A prevailing theme in American life today is that the more digitally connected we are, the better off we are “supposed” to be. We all generally accept the rush to new and better digital technology and the pace of change is so fast, there is no framework to judge if ultimately our digital world is good or bad. In fact, it’s a giant “It depends.”
I was ready to challenge every positive assumption about the digital world as I watched my children on a clear but chilly February, Sunday afternoon. All four children were engrossed with a screen. Charlie, my youngest was playing Angry Birds on his mother’s cell phone. Ava was on the family computer playing games on a Nickelodeon website; Ella was watching Zoe 101 on TiVo; and Audrey, my oldest, had hijacked my iPad and was trying to best a million points on Temple Run. The iPad is far and away the most coveted of our electronic devices and there had already been numerous iPad inspired altercations during the day. In this age of over parenting, I believe that children need opportunities to sort things out for themselves; however, constant squabbling over the iPad had stretched me to the breaking point. I was ready to throw my $500 toy in the trash!
Slipping into autocratic leadership mode, I took control of the lazy Sunday afternoon! “OK, we have 15 minutes to get ready. We are going for a hike. If you make it to the top of Big Glassy, you will get 25 minutes of iPad time when we return. (Always use rewards rather than punishments, child psychologists say.) Please wear the following items… and fill your water bottle. It’s going to be chilly—put on a hat and pack gloves in the backpack.” The groans began. “Dad, why do we always have to hike? We hate hiking. No other parents make their kids hike as much as you do.”
The lure of 25 minutes of private iPad time proved to be a great motivator and we were soon at the trailhead. Nature began her magic immediately. Conversations that had once been rancorous and competitive eased into friendly and convivial ones. My kids started playing. A downed tree on the side of the trail became an angled balance beam. A stump became a jump off spot. A frozen spring on a rock at the summit became a mini luge slide. Mindsets shifted from competition to cooperation as they helped each other over the slippery ice. Everyone enjoyed the scenic view and the sweet treats from their personal snack bag (bribery can work as a wonderful reinforcement of desired behavior.)
Everyone had earned iPad time but no one was rushing to be done with the hike. Nature had worked her magic, again. We had had some great conversations uninterrupted by digital devices. My children’s faces had rosy glows and they were getting along (mostly) with each other. “I love hiking,” my five year old said with a smile as he looked over a 40 mile view. I smiled, knowing the next time I brought it up he would tell me how much he hated hiking!
I had the privilege to meet Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods a few weeks later. Louv is advocating that time in nature should be a fundamental human right. While I think that is going to be a hard battle to fight, I know the power that nature can have on my family and its consistently transformative effect on our relationships. At Adventure Treks, when students are outside for three weeks straight, the effects are phenomenal.
Richard Louv has created the Children in Nature Network http://www.childrenandnature.org/documents/C118/and the data his group has collected about the benefits of being outside, is compelling. That chilly weekend, I didn’t care about the data. I just knew that nature works!