On a recent Sunday at Gorman Farm in Laurel, Alex Sanchez-Henry gently pushed a handful of green leaves aside as he peered at the ground beneath him.
With his other hand, the 9-year-old Ellicott City resident reached toward the ground and pulled out his prize: Two bright red strawberries, fused together as one.
His sisters, Gabriella, 14, and Marisa, 11, and mother, Mari, quickly joined him in the field to see firsthand the "double strawberry," as well as the basket full of single berries he collected.
Strawberries are Alex's favorite fruit, his mother said.
"I don't care if they're big or small," Alex said, his fingers red from strawberry juice. "But if it's bigger, it's more juicy."
The Sanchez-Henrys were one of more than 15 families picking strawberries that day as part of Columbia Families in Nature, a new family nature club that organizes two to three free outings a month throughout Howard County.
Chiara D'Amore, of Columbia, founded the club with her husband, Jeremy Bergamore, and their children, Bryce, 4, and Sasha, 1, to encourage families to explore the outdoors together, emphasize play time in nature and teach participants about the environment and conservation.
"The simple purpose of family nature clubs is to gather children, families, friends and community members together to enjoy nature on a regular basis," D'Amore said.
D'Amore grew up in Columbia's Village of Harper's Choice, where she spent many afternoons and weekends playing outside with friends.
"Some of my earliest memories are of playing intently outdoors and simply being with the wonder of the natural world," she said.
Her interest in nature and the outdoors only grew as she entered high school and then college. After receiving her master's degree in environmental science and engineering at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, D'Amore took a job with ICF International, an environmental consulting firm in Washington, D.C. She lived in Virginia and California for several years before moving back to Columbia in 2008, into the same townhouse she grew up in, near the same woods she played in as a child.
"I really wanted that for my kids," she said.
But D'Amore quickly noticed the woods and natural areas around her home weren't filled with children playing as they were before.
Nationally, studies show more and more children are moving indoors. The National Wildlife Foundation states the average American boy or girl spends as few as 30 minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play and more than seven hours each day in front of an electronic screen. A 2011 poll conducted by The Nature Conservancy found 88 percent of children ages 13 to 17 reported using a computer almost every day, while only 11 percent of children reported visiting a local park or natural area every day.
"Opportunities for quality time with families are decreasing, as well as time in nature," D'Amore said. "Both of those are super important."
As a parent, and as a doctoral student at Arizona-based Prescott College studying sustainability education, D'Amore thought, "What can I do to create more community?"
A family nature club was her answer.
Sharing the outdoors
Columbia Families in Nature held its first outing on March 23 around Lake Kittamaqundi in Columbia to celebrate the spring equinox. More than 60 people, including 18 families, listened as a member of the Maryland Park Service presented "Scales and Tales," a discussion about the area's feathered and scaled animals. After the presentation, families walked around the lake to observe wildlife.
"During our first family nature club outing, I watched children and adults gather together around the stumps of trees chewed down by beavers to get a closer look at the tooth marks," D'Amore said. "The simple joy that came from sharing in this discovery was contagious."
Since then, the club has organized nine outings, with activities ranging from a scavenger hunt around Columbia's Jackson Pond and planting sunflower seeds at the Enchanted Garden in Ellicott City to hiking in Patapsco State Park in Elkridge and picking strawberries at Gorman Farm.
More than 400 people have participated, including Marny Helfrich of Columbia and her 5-year-old daughter, Grace.
Helfrich and Grace attended the strawberry picking, their fourth outing with the club. Columbia Families in Nature helps Helfrich make outdoor activities a priority, especially since her daughter doesn't have an open grassy area to play in near their Kings Contrivance condominium, Helfrich said.
"I think it's fabulous," she said. "These are all things you could do on your own but you wouldn't necessarily."
Erica Eaton, of Clarksville, agrees. She and her 8-year-old son, Mark, have participated in five outings.
"It's great to do it as a family, and it's great to have other kids to play with and a group of adults to talk to with common interests in the outdoors," she said.
D'Amore plans to organize 25 events this year through Columbia Families in Nature. And while the outings are free, there are still some costs. During strawberry picking, participants paid for what they picked. Materials like plant seeds and paper are also an expense. But those administrative costs are never passed on to the participants thanks to grants from groups like the Columbia Association, D'Amore said.
"I want this to be available to everyone," she said. "I don't want cost to be a barrier."
In the future, D'Amore said she hopes offshoots will develop centered around teens or even moms and babies.
For now, participants like Mari Sanchez-Henry say they are happy with the existing format.
"I love the outdoors," she said. "We live in a world where everything costs money. Why not find something that's free?"
For more information about Columbia Families in Nature, go to columbiafamiliesinnature.org.