The first time Thomas Sweeney-Jones met up with Delaware Forest Friends, he hung back and watched with wonder.
Three years later, the 4-year-old Smyrna resident is a confident adventurer who helps host other newcomers.
“A lot of us are like that at first…silent observers,” says his mom, Jessie Sweeney-Jones. “It’s so sweet seeing his personality turning into this little kindhearted human.”
Sweeney-Jones is one of more than 900 members of Delaware Forest Friends, a private Facebook group that connects parents and guardians for outdoor meet-ups—for themselves and their children. They meet at least once a week at state and local parks, wildlife refuges and other natural spaces across all three counties.
Children of different ages and backgrounds play together outside, learning how to climb trees, navigate trails and creeks, and roll over logs to discover what’s underneath.
“There are benefits for all ages being out in nature,” says Sweeney-Jones, who writes a blog based on these adventures. “This group has inspired so many things I didn’t know I was passionate about.”
The idea for the group formulated about seven years ago when Wilmington resident Jill Panuto, now a mother of four, started scheduling nature playdates with another local mom friend.
“We both really valued the outdoors and wanted our kids to [as well],” she says. No matter the weather, the troupe met regularly to help their children learn about the subtle changes in the seasons. They also incorporated the principles and philosophies of “forest schools,” a largely European concept that encourages children to be outside year-round and to take appropriate risks to gain confidence in their own bodies and abilities and better understand the rhythms of nature.
“The idea was to have it be child-led, to let the kids be hands-on,” Panuto explains. There are no rules against digging in dirt or even throwing sand in their hair. “We wanted to see how they took to the space.”
Launching the idea on social media attracted like-minded parents—mostly moms—and it blossomed into a robust group within a few years.
Some families have become regulars. Some stay for less than an hour. Others explore trails and plants and animals for half the day. But they have all found a way to connect over shared interests in Mother Nature and raising children to love the outdoors.
“It’s a community that I’ve always been looking for,” says Ashley Schorah, a mother of two. The New Castle County native and her family recently moved to Milton—after stints in San Diego and Denver—and at first spent a few weeks commuting an hour each way to meet up with the Kent County Delaware Forest Friends group before starting a new one in southern Delaware.
Now, there are about 10 moms and their children, including Schorah’s family, who explore different areas of Sussex County each week.
And, just like Thomas and his family, they’re embracing their newfound forest friends.
“It feels like we all just get it,” Schorah says as she watches her children play with pine needles and pine cones on the ground. “There’s no judgment…just acceptance of each other and where we’re all at.”