Thursday, March 21, 2013

Mindful Parenting: Benefits of Getting Kids to Unplug

By John Dockendorf /Expert Outdoor Adventure Camp Director

A prevailing theme in American life today is that the more digitally connected we are,
the better off we are “supposed” to be. We all generally accept the rush to new and better digital technology and the pace of change is so fast, there is no framework to judge if ultimately our digital world is good or bad. In fact, it’s a giant “It depends.”

I was ready to challenge every positive assumption about the digital world as I watched my children on a clear but chilly February, Sunday afternoon. All four children were engrossed with a screen. Charlie, my youngest was playing Angry Birds on my I-phone. Ava was on the family computer playing games on a Nickelodeon website; Ella was watching Zoe 101 on TiVo; and Audrey, my oldest, had hijacked my iPad and was trying to set the family record on Subway Surfer.

Slipping into autocratic leadership mode, I took control of the lazy Sunday afternoon! “OK, we have 15 minutes to get ready. We are going for a hike. If you make it to the top of Big Glassy Peak, you will each get 25 minutes of iPad time when we return. (Always use rewards rather than punishments, child psychologists say.) Please wear the following items… and fill your water bottle. It’s going to be chilly—put on a hat and pack gloves in the backpack." The groans began. “Dad, why do we always have to hike? We hate hiking. No other parents make their kids hike as much as you do.”

The lure of 25 minutes of private iPad time proved to be a great motivator and we were soon at the trailhead. Nature began her magic immediately. Conversations that had once been rancorous and competitive eased into friendly and convivial ones. My kids started playing. A downed tree on the side of the trail became an angled balance beam. A stump became a jump off spot. A frozen spring on a rock at the summit became a mini luge slide. Mindsets shifted from competition to cooperation as they helped each other over the slippery ice. Everyone enjoyed the scenic view and the sweet treats from their personal snack bag (bribery can work as a wonderful reinforcement of desired behavior.)

Everyone had earned iPad time but no one was rushing to be done with the hike. Nature had worked her magic, again. We had had some great conversations uninterrupted by digital devices. My children’s faces had rosy glows and they were getting along (mostly) with each other. “I love hiking,” my five year old said with a smile as he looked over a 40 mile view. I smiled, knowing the next time I brought it up he would tell me how much he hated hiking!

Not all family hikes are this successful. With years of experience leading Adventure camps for teens and hiking all over the world, it’s relatively easy to lead my kids on a safe, fun and ultimately successful hike.

I thought I would offer some little tricks we use at Adventure Treks and at our summer camp, Camp Pinnacle that can help you increase the chances for success for your next family adventure outside.

  • First begin by understanding that in a world where kids’ frame of reference is the Harry Potter ride at Disney, a casual walk in the woods doesn’t pack the punch that a roller coaster can. Also remember that few people find walking uphill to be fun. A successful outing begins with embracing and overcoming the negatives.
  • Let your child bring a friend. In fact encourage it - It will make all the difference – often the promise of a friend coming turns a potential hike from a big negative to a small positive. I find my kids always behave better and are more eager to try new things with friends present.
  • Limit your scope –The epic adventure you have in mind may turn kids off to the outdoors forever. If in doubt, always hike less (especially with younger kids) rather than more. Just because you get out infrequently, don’t force your kids to “go big or go home!” Getting back to the car a little early is always better than hiking in the dark. Remember you are investing in the future!
  • Choose a destination when possible where there is something special. Unless your child is an inspired dendrologist, few kids find rewards from just walking. The incredible view, the striking waterfall, the special swimming hole, an old shelter or a blueberry patch all serve as a reminder that effort and reward are related. If your scenery is limited have a special treat or game planned for the midpoint and find ways to embellish the neat small things you see along the way.
  • Bring goody bags – My kids don’t get a lot of candy but we loosen the rules for the woods. Giving each child a small personal snack bag from which they can eat from and trade from at will works! It’s also a great emotional intelligence test. You can predict your kids’ future success simply by seeing who finishes their goody bag before the hike begins and who saves the best treats until the end!
  • Make the most of small opportunities and make use of nature’s play areas. Especially with young children, save time to play. Hold balance contests on logs, try and jump from rock to rock, cross a stream several times in different ways, and find stumps and natural ramps to jump off. Kids remember the time spent playing more fondly than the time spent hiking.
  • Have an arsenal of riddles, nature quizzes, word games and activities ready to make rest time along the trail fun. Games are also great filler when conversation runs thin! Never underestimate the power of a scavenger hunt and a little friendly sibling competition to add spark.
  • Whip out a special treat like a fireball when the hiking gets challenging. Distractions are good. The “heat” of the fireball will help kids “forget” the steepness of the trail!
  • Try to find a beautiful place along the trail, spread your kids out and give them a minute or two for reflective silence. Don’t overdo this or take it too seriously but it’s always nice to begin the habit of reflection in the outdoors. Small habits in youth pay benefits later.
I hope you can use some of these ideas to embellish your next family hike – the goal is to make time spent outdoors a family habit and keep it fun enough that they won’t argue too loudly when you want to go again!

John Dockendorf is the Executive Director of Adventure Treks, an outdoor adventure travel camp for teenagers and Camp Pinnacle, a North Carolina summer camp. Dockendorf has a master’s degree in Management from the Cornell School of Hotel Administration and serves on several school and community boards. He lives with his wife Jane and four kids in Flat Rock, NC

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