Humans of the Outdoors: Jason

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Humans Outdoors - Jason -

A note from Maman on the Trail:

Meet Jason, a human of the outdoors. Jason lives in Boulder, Colorado and gets outdoors with his wife and two children, ages 3 and 7, as well as other families in his family nature club. Here is his story…

On his time outdoors…

Our time outdoors varies greatly. Through our family nature club, Running Wild, I organize weekly events with parents and their children. We hike, boat, mountain bike, backpack, camp, rock climb, sled, and foster unstructured nature play that is child-led. But we also play in our backyard, making tree forts, snow caves, mud kitchens, and experiment with various loose parts (ropes, pulleys, stumps, stones, etc.).

Humans Outdoors - Jason -

Growing up, my parents were very involved in getting us outdoors. I was in Boy Scouts and spent years learning outdoor skills and enjoying human-powered adventures. When I became a parent, I began to notice the subtle but major differences in how much time they and their peers were getting outdoors. Richard Louv’s book, *Last Child in the Woods, introduced me to the concept of a family nature club, which prompted me to start my own in early 2015.

Richard Louv’s work and research have really validated what I was feeling, that childhood is much different today than it was in past generations. Most recently, his book *Vitamin N inspired me to finally get around to building a backyard tree house for my children.

On learning to “unhike”…

One day, when hiking up a canyon with my daughter, we crossed a stream. As we reached the other side of the bank, she stopped to crouch down and play in the mud. A few minutes went by and then more. I asked her to continue with me. She didn’t care about my adult agenda in the least. She wanted to muck about with sticks and stones in the dirt. I’d spent the evening before packing and planning and being pretty goal-oriented I wanted us to make the summit. But as I watched her unflinching to my requests, I reflected on previous experiences we’d had in the woods. This wasn’t the first time she wanted to follow her own whims. As other hikers passed us, I began to realize maybe I was doing it all wrong.

Humans Outdoors - Jason -

I relented that day, and have ever since. Now I focus on supporting my children’s needs. I try to observe their wants and facilitate child-led adventures where I work to provide the best possible conditions – safe, comforting, with the right amount of challenge – and have found the experiences to be remarkable. I call this “unhiking”. Sometimes it means we don’t travel very many miles. On the days we do, for example when we make a summit, I notice that it’s not because of my children’s aspirations, it’s because they are having fun. What I want above all is to give them the love of nature and adventure that has brought great fulfillment to my life. So these days I use their level of enjoyment as a barometer for our direction. Having a group of friends along really supports this goal.

On nature as the third parent…

I recently came across the concept of nature as the third parent and love it. There’s a certain feeling that I get when I think of the role my wife plays in my children’s lives. Obviously, there’s great trust there, and love and affection, but also I believe my wife helps my children develop as human beings. Sometimes maybe we’ll all be together as a family unit and this will play out. Other times the children will be alone with her and it will play out. Taking my children out into nature is similar. Sometimes we’re all together and sometimes I let my children enjoy more unstructured child-led play without hovering over them. And what I see, and I see this every time, is that my children develop so much in ways that I appreciate when they are with nature. So the mantra helps remind me that there’s great value in simply taking the time to get my children out and into nature, and then trusting that nature, itself without my interference, is a great parent for my children.

Humans Outdoors - Jason -

On Running Wild Family Nature Club

There are currently 24 members, so I’d guess around a dozen families but now that the new school year has begun we’re starting to invite new families. We meet almost every Sunday. Our events include unstructured nature play, exploring the wilds, hiking, mountain biking, creek play, tubing, boating, camping, backpacking, rock climbing, skiing, and sledding. I have written a book, *Unplugged, that demystifies the family nature club concept and teaches parents how, step-by-step, to start their own local club.

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On his books about kids outdoors…

My books are all about helping parents get their children outside and into nature. Mud Kitchen In A Day shows how you can make a simple, inexpensive, outdoor kitchen for children in the backyard. *The Backyard Play Revolution introduces the concept of adventure playgrounds, loose parts, and the practice of play work, and explains how to transform your backyard into a natural play area using inexpensive and free objects.

A little Q & A…

Q: What is your go-to adventure snack?

A: What we tend to bring for short hikes are nuts, dried fruit, cheeses, beef jerky, crackers, seaweed, and trail mix. We tend to bring a lot of options and let the children choose what they need.

Q: What piece of gear do you never leave the house without?

A: For short hikes, our backpacks always include a medical kit, a trowel for digging a cat hole, sun protection, Platypus hydration bags, sun hats, pocket knives, binoculars. Band-Aids get used on pretty much every trip 🙂

Q: What is your favourite nature quote, and who said it first?

A: “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).” ~ Richard Louv

Humans Outdoors - Jason -

Q: What one piece of advice would you share with someone who is wary of or new to the outdoors?

A: The mantra that’s resonating with me most right now is nature as a third parent. I’m not sure of it’s origin, but I think it’s useful to convey the profound value that being in nature brings to children.

Humans Outdoors - Jason -


For more of Jason’s stories and adventures, you can check out his website, Jason Runkel Sperling, or follow him on Instagram, @jsperling and @familynatureclub.

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8 thoughts on “Humans of the Outdoors: Jason

  1. Allison

    This was a great read – we used to live outside of Denver and found amazing hiking locations there. Unfortunately we moved before our son was born but we try to bring some of the adventurous Colorado spirit with us into the woods and hills of the Catskills.

  2. Amber Ludwig

    Omgosh I guiltily rush my son too, I think Ive learned my lesson lol!! I don’t even know why I do it!! Its not like we have a set destination!!?? Very strange how we do that as people.

  3. janie vezina

    this is awesome. would love to find something similar around here, although i’ve never heard of anyone speak of outings.

  4. Lisa M

    This was really inspiring to read, my parents fostered a love of the outdoors in me and I would like to do the same for my daughter. I enjoyed seeing the approach you are taking with both your family and others.


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