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home : education : schools May 26, 2018

5/8/2018 1:17:00 PM
Setting up kids for digital addiction
Aksel and Daniel Slotnaes jump over creeks and climb fallen logs at Cold Springs Campground near Sisters on May Day. Studies show that kids who spend time in nature are smarter, more attentive, and less anxious. photo T. Lee Brown
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Aksel and Daniel Slotnaes jump over creeks and climb fallen logs at Cold Springs Campground near Sisters on May Day. Studies show that kids who spend time in nature are smarter, more attentive, and less anxious. photo T. Lee Brown

Nature: The planetís best classroom
Prominent technologists from companies such as Facebook, Apple, and Google are learning to curb their own gadget habits. Nowadays, many of them speak out against the technology they helped create-and they don't want their children getting sucked into it. They send their kids to elite Silicon Valley schools that don't allow iPhones, iPads, or laptops.

Here in Sisters Country, most kids still spend the bulk of their school time indoors. Several public school programs and a new crop of summer day-camps help fill the need for nature-based, off-screen education.

Black Butte School

Camp Sherman's tiny school district contains just one school. It's usually filled with fewer than 30 students, divided into two classrooms. "We've always had a program of getting the kids outdoors," says Daniel Petke, school board chair. "They're on a field trip once a week, every week." Since the 1970s, students have gone skiing at nearby Hoodoo eight to 10 Fridays a year.

Head teacher Delaney Sharp came on board three years ago, bringing with him an ethic of environmental awareness and years of experience teaching outdoor school, skiing, and social studies. Kids do field studies on the Metolius River and at the fish hatchery, and learn to swim. There is a waiting list for out-of-district transfers, but all Camp Sherman residents are eligible to enroll.

Wildheart Nature School

The founders of Wildheart Nature School in Bend recognize the benefits of connecting with the woods on a more consistent, long-term basis. Their summer and spring-break camps often sell out; they also offer programs that stretch out over a series of weeks, with specialized programming for preteens and for homeschoolers of all religious backgrounds.

"We are really lucky to live in a region with a lot of access to nature!" says Amara Dreamer, program director. "There is a difference, however, between nature recreation and deep nature connection. I believe the reason our program has been so successful is because we tap into the realm of childhood passions such as fantasy worlds, hiding games, and hands-on creations as we are exploring and communing with the natural world."


Interim Director Kris Harwell of Sisters Park & Recreation District reached out to community members this spring. One message she heard: our kids need more than daycare and sports. They need nature-based opportunities and inspiring enrichment programs. In that spirit, SPRD will host Earth Keeper Adventure Camps for grades 1-5 this summer. Students will experience nature, explore local plants and animals, and learn to become stewards of the earth. Originally launched for one season in 2012, the program was developed by local resident Jen Binks.

In July, SPRD will host the inaugural Jim Anderson Science Camp, supported by Friends of the Sisters Library. The camp will use both indoor and outdoor learning components, for grades 4 to 6. Professionals from the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and Discover Your Forest will teach, with guest appearances by Jim Anderson, Elise Wolf, and others. Also in July, SPRD's annual Survival Camp will educate ages 8-12, covering both survival skills and ancient living skills. Pre-registration is recommended for all SPRD programs; some drop-ins are available.

Sisters School District

Some students gain access to nature-based education through SSD. About one third of the public middle school's 8th-graders make it into ECoS (Earth, Community, Self), an "adventure-based outdoor-focused science community." Seasonal retreats and outdoor school supplement indoor learning for 5th- through 8th-graders, according to science and ECoS teacher Mike Geisen.

One group of juniors at Sisters High School each year learns a wide variety of subjects-including stewardship, geology, and rock-climbing-through the rigorous Interdisciplinary Environmental Expedition program, known as I.E.E. Across town at Sisters Elementary, kindergarteners may be seen taking smolts to Whychus Creek (pictured) once a year. SES provides multiple outdoor recesses and occasional field trips for all grades. But the school does not offer significant outdoor or nature-based programming.

"It's a matter of staffing and scheduling. Tough to pull off," Geisen says. "But we're certainly working on many initiatives K-12 to get all kids outdoors and learning experientially."

Kids also learn through partner programs like The Upstream Project, led by Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and supported in part by The Roundhouse Foundation.


Realms, a middle school in Bend, takes an "EL" (formerly Expeditionary Learning) approach that brings kids into a strong sense of community, purpose, and engagement with the environment. Roger White, principal, writes that this approach is built upon two traditions: Outward Bound's focus on challenge, teamwork, service and compassion, and the Harvard Graduate School of Education's focus on active inquiry-based learning. Bend-La Pine residents jostle for a chance to enroll at this popular, public magnet school, originally formed as a charter. A Realms high school is currently launching.

By T. Lee Brown

Walk into the Sisters Library on a weekday afternoon, and you'll see people of all ages staring at screens. A recent visit found a gaggle of young boys gathered around computer monitors, whispering in excitement as they blew people up with their virtual tanks. One fired up a violent video game in the children's room, where toddlers were playing and younger kids reading. It's not just at the library, of course: after school, kids chill out in front of the TV at home or get on a Snapchat streak to wind down after an intense day of learning and socializing.

Where you won't find many kids? Out in nature. And that, according to experts, is a big problem.

Kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend their time indoors, according to research. They learn to think and solve problems better. Unstructured time in nature builds confidence, imagination, creativity, and a sense of responsibility. It encourages movement and the creation of a solid, inner sense of self. Spending time in nature combats depression and anxiety in all age groups, and can relieve ADHD symptoms.

Digital media and screen-use, on the other hand, are directly linked to negative outcomes.

"Research has demonstrated a linear relationship with social media use and increased rates of depression and anxiety," says Audry Van Houweling, founder of She Soars Psychiatry in Sisters, "especially among youth and adolescents."

In other words, the more often someone is tapping away on their phone or tablet, the more likely they are to get the blues. Recent fMRI brain scans show that playing violent games causes temporary but notable physiological changes in the brain, similar to brain scans of teens with sociopathic disorders.

So why do kids and grownups alike gravitate to our phones and screens? The answer is simple: design. Teams of well-paid engineers in Silicon Valley spend their hours developing new ways to magnetize users' attention-regardless of the cost to the users' health, relationships, and civic dialogue. Apps and devices are specifically designed to hook users into habitually checking notifications, playing games, and dropping into "rabbitholes" of content they didn't plan to view.

The pull-to-refresh mechanism in many apps provides a great example of how this technology sucks people in. Updating a screen with a downward-pull motion is unnecessary with today's tech, but companies still use it to increase their apps' addictive qualities. People respond to it like gamblers pulling a one-armed bandit's lever in a casino. They like pushing buttons. The engineer who designed it, Lorne Brichter, says, "I have two kids now and I regret every minute that I'm not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in."

Users are rewarded for compulsive behavior with points, "likes," and retweets, encouraging them to return over and over to the apps in question for a dopamine hit that buzzes the brain's pleasure center.

"Evidence suggests the same dopaminergic pathways that are activated with addictions such as gambling and substance-use are activated with ongoing digital device-use as well," explains Van Houweling. "This can create emotional highs and lows and literally withdrawals when digital devices are taken away or not available."

She adds that using digital media as a short-term "pacifier" for children causes long-term problems; parents need to learn to say no. "Too much time on digital devices can create the need for persistent mental stimulation," she says. "Slowing down to listen to the teacher, have a thoughtful conversation, be outside, and learning to be present can seem boring and may create symptoms of distractibility, inattentiveness, agitation, and restlessness."

Many people who work with families and kids are worried about today's technology, including Guy Winch, author of "How to Fix a Broken Heart." Speaking on the radio show "Note to Self," he recently said, "There is a highly, highly addictive side to social media... two 'highlys' precede the 'addictive;' that's how strongly I feel about it. When you give your child access to that, you are potentially setting them up for that addiction."

But there is hope. Winch noted that technology is a tool: "We can wield it in a very positive way-if we do it thoughtfully." Frazzled adults are questioning their own nonstop device-use. Tools are being created to help people better manage their social media and screen time. Nature programming is improving in our local area (see also "Nature: the Planet's Best Classroom," page 23). The result may be a healthier, brighter future for the children of Sisters Country and beyond.

This is Part 1 in a series. Tell us about your experiences with digital devices, social media, and time in nature. Email freelance writer

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