During the current pandemic there is an increasing awareness of the benefits of taking children outside and into nature. We have long been aware of the benefits to our mental and physical well-being and now, with the added knowledge that the Covid virus is far less likely to spread outdoors, many families and schools have embraced regular time outside.
“There is mounting evidence that contact with nature has significant positive impacts on mental health, it is associated with reduced levels of stress — which also has huge ramifications for physical health, reduced levels of depression and anxiety, increased resilience, increased engagement with learning for children and adolescents otherwise disengaged from the education system, improved self-esteem and increased capacity to engage socially,”
Mardie Townsend, PhD, honorary professor at the School of Health and Social Development at Deakin University in Australia.
We now see far more families out walking, picnicking, riding scooters and spending time on the beach and in the bush. We see groups of children playing with each other, running, laughing, jumping, wrestling, collecting, and exploring. We see parents with their children building sandcastles and cubbies in our exciting outdoor spaces spending quality time together.
“Do you HAVE to do your work NOW?”
These were the sentiments expressed by a 4-year-old child as the adult glanced at their phone while playing in the forest. Their whole little body drooped as if defeated, and the excited spark left his eyes.
What about modern technology in our lives? What are the benefits and risks and how does technology impact our lives and those of our children? Technology is part of the modern world and handheld digital devices have only become abundantly popular since the 1990s. This means that the first children exposed to this form of technology are now in their late 20s and early 30s, too early really for us to know what the long-term risks and benefits of this technology are for our children and for future generations.
The problem is that with the convenience of small handheld digital devices, these have permeated every facet of our lives, we can’t function without our phone being within easy reach, we can’t resist checking them and of course responding immediately. They have ‘invaded’ all areas of our lives, many have become addicted and are filled with a sense of immediate urgency to share or respond. AND, many children now share this addiction modelled by well-intentioned adults, ask any parent who tries to take a device away or limit time on it and must deal with the fallout! Most adults can give you a 100 reasons why they have to have the phone on them at all times, how did we ever manage before 1970?
Today’s babies, toddlers and young children are immersed in this culture of handheld devices. In the supermarket we see toddlers in the shopping trolley highly engaged in a device, not engaging with the adult and losing the opportunity to together explore and discuss the groceries, smelling, feeling, tasting. In the restaurant many children (and very often adults) are immersed on their phones and iPads, a lost opportunity for eye contact, and having conversations with each other. And then young children out in nature with their families. A wonderful opportunity for healthy exercise and connecting to families, the outdoors and nature except for the young child strapped into the pushchair, eyes only on their device, very often with the adult wearing earplugs as they walk past a pelican, a bush in flower or a dog.
So many opportunities for adults and children to connect with each other are lost, the device has become a barrier to communication and connection. One of the most fundamental needs of all human beings is to feel a sense of connection to another human. In these examples there is no or limited connection between the adult and the child. The adult is physically present but is not mentally and emotionally connected to the child. In research we have seen that even small babies being breastfed by their mothers display altered brain patterns when the mother stops thinking about the baby they are feeding. Children from a very early age instinctively know when that close connection has been broken.
It is not easy in the stressed, fast paced and instantaneous world we live in. Adults only want the best for children, often this means healthy organic foods, good quality care and education, the best resources, protecting them from harm and hazards, doing without to give the children the best. These same adults may then expose young children to unlimited digital devices including TV as a coping strategy for themselves probably not realising the potential and long-term harm unintentionally caused.
Recommendations are that children under the age of 2 have no screen time apart from video-chatting, children 2 to 5 years have a maximum of 1 hour a day. “The widespread use of portable digital devices has been accompanied by a concomitant rise in the prevalence of physical and mental health issues in children.” (Maurer, Brian T. MS, PA-C; Taylor, Lloyd “Chip” PhD)(3.) According to other research placing a baby in front of a screen may impact a baby’s brain development (1.), cause speech and expressive language delays (2.) and may impact sleep.
When should we as adults put our foot down and say no to such technology? To intentionally create digital technology free zones or spaces to give everyone a break from the demands and sensory overload these bring.
Appropriate Technology Outdoors and in Nature
Why are we in these spaces? To connect with nature, to connect with the child, to exercise, to spend quality outdoor time with our children, to watch the birds, to build a cubby, to find bugs, to destress, to slow down, to build resilience, to have conversations and to engage with the gentle sensory opportunities the outdoors offers.
How do we achieve the above? Here we need to make the distinctions between modern digital technology, contemporary technology, and ancient technology. Technology is any tool that is used for a purpose and could include grinding stones, bow and arrows, hammers, saws, pencils, scooters, pushchairs, cameras, torches, lights, mobile phones and even the cutlery we use. There is of course a time and place for the appropriate use of each tool including the digital phone or iPad, the question is ‘what and when is appropriate?’
Fit for purpose and appropriate technology outdoors might be binoculars, digital camera, magnifying glasses, journal, drawing material, bicycle, spade, bucket, junior hacksaw, rope, tape measures.
Many modern phones now have a range of convenient tools such as cameras, measuring apps, magnifying apps and, of course, Google or Siri to find information. Why would we not just use these? The problem is that as soon as the phone comes out, children disengage from the outside world and focus on the device, the drive and desire to connect with digital technology takes over. Children also know that as soon as the adult has this device in their hand, they are no longer mentally connected to the child. That is what the child at the beginning of this blog was expressing, the despair felt with the device taking the adult away from the child, the device became more important than the child. Is this truly what we want children to feel and to believe?
A two-year-old brought me a found earthworm. “Wow, you found something very interesting! I wonder what it is?” I expected the child to think and express a thought but instead got “Google it.”! This made me so sad, does this mean we now have a generation of children who are unable to think for themselves, children who want to be told the answer instead of being able hypothesize, to theorise, to predict and to problem solve? Children who are unable to think scientifically.
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”
― Rachel Carson
What if we left the device out of sight (leaving it in the building might be pushing it for most adults) and together with the children we wondered about exciting finds, what they look, feel, smell, sound like, where they could have come from, where they may live, what they might do, what they might eat, do they look like something else. Look closely with a magnifying glass, draw it, photograph with a simple digital camera and then much, much later, confirm what it is in a reference book or an online device, if necessary. The connection you build with the child and the mentoring on thinking is invaluable. The positive memories the adult and child build through shared wonder, interests and connections will last a lifetime.
The feelings quoted by the child at the beginning were taken very seriously by the adult, the late Erin Kenny, founder of Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon Island, USA. She immediately implemented guidelines including no mobile phones were to be used or even looked at while connecting with the children in their play and learning. A vibrating phone may only be glanced at when the adult has an appropriate opportunity to move away and out of sight behind a tree, and only in an emergency, if an immediate response is needed, may the adult move further away to respond.
A powerful message to all, children need us to be there for them, to connect, to show that we as adults value them, their thoughts, their ideas, and their company. Try and increase the digital technology free zones, switch the TV off when not watching, no digital technology in the bedrooms, no devices during meals, no devices during any quality time adults spend with children. Nothing can be more important than the mental and physical health and well-being of ourselves and our children not just now but for the future.
International Educational Consultant
Natural Learning Educational Consultancy
1. Associations Between Screen-Based Media Use and Brain White Matter Integrity in Preschool-Aged Children John S. Hutton, MS, MD1,2; Jonathan Dudley, PhD2,3; Tzipi Horowitz-Kraus, PhD1,2,3,4; et alTom DeWitt, MD1,2; Scott K. Holland, PhD2,3,5
Author Affiliations Article Information JAMA Pediatr. 2020;174(1):e193869. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.3869
2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Handheld screen time linked with speech delays in young children : May 4, 2017
3. The widespread use of portable digital devices has been accompanied by a concomitant rise in the prevalence of physical and mental health issues in children. (Maurer, Brian T. MS, PA-C; Taylor, Lloyd “Chip” PhD The effect of digital media on children in their formative years, Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants: May 2020 – Volume 33 – Issue 5 – p 46-51doi: 10.1097/01.JAA.0000660180.96512.70)