Monday, June 1, 2015

Screen Time and Nature Play: Both Together Will Save the World

You have no doubt read that kids these days spend too much time on screens, and too little time outdoors. Articles and books arguing the evils of screen time quote studies linking screen time to obesity and diabetes as well as depression and lack of vitamin D (which can lead to cancer).

Then there are the equally compelling articles and blogs that posit that playing computer games is actually really good for our children. They learn hand-eye coordination, three-dimensional design, problem solving, and even social skills. They are exposed to math concepts, story arcs, and consequences. 

Which perspective is to be believed? I think it's both. Kids benefit greatly from screen time, and they need to also spend lots of quality time in nature. 

I suspect that the problems of screen time arise not from the computer or TV itself, but from circumstances outside the screen bubble, like poor nutrition and lack of attention from caregivers. I also sense that the debate - too much screen time? too little nature time? too much testing? - about what kids should really be doing with their time has more to do with our adult compulsion to control things than about kids themselves. The fact is, we cannot control the future. Sure, we can give our kids good nutrition, and that will give them a huge leg up in future health. We can make sure they learn to read, speak clearly and assertively, and perform math skills so that they can  follow whatever field they wish. But we don't know what jobs will exist in the future. We don't know what discoveries and experiences they will have that will lead them into a certain field. We also don't know what the changing planet will mean for them, although we have some ideas.

Climate change is here, as evidenced by crazy weather, acidifying seas, and melting ice caps. Because we refuse to turn off the CO2 machine, it's only going to get worse (and in fact, even turning off the machine wouldn't help for 100s of years, as we've already crossed the threshold of CO2 levels in the atmosphere). This is one reason why it is imperative that kids get to know the natural world. "If sustainability depends on transforming the human relationship with nature, the present day gap between kids and nature emerges as one of the greatest and most overlooked crises of our time, threatening people and countless other species. Helping children fall in love with nature deserves to be a top national priority, on par with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving species and wild places," writes Scott Sampson in How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. 

But, consider the skills a child learns while exploring biomes in Minecraft, building houses and fighting zombies. She learns, in short, to craft and defend a world. She learns to keep trying when she is doomed. She learns to ask questions about how to solve problems, and learns how to find answers to those questions. These skills will help our children save our warming planet or learn to adapt to it just as much as a love of nature will. 

So I encourage parents, educators, and policy makers to stop arguing about the evils of screen time and whining about how little time kids get outside, and seek a powerful balance. Take kids outside. Let them use the same skills they so love in video games as they explore, question, and discover. Give them time to fall in love with nature. Then encourage them to do the same on a computer. What they create will go beyond anything we as adults could try to craft or force through their carefully controlled educations.

I believe it will be young people who love nature and are really skilled at well-created video games who will create technologies, policies, and plans that will bring our species into the next phase of human life on Earth, one that responds to the changing planet in a positive way. We can support them in this by bringing them outside and supporting their love of technology. It isn't an either/or situation, it's both-and. Nature and technology, engineering and love. 

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