticks, rocks, dirt, sand... wed is our day to get filthy and soaked!

Courtney: We went to a wildlife sanctuary last year for a tour of the maple syrup process, that was fun

Kari: For me the activities depends on the weather, we do nature craft, games, dirt soup, feeding the squirrels, sledding, snow paint, hike, leaves art,

Brandy: We'll start Strawberry picking in April here!

Suz: We've had a lot of luck with scavenger hunts for simple items (a smooth rock, something yellow) and nature bracelets (masking tape bracelet to put small treasures on). Just to punctuate the free play.:

Patty: I like the idea of a brunch picnic. I am new to the whole winter picnic idea (thanks Kari), but my daughter thinks it is so cool.

Courtney: We need to do a scavenger hunt- good idea! Funny- our town's family center organized a scavenger hunt at a park that we did a clean up at that weekend, so the kids were hard pressed to find any "trash" that was on the list (find a piece of paper, etc.). I guess that's a good thing!

Debra: @ Courtney - It is sad isn't it that some parents don't trust their kids can play! But I am with you on the whole - let them do it even if they can't at first. I've recently really become a big believer in the "leave them alone" philosophy. (Leave them alone without screens that is) they are amazing and they need to be alone to figure stuff out. anyway...

Brandy: The kids LOVE it! Its fun to have them helps plan/cook/pack and then share with friends after their hard work at play!

Suz: We’re also wildflower hunters in spring. Kids can also hunt for certain color flowers, if not specific ones. They're always fun to find!

Courtney: As a Montessorian, my favorite line is "follow the child". Now of course that doesn't meant you let the kids do what they want all the time, but you know what I mean ;)

Debra: I think there are some great ideas here but what I see is the diversity of the leaders here and I think whatever you do.. If you are true to your nature and what YOU want to do and HOW you want to do it.. Then it'll be enjoyable for you. I mean if leading a singing circle is NOT in your wheel house don't do it.. If you love crafts and want to share.. Then do.. if not.. Don’t. If you want to help people feel safe in the wilderness.. great.. if you want to discover how wild a park can be (I'm thinking of Kristen's bug hunts) then AWESOME... I think that is the beauty of nature.. it is whatever we need it to be for us.

Kari: If you have access to a fire pit, even more great winter picnic

Kristen: I like a wildflower hunt - I'll try that in the spring!

Kari: Debra loves to sing and leading a singing circle do you guys sing ?

Courtney: Kari, I'm picking up a metal fire pit off of craigslist this week :) Can't wait!

Suz: Love singing with kids! Also singing and marching while hiking.

Tales of Mountain Mama: Singing around the campfire! Great idea even in the Winter

Courtney: Hmm...I don't plan to sing but if it comes up with the children or something they are talking about relates to a song we definitely sing extemporaneously. I am a music teacher.

Brandy: @Suz, we had ONE brilliant day of whistling while hiking...Reminded me of "Parent Trap"!

Courtney: We rarely get the dads to join us. Sometimes when the moms can't make it. I am a music/drama teacher- not teaching right now. I think I need to sing and play music more! Another New Years resolution. Bring more music to outdoor playgroup.

Brandy: And instruments!

Patty: Love beach playdates in the summercan’t wait for those.

Courtney: how about instruments made from natural materials? ;)

Brandy: whittled out of found sticks... ;)

Weather limit and dressing for the weather, outdoor gear

Tales of a Mountain Mama: I would say zero and depending on the wind. BUT, I also think it is up to the parents and dressing them as warm as they can. The kids seldom mind...

Courtney: Well, we usually don't have a temp limit on the high end, but when it comes to cold, we don't meet if it "feels like" under 20F on, which takes wind chill, etc. into account.

Kristen: We meet until -10 with the wind chill. Our park is by the lake so it can be quite chilly

Patty: 20-30's....I know, totally wuss compared to you polar moms ;-)

Suzy: As for weather, here in Northern CA, only very heavy rain would keep us from playing outside.

Brandy: Our high end is upper 90's. With the humidity, the kids get sick from the heat. Literally.

Suz: You guys all have me beat on weather.

Suzi: Our limit isn't the weather...we do our best to get out everyday... last week it was limited time in the weather due to -30C to -40C. And if he is sick.

Tales of a Mountain Mama : @suzi - yep outside EVERY day is a must for our sanity!

Kari: Suzi -30? You are a Polar Bear Mom

PO.P USA Wow! Those are some impressive weather limits.

Patty: How do you dress for that cold of weather? I can handle about 20 degrees.

Debra: I grew up in YK and we played out at -40. Not for long.. But we did. But we were dressed for it. But now I live here.. I'd say -25 is mine.. Especially cause baby boy is less than 3 and their activity level is less than older kids and their head to body ratio is higher so they lose more heat through their heads.

Courtney: I cover every inch of my body and then I'm warm. Long underwear, insulated ski pants, tall wool socks, neck warmer, ski goggles, hat, hood- I don't care what I look like as long as I'm warm!

Patty: Haven't gotten as far as face coveringdefinitely investing in good clothing is key and the right layering.

Kristen: Wow, Suzi -30 -40 I can't imagine that cold - you go girl!

Suzy: ?@Courtney - only the fact that both my son and I have good weather gear is why we can go outside when it's so cold out

PO.P USA: I would love to hear more about what you do for little toes? Boots are great with wool socks, but at temps that low do you do two pairs?

Courtney: Yes, I buy quality gear for us because we rely on it so much.

Courtney: Our group has a monthly book club for moms (Feb. marks our second anniversary of book club!) and at the last one we were discussing has some type of drive for winter gear for kids next.- Teaming up with a local homeless shelter or something.

Debra: for me it’s about the wool next to my skin. Layers with lots of dead air space in between for insulation, good gloves and snow pants and jacket (gortex to keep me dry) I have a pair of bogs that are a size too big.. I always wear wool socks in them and have bought a pair of UGG sheepskin liners.. So I'm dry, warm and have dead air space. Boots that are too tight will keep your toes cold and waterproof boots will keep your feet cold because when you sweat they won't air out.. So wool is the key to absorb that moisture and keep you warm... if my toes and fingers are golden I’m in heaven.

Courtney: It's easy for us to tell people to get their children outside, but maybe they can't afford the proper gear

Tales of Mountain Mama: We do pay for the proper gear because we depend on it, but we also share Wonder if there would be a way to set up some gear-closet for playgroups??!?! And companies could donate

Brandy: yes wool socks.. I have smart wool for the kidlets and boots with wool liners!

Brandy: TALES, I would be happy with just a swap!

Suzi: ?@Polarn - 1 pair of good socks that wick. Good boots that are insulated. I generally try and wear about the same as him. When I get cold, it's time to go in (though I do periodic cheek/finger checks)

Polarn O Pyret: Tales of a Mountain Mamainteresting idea....

Brandy: I bought only RAIN gear for my three kids and it was expensive...

Courtney: I would be interested in heading up some kind of task force next year to figure out how we can raise money for/donate winter gear to those in need, and if AKC wanted to do that as a group effort across the country (countries!) that would be great.

Kristen: @ Courntey I think that is a very accurate statement gear is expensive especially when parents are comparing quality gear to say a Zellers/Wal-Mart snowsuit and not understanding the difference.

Brandy: My thing is that people GET the difference, just their bank account doesn't agree :)

Suzi: We go second hand when we can... so much of the gear at his age (2 1/2) is barely used because people have great intentions but don't actually use it.

Brandy: We're lucky that it doesn't get really cold here until December or January when everything is on SALE!

Courtney: Brandy, we have to buy in the spring and guess sizes for next year!

Debra: I know that none of us can GET this particular brand in North America, maybe POP has something similar but I had a snowsuit for my daughter she wore it for 3 years - my son is now wearing it (he's had it two.. and I expect he'll get next year out of it too) the gloves the had and the suit - retailed in N.America for about 350 to 400 (with tax). I've had to take the hat thing to get mended because he chewed on it.. but still I've washed it about 10 times and it still looks like new. It has such amazing adjustable bits to it that I can get 3 years per kid out of it... that are only about 67. per year. - For the gear it is reasonable but it’s hard to shell out that intial 400 for kids gear... and no one expects anything to be that good quality anymore so it’s hard to imagine it.

Brandy: EXACTLY!

PO.P Use: Love the idea of a gear share. Now sure how it would work exactly. For areas that don't have a lot of cold though, love the idea of them having good gear to "use." will have to think on that

Debra: There is a shop here that has a kids store, and it has a buy back program.. and if you buy stuff second hand its a lot cheaper.. not really checked out how it works.. But it is an interesting idea.

Courtney: Well, I'm going go sign off, but just wanted to say to anybody who is thinking about starting and outdoor playgroup- you can do it! It may take a little while, but you will find people like you, you will convert people or people will surprise you and the one family you never thought would come out in bad weather will turn out to be the only one who shows up. Just go for it and have fun :

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