Play Again: A Childhood Removed From Nature

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Take a look around. You see it on television “family plan” cell phone commercials or those for the latest video games. It’s evident at any social gathering of teenagers, their fingers flying on their cell phone keypads in a dizzying flurry of texting. It’s even present in elementary and middle schools. There is certainly no lack of evidence that children seem to be living more in the virtual world than in the natural one. There are studies, books and websites devoted to the topic. I blogged last fall about elementary school children’s growing disconnection with nature in “Willow’s Disappearance, Is Nature Outdated?” after learning of the Oxford Jr. Dictionary’s elimination of nature words. I recently went to a community screening of a film that takes it to the next age level.

The film “Play Again” focuses on the disconnection between teenagers and nature, following a group of teens has they leave their virtual world to spend time in a wilderness camp. This award winning documentary is told through the voices of the children as they participate in, what is for some of them, their first real experience in nature. Commentary by leading environmentalists, educators, and sociologists accompanies the sometimes humorous, sometimes emotional responses of the teens after they become “unplugged.” Visually stunning, as well as at times shocking, it’s one of the most moving documentaries I’ve seen in a long time.

The statistics are disturbing: Today’s children spend 90% of their time indoors. The average American child spends five to fifteen hours a day behind a screen, whether it’s a computer, television, or cell phone. One generation from now, most people in the U.S. will have spent more time in the virtual world than in nature. “Human history seems grounded in defeating natural challenges”, one teen in the film said, “being connected to nature, feeling tied to it in some way, just doesn’t seem essential.” Some of the children interviewed viewed the virtual world as being more real than the natural one.

Kids are constantly bombarded with images on television and computers. Corporations, it seems, are taking over childhood. Some researchers believe there is a direct link between consumerism and environmental collapse. A scene early in the documentary shows young children shouting out “X-Box,” “Target,” and “Nickelodeon” when shown those logos, but stammering and having a difficult time identifying a dandelion.

Meg Merrill, the film’s producer, said the idea for the film came from a similar study in which children tested could recognize hundreds of corporate logos, but less than 10 plants from their own backyards. It was in an ironic twist that following the screening of a film about the changing balance between the virtual and natural worlds, we were able to visit with Ms. Merrill via a live web conference. It was pretty neat. It’s no doubt our lives are enriched by technology. Any information we desire is just a click away. We are able to have social encounters on a daily basis with people from places we’ve never even been. The world is virtually at our fingertips. But there has to be a balance between the time spend on-line and in nature, and right now it seems the scales are tipped in favor of technology.

It’s not just teenagers that are plugged in to the virtual world and becoming tuned out to the natural one; all age groups are affected. Interestingly, adults in their late 30s and early 40s spend just as much time behind a screen as does the average teenager. Social networks are used by people aged 35 to 44 more than any other age group; 64% of Twitter users are 35 and older; 61% who use Facebook fall into the same age category, and the average age of a MySpace user is 31. The problem not only impacts our children, it affects our society, and eventually, will affect our planet.

Maybe you don’t think the problem concerns you because you don’t have kids, or your children and grandchildren are grown. Maybe your kids are some of the lucky ones who have an opportunity to experience nature everyday. But think about this next time you see a teenager: the future of the world’s environment is in his hands, and how can he care for it if his hands are too busy texting? Will a child respect nature if she doesn’t experience it? Once they grow up, how will they teach their children to respect the environment if they don’t respect it themselves? Charles Jordan of the Conservation Fund made a statement in the film that struck me as particularly powerful. “What they will not value, they will not protect, and what they will not protect, they will lose.”

It might seem like a bleak diagnosis. “Play Again” does not suggest that the answer is severing our children’s electrical umbilical cords and whisking them away to the wilderness. It can sometimes be a simple thing, liking eating outdoors, that encourages them to notice their natural surroundings. There are as many ways to get kids involved in nature as there are ways they find to entertain themselves in the virtual world. A Boy Scout trip to the farm, a Bring Your Backyard Chickens to School Day (an hour may be more like it), high-school volunteers working in a community garden, taking a Girl Scout troop on a photography hike through the woods, or volunteering to read your grandchild’s class a book on nature in an outdoor setting are all ways fairly easy ways to reconnect children with the natural world.

Yes, it takes some effort to get involved. But what are the consequences if we don’t? What are your ideas? How do you and your children stay connected to nature?

“Play Again” Check out their website to view a trailer of the film or for information on how to arrange a community screening. This is definitely a film worth watching.