Ever since she was born, we’ve been taking our daughter out scrub. Sometimes in company with friends, and sometimes alone. While we’ve always loved being in the Great Outdoors by ourselves as a small family unit, hanging out with mates and their kids in the bush can be great fun too.
And it’s the kids that seem to get the most from it. Exploring around camp, building cubby houses from fallen branches, pulling mosquito larvae out of puddles with scoops and nets, and — in some cases — even showing each other their skills with a bow and arrow at the practice target butts during archery competitions.
It’s only in the last 18 months that our daughter has been old enough to fully engage in this back-to-basics play without direct adult supervision. And, as parents, Scott and I have been loving it. While it took me a little while to get comfortable with our littlest team member disappearing from camp for extended periods, it became clear pretty quickly that she’d developed sufficient situational awareness and maturity to maintain sensible boundaries and not to stray too far without checking in with a parent.
But, at a recent archery event camping with mates, I began to feel a rising unease that the era of kids’ self-directed nature-play may have ended.
All weekend, there was an insidious presence around camp. It gripped hold of toddlers and teens alike and held them captive in their camp chairs. Instead of chattering and laughing, more often there was silence. And instead of wondering where the children were all weekend, most of the time I was wondering why they were still hanging around within spitting distance of the campsite. As I watched, the sense of adventure seemed to be draining from these kids before my eyes. And as the weekend progressed, the problem appeared to get worse as some parents abandoned any pretence of concern about what was going on.
Of course you already know what I’m talking about. Kids seemed drawn to their digital devices like moths to a flame. While the campfire crackled, I watched their faces glow blue from the reflected light of their digital displays, and their expressions turn zombie-like as they focused intently on whatever game they were playing. And I saw their parents doing nothing about it. Indeed, some of them seemed to be spending almost as much time on their devices as the kids.
At first, the situation simply left me wondering why some of these people had bothered to leave home in the first place. But then I started to get annoyed after my daughter sidled up to me to ask if she too could play a game on my phone. Feeling left out of the dominant social behavior around camp, my ‘bush-kid’ was (not surprisingly) looking for a way to fit in.
So, when was it that kids stopped getting grubby and running amok in the bush? Was my recent experience an isolated case — or is the same thing happening all over campsites across this great country of ours? Will we never again turn up to a camp to find a group of kids running around and eager for our daughter to join them in their bush adventures?
I sincerely hope not. I know that, on big road trips, meeting new kids has always been a highlight for our daughter. In some cases, she’s begged us to stay at a location longer than planned so that she could continue to play with her new friends. In other cases, we’ve been spurred on by her to drive further than we intended when a planned layover has failed to produce signs of fellow youngsters. In all cases, the social interaction and enjoyment that these experiences have brought her have reinforced the value of an outdoors lifestyle. And it has instilled in her an appreciation for her natural environment that I hope will last her a lifetime.
Happily, on our recent weekend away, I didn’t have to work too hard to divert my daughter’s attention from the techno-dependency around camp. Getting up one morning to find that her peers were already hunkered down with their devices, she set off to see whether she could help the event organisers make breakfast at the camp kitchen. And with the prospect of ten cents each for recycled bottles, she was frequently up to her elbows in rubber gloves asking fellow campers if they could spare their empties. There were also occasions when, wondering where she’d gone, I spied her at the practice butts firing arrows down range. It’s just a pity she was doing it solely in the company of adults.
In my mind, technology should be an enabler for an outdoor lifestyle, not a substitute for it. And a campsite is a place to explore everything that nature has to offer. I just hope that I’m not becoming a societal dinosaur for thinking this way.