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The Oregonian: Kids need to unplug, commune with nature
Author: By Carrie Sturrock
Posted: May 28, 2010

http://blog.oregonlive.com/pdxgreen/2010/05/kids_needs_to_unplug_commune_w.html

Searching for four-leaf clovers.

Neighborhood games of kick the can.

Hopscotch.

So fun, so easy, so free-of-charge.

But our kids are out of the habit of playing outdoors. The average American child age 8-18 spends more than 7 hours daily in front of screens -- television, video games and cell phones, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

Oregon's lawmakers got so worried about it they passed legislation to create the No Oregon Child Left Inside task force in 2009 to develop an environmental literacy plan to help educators and parents get kids outside more. There's also a push at the federal level to create a fund to support environmental education.

It's a topic dear to many Portlanders. The new independent film "Play Again" had people sitting in the aisles to watch the documentary about six teenagers who unplugged for their first wilderness adventure, going with Portland-based TrackersNW into the wilds of Oregon.

The Norwegian-born director, Tonje Hessen Schei, who sends her two children to Sunnyside Environmental School, stitched together a disturbing portrait of childhood dominated by entertainment media. In one of the more jarring scenes, very small children readily identify corporate logos of Apple computers, Target and McDonalds, but when shown a dandelion puff ball, they struggle, tentatively suggesting "A wish flower?"

What does it mean when children don't experience and understand nature at a time when they're about to inherit some pretty serious environmental problems?

"Even living here in Portland, a beautiful, green city, I've been surprised at how kids aren't really playing outside and how they're supervised constantly and driven places by an adult," says Schei. "They're inside in front of the screens because we're afraid of letting them out."

She doesn't advocate allowing young children to freely roam the streets, but suggests that perhaps parents can find a better balance and ask themselves: when do we feel comfortable letting our kids out and how can we better assist them in getting outside?

The World Wildlife Federation suggests pitching a tent just steps from your door as part of the sixth annual Great American Backyard Campout June 26. Enjoying nature doesn't have to mean a state park or camping in the wilds. Backyards are great places to explore nature, especially in lush Oregon. I have two Douglas Firs, sage and bamboo in mine but there must be a dozen other plants I can't yet name.

In an upcoming report called "Whole Child" the Kaiser Federation explores the link between sedentary lifestyles and increases  in childhood obesity, ADHD and depression. It also touches on studies that show children who spend regular time outdoors do better academically.

"It really is an essential part of childhood for them to be given exposure to the outdoors," says Mary Burnette, associate director of communications for the foundation. Kids, she says, are extremely over scheduled after school with activities like band practice, cheer leading, soccer and debate club. And in the case of young children who can't be outside by themselves, Burnette said, sometimes parents do what's easiest and "plop them in front of the Wii."

Play Again doesn't condemn technology since Schei herself fully embraces her iPhone and computer and everything else she needs for her career. It's the amount of time children spend behind screens that concerns her. Like the teenagers in her documentary, some of whom spent more than half their waking time in front of screens.

Ashley Lindstedt, a seventh grader at Beaumont Middle School in Northeast Portland, considers her screen time pretty restricted. Her parents don't allow her to have an e-mail account or Facebook page and the only computer in the house is not in her room. But she texts roughly 500 times a month on her cell phone and watches some TV on the weekends and after finishing homework.

That's not insignificant, but I believe her when she says it pales compared to other kids at school. Ashley has never camped in the wild but she recently slept in a tent in a friend's backyard, much as the World Wildlife Federation suggests. She remembers waking up to the sound of birds, loving it.

Balance is key. The screens don't have to be abandoned completely but kids' experiences in nature need to be so engaging, they "won't need technology the way they need technology" now, says Dilafruz Williams, a Portland school board member and Portland State University professor who teaches a class on sustainability education and appeared in the film. She is working on a book about learning gardens that schools build curriculums around. Whether it's gardening or walking along the ocean, it's vital to explore the natural world and help children realize they're connected to it, she said.

In Play Again, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, says, "Television tells you 24 hours a day 'You're the most important thing in the world.' And the natural world tells you just the opposite: 'You're a small part of something very large, something beautiful, something orderly, something meaningful, but you're not the center of it. I think people after a little while if they get to spend some time in it find it deeply liberating to not have to be the center of everything."

Inspired by the documentary, I recently ventured into the rain with my daughters to try and identify the flowers in my neighbor's beautiful wild yard using a laminated guide buried in a drawer since I bought it more than a year ago. We found Western Bleeding Heart and harebells and foxglove. It started raining harder but the girls resisted my suggestion to go back inside. They wanted to figure out what the flowers were. It was the best rainy day activity I can remember.