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Finding Balance: Kids, Nature, and Technology

July 22, 2015
https://youtu.be/is5W6GxAI3c

A powerful video from the folks at Nature Valley is making its rounds on my Facebook feed today. It interviews members of three different generations and asks them one simple question: When you were a kid, what did you do for fun?

You could see the answers coming from a mile away.

The parents and grandparents of the children interviewed explained how their childhoods were spent catching fish and riding toboggans. They talked about how they built forts with their friends and played outside until the sun went down. Their answers came as no surprise.

Next they interviewed the kids who described their love for video games and iPhones. They said they couldn’t live without their tablets. They talked about how they use technology to break up boredom and help them through bad days. They spoke in terms of desperation. I would die without my tablet.

It should be noted that this is, first and foremost, an advertisement. But the fact that Nature’s Valley is trying to sell you granola bars doesn’t detract from the overall message: That kids these days don’t spend as much time experiencing nature as their parents and grandparents did. I like this ad because it rings true in a lot of ways. There is no doubt that today’s children are spending more time in front of screens and less time outside than ever before.

But technology is only part of the problem and to place blame on it alone is a dramatic oversimplification of the issue. It’s not like my generation, the people who are raising today’s screen-obsessed kids, didn’t have their own set of digital distractions. We never knew that someday we would have the internet at our fingertips (or that the internet would even exist) but we did have Nintendos and Gameboys and Nickelodeon and Saved by the Bell. The screen’s siren song may not have been as quite as powerful back then but it certainly did exist. So what changed?

I am not a social scientist but I can tell you what I have observed among parents of my generation and the kids that they are raising.

I have observed children whose days are scheduled within an inch of their lives. Children whose days, between school and homework and extracurricular activities, are so full that they don’t have much time for anything else. Children who are so exhausted at the end of the day that they want to veg out in front of the TV or computer or iPhone, and really, who can blame them? Don’t get me wrong, structured activity is good and important. But so is having the opportunity to explore and play and learn on your own.

I have seen loving, well-meaning parents so driven by fear that they won’t let their (appropriately aged) children go outside by themselves. Whether they fear their children being snatched by kidnappers or having the cops called on them for negligence, these kids aren’t getting the kind of freedom that we did. Many parents feel that the world has become a more dangerous place for a kid these days, but it’s just not true. The reality is that kids today are actually a lot safer than they were a decade or two ago, back in the days when we were kids ourselves.

I have seen families that are so overwhelmed and stressed out by work and parenting and life that they don’t have the time or energy to put into encouraging their children to get off their iPads and go play outside. Convincing your kids to turn off the TV can sometimes be a battle and for a lot of people, it’s one that they’re too exhausted to fight. And again, who can blame them?

We are a family that uses a lot of technology. My husband is a bona fide and self-described computer nerd who loves holing up in the basement (he calls it his “lab”, I call it “the dungeon”) almost as much as he loves riding and racing bikes. I regularly see the world through the viewfinder of my camera and my desire to acquire less crap means that I buy less physical books and do a lot of reading on my iPad. I love social media and spend a lot of time on my iPhone. Hell, my husband and I even met on the internet, back before meeting on the internet was a normal thing to do. For us, technology is an important and inescapable part of life.

I suspect that we’re not all that different from most people.

Like everyone else, we’re figuring things out as we go. We both take the view that all this technology is not going away (nor do we want it to), so we better learn to live with it. We do what we can to find balance and encourage our kid, as much as possible, to play outside. But we’re not militant about screen time. We spent all last weekend camping in the mountains but, as I type this, my son is watching his favorite show (Thomas the Tank Engine, obviously) on Netflix. Tomorrow’s plans involve a trip to the lake to go paddleboarding and some time spent hanging out on the beach. When we get home, tired and sun-drunk from a day spent outside, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll watch Thomas again. He knows his way around an iPad and a bike park. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, technology or nature. It can be both. If ever there was a place for moderation, this may be it.

I don’t know what the answer to all of this is. And while I certainly agree with the gist of this Nature’s Valley ad, I think it’s only a starting point for this conversation. Until we change the way we view childhood and address our own (often ill-founded) concerns around granting kids some room to roam, they will continue turning to their screens for entertainment. Until we leave some space in their schedules for unstructured, outdoor play, they’ll keep being so exhausted and overwhelmed that vegging out in front of a movie seems like the best possible idea. Until we give them places where they can explore and play and act like kids, they’ll continue to hang out on the couch.

As someone who is exceedingly dependent on technology but also a rabid lover of the outdoors, this is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I hope that this campaign (which seems to be going viral, at least on my Facebook feed) gets people talking about the things that keep our children from experiencing childhood the way that we did. I also hope that the conversation can address why we are addicted to technology and not just the fact that we are.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you do to balance the powerful lure of the glowing screen with your desire for your children to play outdoors What do you think keeps kids from playing outside the way that we did when we were little? 

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The Man in Black

April 4, 2016
Cash-0709

“They say new life makes losing life easier to understand … “

I know this is starting to seem like a dog blog and I promise I’ll talk about something else someday … but for now I have some exciting news!

After we lost Maddie we knew we wanted to get another dog sooner than later. With the exception of finding places for them to stay when we travel, having two dogs is no harder for us than having one. And it’s a lot of fun. I’d have ten dogs if I could but unfortunately there’s only room in the car for two!

We started talking about getting a dog almost immediately after we lost Maddie and started visiting shelters just a couple days later. I know that may seem unthinkable to some people but for us it felt totally right. No dog will ever replace Maddie – but we definitely had room in our lives and our hearts for another pup.

So we started looking and, to be honest, we didn’t have much luck. I love ALL dogs but we had some pretty specific things we wanted in our next dog. We wanted something a little smaller (not because we don’t love big dogs but because there is literally no more room in the backseat of our car!) and around a year old. We wanted a dog that was sweet and friendly and super healthy. It needed to be good with kids and other dogs and have the type of personality and energy levels that would make it a good hiking, running, and riding partner. Some day I won’t be nearly this picky when it comes to choosing new family members but for now, this is what our life requires.

I went to all the local shelters (some of them multiple times) and stopped at a couple rescue events and while I saw tons and tons of sweet dogs I didn’t see anyone that came close to what we were looking for. It was ok – we were wiling to wait – but I quickly realized that this was going to be harder than just walking into a shelter and finding the perfect pup. We weren’t looking for either of our other two when we found them – it just kind of happened – so this was all new to us.

To make things even tougher, the shelters here, especially our local one, have extremely high adoption rates. This is obviously a VERY good problem to have but it also makes it hard to adopt. I would see a dog online, go to the shelter, and find out it was already on hold or adopted.

So on Saturday night my husband, being the nerdy nerd he is, wrote a program (you can read about it here) that would track the shelter’s website and send updates to our phone whenever a dog was added. I thought this was ridiculous but I humored him anyway – whatever keeps him happy, right?

Yesterday morning Josh and the kiddo were out riding bikes on the sidewalk and I was working on an expansion to the chicken coop in the backyard. My phone beeped at me and I saw a notification that a one year old Australian Kelpie mix had been listed at the shelter. Josh saw it at the same time. I went to chase him down and as soon as I saw him he said “Go. NOW!”.

Twenty minutes after the listing went up I was begging the woman at the desk to meet him. By the time our thirty minute meet and greet (which the rest of the family joined us for once everyone was dressed and at the shelter!) was over, there were already two other families waiting in line to meet him. If we had been ten minutes later it would have been too late. We put a hold on him, went home to get our Spotty dog so THEY could meet, and the rest is history.

Cash was his name at the shelter and we are going to keep it because it fits him so well. He is a year old, forty-five pounds, and full of energy. He’s also sweet and super cuddly. We spent the evening playing in the backyard and then he curled up on the couch and snored away while we watched TV. Last night he slept in our bed, snuggled up against me with his head on the pillow. I am in love.

This guy is going to keep us on our toes for sure and we have some bad habits (like jumping on people) that we need to break but he seems like an amazing fit for our family. He is SO happy and friendly. He’s getting along really well with Spotty and is AMAZING with our three-year old. This morning he got a much needed bath, ran errands with me, and then tagged along when I picked up the kiddo rom preschool – where he was a total hit. The kids loved all over him and he was a perfect gentleman. We’re going to have a blast together.

It may seem like we jumped into getting another dog faster than we should have but we all felt ready and having Cash here just feels so right. These are happy days and I’m excited for what the future holds. This guy has adventure written all over him!

He was obviously thrilled about his spa day. ;)

Waiting for his human to be done with school.

Live, Play, Travel

Every Kid in a Park and the Fight to Get Kids Outside

September 15, 2015
meoehike2

 

If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you know that getting families and kids outside is a passion of mine. I abhor the idea that an outdoorsy life has to end when a child enters the family. I believe that getting outside with your kids is not only possible – it’s essential.

Nature Deficit Disorder became a buzzword in the outdoor community back in 2005 when Richard Louv’s fantastic book Last Child in the Woods hit the New York Times’ bestseller list. Louv argues that, as children spend less time outside, emotional and behavioral problems begin to rise. It’s an interesting argument. I’m not a psychologist and I have no idea whether or not a lack of access to nature causes things like Attention Deficit Disorder. I’m not going to touch that with a ten foot pole.

I will, however, wholeheartedly get on board with the idea that access to the outdoors is a vital part of childhood (and adulthood, really).

 

Happy dad, happy kid. Rocky Mountain National Park.

Children learn by doing. They learn by getting their hands (and probably everything else) dirty. They need to have spaces and places to let their imaginations, and their tiny little bodies, run wild. They need fresh air and movement and the chance to explore a world that feels new and untouched (even if it only feels that way to them).

Fortunately, I’m not the only one who feels that way.

This year the White House rolled out a new program called Every Kid in a Park, granting 4th graders all across the U.S. unlimited access to federal lands for the next academic year. National parks? National monuments? National Pretty-Much-Anything? They’re all free for fourth graders.

Do you think the kids are excited?

I’ve talked before about the barriers that keep the current crop of kids from spending as much time outside as their parents but one of the things that I didn’t mention is the financial aspect. Visiting National Parks can be expensive. Starting next month, a visit to Arches National Park will cost you a whopping $25 per vehicle and other places are similarly priced. This may not sound like much if we’re talking about one visit to one Park, but if we want kids to have regular access to these special places (which we do, right?), the cost goes up significantly.

I certainly don’t think that taking kids to the big parks is the only way to get them to care about nature but I do think that it’s a step in the right direction. And if it gets parents motivated to take their kids to see some of our most treasured landmarks? So much the better.

Today’s youth have a lot of things vying for their attention – thanks to the Every Kid in a Park program for giving nature a fighting chance.

For more information or to get a pass for your fourth grader, please check out everykidinapark.gov!