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Play Again: What Happens When Kids Lose A Healthy Connection to Nature?

The average American child now spends more than seven hours a day in front of a screen —playing video games, watching TV, surfing the Internet, texting friends via cell phone—and the loss of contact with the natural world has implications not only for the well-being of the child but also for the future of the environment.

That’s the message in the documentary film Play Again, which screened 9 June at AAAS under the auspices of the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships program.

The film shows how the landscape of childhood has changed in the age of digital media and mass advertising, where even very young children can identify dozens of corporate logos but are unable to name common flowers in their own backyards. Shown a picture of a white puff ball, several young children in the film call it a “wish flower” but are unable to name the omnipresent dandelion.

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View the video story on Play Again including an interview with Meg Merrill, the film’s producer.

“The disconnection from the natural world is having a tremendous impact on kids’ learning,” said Meg Merrill, the film’s producer. She talked about her work in an interview and in response to audience questions after the screening. The film premiered a year ago at the International Environmental Film Festival in Barcelona, Spain, where it won a jury award for best documentary.

While there is a need for further research, Merrill said, studies suggest that regular exposure to the natural world decreases stress while increasing concentration, learning and general well-being. The disconnection from the natural world, she said, is “having a tremendous impact on children’s learning and preparation for the real world later on in their lives.”

Merrill, a social worker by training and the mother of a 10-year-old and a 13-year-old, said she was immersed in nature as a child and felt strongly about the need to explore the changed world her children and those in the film now confront.

“It’s common sense,” Merrill said. “We know we need nature…. It needs to be part of our kids’ daily lives at home, in their communities and in their schools” and “not just something we do for a week in the summer.”

“Young people today spend the least amount of time outdoors of any generation in history,” Canadian geneticist David Suzuki says in the film. Youths may have online access to huge amounts of information in the virtual world, he said, but something is missing. “Anything you want is all there,” Suzuki said, “except the real world.”

At the heart of the film are the experiences of six teenagers from the Portland, Oregon, area who spend four days at a camp in the wilderness. For most, it was the first time they had ever been without the comforts of home and their usual immersion in electronic media. As they grapple with how to pitch a tent, make a fire and maneuver over rough terrain, the teens learn cooperation skills and start to form friendships that go beyond the constraints of online social media.

“It is nice to talk to somebody in person,” admits Taylor Blake, one of the campers who said she often sends 300 or more text messages a day. Aleks Hittle, a dedicated video gamer, drew laughter from the AAAS viewers when he noted that “when you’re outside, it’s so much more realistic.”

With the mandatory holiday from screen time comes moments of genuine self-awareness. Justin Zon, who was 15 at the time, said his use of video games was like a drug. “It was addicting,” he said. “It was kind of actually destroying me from the inside.”

Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Memory and Aging Research Center, offers some scientific support for Zon’s conclusion. When a youth spends time on repetitive mental tasks, as in video gaming, the neural circuits in the brain are strengthened and reinforced “like an addiction,” Small says in the film. The young brain is particularly sensitive to such exposures, he said.

After their wilderness experience, the teens were asked to continue their media “fast.” Two immediately went back to their screens and the others had varying degrees of success. Still, most of them have either cut back significantly on screen time or are making different choices on how they use screens, Merrill said.

Meg Merrill

“I’m not against technology,” Merrill said. “I just spent five years sitting behind my computer making a film about how important it is to go outside.” But she said reliance on screen technology “comes with a price and we are starting to see the consequences of that.

“In order to live truly fulfilling, spiritual, emotional, psychological and physical lives, we need nature.”

Having a connection to nature also has consequences for the future of the environment, Merrill said. Unless children learn to value nature, she said, they will not care enough to protect it from degradation.

Many science educators are committed to getting children outside for hands-on, experiential learning, Merrill said. Diane Levin, a professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston, notes in the film that “children, especially young children, are concrete learners. They learn best from touching, doing, feeling, controlling, mastering.” As more and more of their experience is virtual, she said, “the foundation that they need for all later development gets undermined.”

More school districts need to find ways to integrate nature into the regular classroom program, Merrill said, although she acknowledged the need for technology as one tool—but not the only one—for classroom learning. She expressed concern that some educators want to significantly increase the amount of screen time in the classroom, even for very young children.

“We don’t know the impact that screen technology is having,” Merrill said, but research is underway and educators need to take the possible risks seriously as they integrate technology into the classroom. “At some point, the content and how we are using technology becomes less and less relevant because of what we’re missing when we’re behind screens.”