Wild + Free 1

Area Community Fosters Connections with Nature, Wonder of Childhood

In August 2015, Dani Johnston was grieving the loss of her stillborn son two months earlier. So when her father invited her family to the lake to get away, enjoy the outdoors and kayak, she reluctantly went along. Experiencing nature together was a healing balm and a pivotal point for the Greenwood family. Previously, going on a nature hike with young kids seemed overwhelming. Now, they crave the peace and the freedom that comes with walking alongside a stream under a canopy of green.

“That helped my family come back together,” Dani says. “It was a really positive thing that came out of a horrible thing. We realized that this is the time we have with one another. We don’t want to worry about getting muddy and messy.”

The Johnstons began to intentionally seek out ways to experience nature together. An online search turned up a group called Wild + Free KC, a community that creates a space for families to wander and wonder together, building relationships while exploring all the natural areas Kansas City has to offer.

Dani and her three girls began joining in Friday Trailblazer adventure groups, hikes with other families that rotate locations across the Kansas City metro area. Her kids are free to be kids—splashing in creeks, climbing on rocks and spotting wild creatures—and Dani appreciates the time on the trail making connections with other parents.

In a society that often glorifies business, Wild + Free KC offers the chance to unplug, slow down, play and have face-to-face conversations, says Shawna Ketter, who founded the local chapter of this national organization in 2015. Her goal was to find other families who enjoy being outdoors and who would spur one another on toward enjoying all the natural spaces Kansas City has to offer.

Wild + Free KC now has more than 1,000 followers online, with 30 to 50 parents and kids joining in on Friday Trailblazer hikes. Additional monthly activities include nature journaling and study, a children’s book club and a mom’s book club. Activities are fairly unstructured, but fun and learning always take place.

“We create the space and the rhythm in our day, and people come,” Shawna says. “There’s not a set structure other than we show up with our journals and field guides and we go from there.”

Shawna homeschools her children, and while many homeschool families participate, all are welcome.

“Our commonality is the desire to create a childhood that experiences wonder, cultivates curious minds, chases the spark of learning, fosters hearts and allows for time,” Shawna says. “Time to explore, time to experiment, time to play and time to experience the beauty, freedom and wonder of childhood.”

While outdoor exploration has always been integral to the fiber of Shawna’s family life, she appreciates seeing the impact that the group has had on her own family and on others. She has witnessed many families get out of their comfort zone, learning to explore nature with the group, and then making it part of their regular routine.

For her own children, exploring away from the playground perimeters allows opportunities for taking healthy risks alongside other kids—like climbing boulders and finding turtles, frogs and snakes.

“They’re in wonder and awe about what they find in nature, and they have a community of kids to be excited about that with,” Shawna says.

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Get Out, KC 

Connect with these groups online for opportunities and ideas for exploring nature with your family this summer.

  • Wild + Free KC: Facebook.com/WildAndFreeKC 

  • Well Wilderness for Kids: WellBelliesSandBabies.com/Nature-Therapy 

  • Tinkergarten: Tinkergarten.com 

  • Blue River Forest School: Facebook.com/ConnectedWild 

  • Free Forest School: Facebook.com/FreeForestSchool