Tech Time vs. Wild Time for KidsPosted: 26 August, 2013
I have just returned from an 18-day trip with my 10 year old son in which we completed nearly 30 adventures. From Cumbria to the Shetland Islands, we have climbed mountains, jumped down gorges, slept on wild beaches and rescued a stranded sheep by sea kayak – all part of our Route 125 project with National Geographic and Toyota. Despite the wild nature of our explorations technology played a significant role in shaping our experiences – for both good and bad.
As a parent and educator (I make the distinction, but all parents are educators) I always struggled with finding the right balance between my son’s screen time vs other activities. While some children are deprived of ‘wild time’ connected to nature, so too are some children deprived of important ‘screen time’ to technology. Wild and screen time are often pitched against each other in a simplistic and dichotomised way, but the reality is far more complex.
Nature and technology can conflict, complement, supplement and/or converge in a multitude of different ways. During our micro-expedition, Minecraft on our iPad definitely distracted Seb to his detriment on a number of occasions. He had to be asked not to play while on ferries between Scottish islands in order to be forced to notice castles and wildlife, something he enjoyed but needed help to experience. While I am a great supporter of Minecraft and can see a wide range of creative possibilities for its use in the wild, my experience was that it often conflicted with the many alternative opportunities around us.
We also took a laptop with us that included a range of software. Seb used it to write stories, many of which were influenced by the people we met and places we visited. When we climbed Slieve Donnard (the highest mountain in Northern Ireland) we loaded up GarageBand, a piece of software for composing music. Inspired by the cold winds, menacing clouds and deep quarries we collaboratively created a piece of dark dance music. Both storytelling and musical composition have helped Seb to tune into places in a deeper way, helping him to think through, sense and make sense of the places we have explored. Without a doubt, these complimentary uses of technology have been highly rewarding.
We have also used technology to supplement our time in the wild. WhatsApp is an application for sending messages, holding group conversations, sharing locations, photos and videos. Being able to communicate with friends and family may not be essential to have a ‘wild time’ but being connected helped us to feel secure and grounded in place, helping us take comfort from knowing we could reach out to those close to us. Enjoying nature does not have to mean feeling emotionally remote, even if we are physically remote. SMS and phone calls fit into this category too.
Finally, we have used technologies that converge with the wild, dovetailing into what I call a kind ‘wildware’ that has inspired or supported our enjoyment of nature and wild places. GeoCaching, Mission:Explore and Wild Time are just three examples of applications, services and games that not only inspire ways to engage with nature, but also link us to a wider network of users that can offer a sense of community even when we are remote from or do not even know each other. In some cases these technologies can even record data such as wildlife sightings that can help conservation programmes and so nature itself.
Exploring is often boring and gruelling. Waiting for ferries or even climbing a mountain for hours can become dull especially for an active and youthful mind. When Seb and I climbed Ben Nevis we were taking breaks every 20 minutes until we started playing word ‘association’ and ‘listing’ games. Once these games started we walked for 90 minutes uphill without a break. The game may not have been ‘screen time’ but it was definitely a distraction from our surroundings and a myriad of learning opportunities. Playing Minecraft while waiting for a ferry may also have had a distracting effect, but Seb’s overall experience was improved because his boredom had been dealt with.
Some of the moments I struggled with most were when camping. Some nights we played cards (traditional use of time when sheltering from rain and wind) and some of the time we played JetPack (a game on the iPhone that involves JetPacking through a maze of mean things that want to hurt you). While the traditionalist in me wanted us to play more cards, feeling that the JetPack screen time was somehow ‘wrong’, we were still engaged in collaborative and shared game-play even if the interface and skills were different.
As a geographer all of these issues fascinate me. How we use technology not only changes how we make sense of and record places but also how we create them, experience them and construct them in our minds. When we pick the technologies to research, navigate and share places this inevitably shapes and filters how we sense and process the places we are discovering. Just like people, places have much to offer us. By thinking about what we want from our relationships with places before we visit them and considering the technologies best suited to facilitate these, we are far more likely to have positive experiences that meet our expectations.
While nature and technology often compete for attention, the reality is that they can complement, supplement and converge in extremely positive ways. Like sweets though, its the responsibility of adults to moderate how much of different kinds of screen time that children get (until they have learnt do this for themselves). We give Seb 30 minutes screen time a day (if he has done his ‘homework’) unless he earns more (by doing good things) or is doing something creative. In my mind the answer in the wild time vs. screen time debate is clear; it’s all about picking appropriate technologies and using them in moderation. What is appropriate and moderate will be different for every person, place and situation, something I need to continue to remember as we keep exploring as a family.