Play Again, What are the consequences of a childhood removed from nature?

I must be totally honest, I don’t think I live on another planet – even though some might say I was from one.  I have always loved nature and being outside, have taken courses in Leave No Trace, Habitat Steward, Forestry, Wild Animal Rehabilitation, love to kayak and hike and in my own small world thought that this is what everyone does and enjoy.  Yes, I have friends that refuse to car camp and their thought of “roughing” it is a hotel without room service.  Yes, I even have friends that if it requires being outside with bugs and other creepy crawlies and not being able to have their hair and makeup just so, they will peel out of the parking lot leaving you in their dust.   But I didn’t really realize the extent that our world has removed itself from nature until recently when I went to a showing of the documentary “PLAY AGAIN” at our local Community College.

PLAY AGAIN is a wonderful documentary featuring tech savvy teens and leading experts including Rich Louv, Bill McKibben, Martin LeBlanc, Juliet Schor, Diane Levin, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, John Sarbanes, David Suzuki and others. PLAY AGAIN investigates and explores the changing balance between the virtual and natural worlds. Is our connection to nature disappearing down the digital rabbit hole? What are the consequences of a childhood removed from nature.  PLAY AGAIN unplugs this group of tech savvy teens and takes them on their first wilderness adventure, documenting the wonder that comes from time spent in nature and inspiring action for a sustainable future.  We live in an age of children playing and spending time at an average of 5 hours per day and up to and over 15 hours on the weekend, behind TV, video games, cell phones, and computers screens versus a few years ago when that time was spent outdoors.  I remember growing up and we only came in for meals and then only if we had too!  But the world is different today.  One generation from now most people in the U.S. will have spent more time in the virtual world than in nature. New media technologies have improved our lives in countless ways. Information now appears with a click. Overseas friends are part of our daily lives. And even grandma loves Wii. Concerns about child predators and other scary stuff, plus usually two working parents, severely limits the time available for children (and adults) to be outside just playing.  But what are we missing when we are behind screens? And how does this impact our children’s well being, our society and the very future of our planet?

This got me thinking, how much time do I spend behind a screen and what example am I setting for my son.  I go to work and that is at least 8 hours behind a screen, more like 10 on the average if I am being realistic.  Then add the computer time I log at home doing research, conversing with friends, doing email, etc. I gave that at least 2 hours.  Then my “recreational” wind down TV time that is another hour.  Hmmm, I am also reading email and sending text on my cell phone so let’s say that is another hour.  Then before I go to sleep, I need to read, guess what, another screen as I usually read a book on my Kindle, so lets chalk up another hour.  So on an average work day I am behind a screen at least 14 hours a day!  Wow!

No wonder I crave the outdoors and nature probably only because I have been exposed to it; but, the question I ask myself is . . . what if I wasn’t?  Would I be so concerned about the environment or sustainability issues or where my food comes from as I am?  Probably not.  If our children and our children’s children are going to inherit this planet will they know what nature truly is or the benefits derived from it, so in essence not see the need or the benefits to protect and enjoy it?  Scary thought, huh? I remember after I brought my son home from Russia at 23 months, introducing him to grass to walk on with bare feet for the first time in his life.  It was a scary experience for him until he realized the joys of grass tickling his feet and the sweet pleasure of mud oozing up between his toes.  Now fast forward and imagine that 23 month old as a teenager that still has not connected with nature.  Can you picture in your mind what would his reaction be?  In my mind, it reveals how we are allowing our young people to be so profoundly disconnected from the natural world and denying them the opportunity to fully develop their senses.

So how do we reintroduce children to the benefits of play and nature and alert adults to the health, learning, and developmental consequences of their absence?   William Ruckelshaus argued in the Wall Street Journal in April of 2010 that “Today’s environmental challenges are far different from those of 40 years ago. And so the solutions must change as well.”  40 years ago, before the advent of all the technology, we were outside more versus today and the changes were driven from the top (i.e. government) down.  Today the changes need to be driven from the bottom up back to grass roots initiatives and selective consumer spending .  So how can we effect solutions to protect our planet besides today’s marketing catch phrase “going green”?  I believe the first step is getting ourselves and our children back in touch with nature. So how can we and our children get outside more?  We can’t all send our kids away to a camp but we can promise to eat one meal outside per week with no technology around.  Instead of going to the gym, go to one of many local parks and take a walk, play on the equipment with your kids, enjoy the seemingly quiet of nature.  Take advantage of your local parks offerings of free or for a small fee classes or tours.  You will feel better for it, your kids will feel better for it and the planet will too!  And if you can, budget 80 minutes of your screen time to gather with friends and family and watch this documentary at a local screening or it is available for purchase or it just may be at your local library!

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