I was on vacation last week in Destin, Florida, with my extended family, and we spent each day on the beach building sandcastles, playing in the waves, and chasing crabs. And I couldn't believe how many teenagers walked by with their smartphones in their face, oblivious to the wonder of nature all around them, not to mention the people.
These digital screens are more like screen-windows than windows to the real world. You can see and hear things to some extent, but the clarity and depth perception is inferior. You are not fully in the world, even though you can hear and see and maybe even feel some of what’s happening out there. These digital screens are virtual experiences at best.
The statistics say that kids spend over 40 hours per week in front of electronic screens, while they spend less than 40 minutes per week in nature.
Richard Louv is an author who explains how this generation is suffering from what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” a preventable ailment of the body, mind, and soul. Kids just don’t go outdoors anymore. Just look out the window and count the children; most likely the only people seen are older people walking the dog or taking out the trash. While this may seem like a harmless sign of the times, Louv illustrates how harmful this trend is for society. His best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, is one of those books that everyone should read, especially those with children. The book contains a telling quote by a fourth grader in San Diego who said, “I like to play indoors better ‘cause that’s where all the electric outlets are.”
Louv writes, “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). Stress reduction, greater physical health, a deeper sense of spirit, more creativity, a sense of play, even a safer life – these are the rewards that await a family when it invites more nature into children’s lives.”
I believe that the answer is to get kids hooked on something even more interactive and real than what’s on their screens.
Jake Hindman, an agent with the Missouri Conservation Department and a true outdoorsman, speaks to adults around the state about how to get kids interested in the outdoors. Here is a summary of his 3-point sermon:
Go overboard in prepping for a day on the lake or in the woods. It’s not about you – at all. It’s all about fun and making good memories. You have to set aside your self and focus on the kids. Don’t plan on fishing. Be the guide. Be the entertainer, the host. Make sure you have the bug spray, favorite snacks, fun music for the road trip, and anything else that can make the day special (catching your first fish) and free of problems (bug bites). Bring walkie-talkies, some fireworks, paintball guns, or water balloons. Just make sure that the kids have a good time and are safe. So even if the fishing is a failure, being outdoors can still be a blast. All of that takes careful preparation - shopping and packing at least a day in advance. In fact, the prep work may take more time and energy than the outdoor adventure itself, but it’s the most important thing of all.
Don’t push hard. Let the experience flow on its own. Keep your experiences short and sweet. Leave before the kids are tired, hungry, or cranky. “Leave the party while you’re still having fun.” Again, this is not about what you want to do. You are the host. Make sure all the kids are having fun, and in the end, you’ll have a great time too. One great hour outdoors with kids is better than a whole day in which the kids have a few too many bad experiences. Keep it short and sweet.
Celebrate every little success. Exaggerate your excitement about every little thing that you see as a good. Take the good and make it seem great. Putting a worm on a hook for the first time should get a high five. Catching a fish should get photographed. Retell the events of the day with enthusiasm. Brag about it for days. Put the pictures on the fridge. Etc.
Nature is the antidote to digital addiction / isolation / depression. So, take a kid outdoors, and remember to prepare well, have patience, and offer lots of praise. The kids will grow up well, if they get enough sunshine, fresh air, and all things natural.
“How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes – our daily lives.” – Richard Louv
GrowingUpWell is a blog devoted to helping adults help children to grow up as well as possible.