Tuesday, June 26, 2012

When technology and nature meet

Occasionally I get comments on my blog about "kids these days" out in nature with their DVD players, video games and i-Pods.  I'm not sure if the criticism is aimed at the parents, the children or the generation in which we live. Either way, this is apparently some sort of hot topic I thought I'd attempt to at least start conversation on.

I've always taken the stand that a happy child makes for a happy family.  If Junior is grumpy - everybody is grumpy!  If you don't believe me, try taking a five hour road trip with a baby who screams for most of it!  We parents become pretty adept at doing whatever it takes to ensure that our children are entertained and in good spirits for the sanity of everybody involved.  I myself have done things I swore I'd never do in the name of preserving peace and quiet.  I allow my son to watch movies on long road trips.  I give him my i-Phone when we're shopping or waiting for our food to arrive in a restaurant.  I also bring a portable DVD player on camping trips.  (your cue to stop reading if you think this should be the 11th commandment - Thou shalt not bring technology into the backcountry!)

I'm one of those people who don't really see life in black and white.  I can list the things on one hand that I think are always wrong or bad.   I try to look at the circumstances behind the scenes instead of judging people who might make different choices than I would.  That child who takes his Nintendo DS system with him and chooses to play video games rather than socializing with other kids might have mild autism and really struggle with social interaction.  The child who takes his portable DVD player camping might be one of those highly sensitive children that need a few creature comforts from home in order to feel safe and secure. For that child, their favourite TV show might be one of those comfort items at times when they're feeling overwhelmed.  Is it our place to judge the reasons parents bring gadgets into the backcountry?  Do we know the underlying reasons?

For me, kids using gadgets while camping, hiking, or out in nature isn't a given evil.  There are so many amazing things children can learn through the use of technology.  Take for example the new sport of geocaching.  Thanks to this educational activity, many people who would not normally be interested in hiking are heading to the wilderness in search of hidden treasures.  We haven't tried it yet but it's a brilliant concept and teaches children skills such as backcountry navigation and route finding.  In order to participate in geocaching though you'll need a GPS enabled device - in other words, your kids will have to use gadgets in the backcountry.

I have definitely seen the downside of kids having access to electronic gadgets and think caution is of course required.  I once watched a boy walk around the Calgary Zoo with a hand held video game system in his hands.  While walking!!  And instead of actually looking at the animals his parents brought him to see.  Seriously, I can't find anything positive to say about that as hard as I try not to judge.  For me it comes down to a couple of simple guidelines for families:

One - Safety

I know we all love our i-Pods but seriously, it isn't safe to ski or snowboard while listening to music.  You can't hear what is happening around you and I really don't feel safe if you can't hear me coming up along side.  I'd say the same for cycling while listening to music.  It's important that you connect with your surroundings in order to avoid collisions with other cyclists, hikers, and wildlife.  It's hard to know what's around the next corner if you can't hear anything.  Meanwhile, is it such a big deal if a toddler is listening to an i-Pod in their Chariot while mom or dad takes them out on the cross country ski trails?  Presuming the volume isn't cranked, if the child is happy, not screaming, not fussing, and letting you actually ski, I say - awesome, keep at it!  It's hard to keep kids happy in captivity and you do what you have to do.  Otherwise, I guess you leave them at home if gadgets bother you so much and you get a babysitter every weekend. 

Skiing with the kids

Two - Moderation

My child  is allowed to watch movies on road trips greater than 2 hours. Most day trips to the mountains are shorter than that and so we don't even pack the DVD player.  Does my son ask for it?  No.  Honestly he doesn't.  He knows it's a special treat and that it only comes out on the big trips so that we can all have some sanity.  Think of it from the kid's perspective - how boring is it to stare out the window of a car for 4 hours?  Even I bring a book or something to do.  My child is only 3 years old and can't exactly read his way through a book that whole time.  When we get to camp he is only allowed to watch a movie during his mid day quiet time or before bed if he's having troubles falling asleep.  This is after he has played in the creek, gone for at least one hike, maybe taken a swim in a lake and played at a beach, chased his friends around - and is totally exhausted!  He seriously needs a nap but since he fights those like the plague these days, we resort to other methods of keeping him in the tent quiet and resting.  We choose to let him watch a movie.  Maybe you have other things you choose.  Either way - should we really be judging each other?  We are all good parents trying to do our best.  It doesn't help when somebody says they'd never go camping with people like us because we bring gadgets. 

These days my son is quite content to fall asleep in the tent without a video and likes to read books but that wasn't the case a year ago.  He also sleeps in until 7am now which is a blessing.  Last summer he was waking up at 6am and I certainly wasn't getting up at that ungodly hour.  However, if there are problems going to sleep or he wakes up early, we know we can pull out that secret weapon - Barney!  Judge me or congratulate me for finding a way of sleeping in until 7:30 when camping.  Whatever.  You do what you've got to do to survive.  And if you really have a problem with it, please, come by my tent and offer to take my child for a morning hike at 7am.  I'll even give you my car keys to grab the cheerios from our food stash.

My son running off his last bit of energy before bed

I guess in summary I'd just like to say that if it's ok for adults to have gadgets in the backcountry or while camping, it has to be ok for kids.  Otherwise it's a double standard.  Below are just a few gadgets that most adults would agree are acceptable - and they aren't all educational or for the purposes of saving your life.  Many are purely for entertainment!
  • GPS enabled devices
  • Personal locator beacons
  • Avalanche beacons
  • Kindle Readers 
  • Headlamps (try using a candle on your next trip as you read your e-Books)
  • i-Pods (Ask a mountain guide how popular their use is on long mountaineering slogs)
  • Digital Cameras
  • Watches (complete with an alarm to wake you up for that alpine start)
  • Altimeters
  • Cycling Computers (to track your speed, distance, and trail stats)
  • LED lanterns
  • Pedometers
  • Heart Rate Monitors
  • Video cameras or helmet cams
Technology is here to stay and perhaps if a gadget or two make a trip a little bit easier, more comfortable, and even safer, I'm all for it.  The most important thing for me is actually seeing families out enjoying nature.  If a DVD player has to come along to make this happen - so be it.  If the children want a bit of music, let them have it.  It's a lonely hill to stand on looking down on the "those parents" who don't measure up to your standards of backcountry purity.

Beautiful kids enjoying the beautiful outdoors

However you do it - just get outside.

All  constructive feedback welcomePersonal attacks or non-constructive comments will be removed.


  1. Ah, well... moderation is the key I guess. We, personally, go camping to disconnect form city scaps and technology... somewhat, well, I bring my camera of course. Kids a re allowed to watch the DVD player during our road trip or, true, we'll be insane by the end of it. Long roadtrips I am talking about too. Last year we camped that DVD player never left the car while we were camping, not because adults did not let to take it out, there was just no need for it as there was so much to do no one ever had a need. This year I thought we'd may be take a tablet solely for bookreading at bedtime instead of hauling books, but then I see my kids (2 and 4 years) already start to be more addicted to technology than I want them to, so think we'll leave it all home. But also keep in mind that we have never been backpacking, and I remember your post about a backcountry lodge or hostel when someone complained, I thought you were very clever to bring a DVD. To cap it all up, my digital camera and DVDs for the car are what we usually bring. No music, no use for cell phones, no ipods, no GPS. It works for us and we never get bored. I not judging anyone bringing some technology but it does get me wondering why some people still come out to camp when they are so wrapped in all kind of gadgets they probably aren't aware they are outside of homes. To me connection to nature is important, and it takes a certain amounts of gadgets to loose it, and it's different for everyone.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment Ksenia. I agree that it's nice to go camping and disconnect. I leave my i-phone in the truck and we enjoy the peace/quiet of the campground. I imagine as my son gets older too, he'll need less down time and will be more able to keep going all day long. I have a full page of things I want to do this weekend on our camping trip. I often have to remind myself - give the kid a break, let him have a breather, give him quiet time. As soon as the afternoon tantrums begin I know I've pushed it and out come the books, movies, or whatever I can do to calm him down. Thanks to buying a bike, we now have another trick for down time. He loves riding in the Chariot while we go out for a ride. It's been a blessing.

  2. Hi,

    I agree with your post - technology is here to stay and it is all about moderation with our children. Here in Australia, it can take a long time to get from A to B, and anything that makes the car trip more quiet and peaceful, the happier we ALL will be upon arrival at our destination.

    Like you, DVDs in the car are only for trips of a certain distance - for us its over 4 hours. The children have learned to do other things in the car for trips of that duration including, iPads etc. But when we get to the destination or approaching new vistas, all that is put away so they can look up and see what is going on and where we are.

    Once we get camping, DS, iPods etc are allowed out at that time of night when I am preparing dinner and I want some peace and noone under foot. Only then. Some would say 'get the kids to help with dinner' - but I want to do it fast and with minimal fuss.

    But overall, when we camp, the technology the kids love at home so much, seems to be far less important and often forgotten in the excitement of all this outdoor space and adventures. And that is one reason why we love camping!

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Agree completely. We've been finding that this summer we have to resort to movies less and less each trip. One of the biggest things we've found that helps with this is camping with other families. If it's just the three of us, my son is more apt to get bored. When there's 4 other kids running around, he is entertained all day and chases them around. We also try to choose campgrounds that have interesting features for small kids. A creek for example is an amazing treasure when we find it!! We look for bike trails, hiking trails, playgrounds, and other amenities when we camp now and it's been a success in occupying the kids.

  3. I think you are so right in this post Tanya!
    We are not quite the same style of campers - our trailer has a flat screen TV and DVD player - and our trailer is permanently parked in an RV park - but we still have the choice to turn the TV on or not.

    Our kids have always been super early risers - 6:00am is normal - and 5:45am would not be unheard of while camping (just because they are so excited to be there), so what exactly do you do at 6:00am when it is still cold outside and Mom & Dad are both still tired because they want to have fun at night and not go to bed at 8:00pm with the kids?
    We bring movies along.

    Since our children are little, we don't have much else yet - just one Leapster - that usually comes along for the drive (4 hours one way) and sometimes gets played while she is winding down before bed.

    The way I see it is - at least you are out in nature. So many people rarely leave the city and if they do it is not into nature. And really, who am I to judge - I bring my iphone with me and have occasionally been known to check facebook....

    1. Thanks Jenny. I agree about "at least you are out in nature." I know a lot of people I wouldn't exactly consider outdoorsy but yet they love camping. It's something you can do on your own terms. If you want to be purist, you can tent. Otherwise, if you need to be more comfortable, you get a trailer or RV. I might choose to tent but I respect everybody who gets out - however they do it. Same with technology. We stick to a small portable DVD player just for our toddler but others have full satellite dishes. Wrong or right - they are still outside for at least parts of the day. Too many people never leave the city.

  4. I love the part about the "double standard" with parents/kids having technology in the great outdoors! We don't go into the woods without our gamins, digital cameras, and i-phones and I think it will be fun teaching my kiddo how to use a GPS (and how to read a real map too, of course!)

    1. yeah, every time I try to hold off on the DVD player in the car my husband is quick to remind me that - hey, you're surfing twitter right now. Don't you think he's bored too? We love playing games when we go camping and I can't wait for the day when down time will involve us all playing Uno or other fun games together. Snakes and ladders doesn't cut it for me. Also think it would be fun to get my son his own camera in the future and go on photo scavenger hunts. And geocaching will likely be something we try as well. Whatever it takes to raise a well rounded child who has fun outside.

  5. Tanya, great post! I especially like the part about judging and not knowing the whole story. I've gotten looks as we encourage our kids down the trail with a handful of skittles. What kind of parents are we, feeding them junk food like that?! What they don't know is that we already hiked 4 miles, we've pushed the kids harder than ever, and no, we don't feed them skittles everyday or even every week. A little sugar in the backcountry is allowed too!

    Anyways, I think this was well balanced and excellent. Our DVD player saves our butts on road trips. And Angry Birds has saved us a number of times at the crag or at numerous restaurants.

    1. Thanks Alyssa. I finally caved for our next camping trip and bought my son some of those little cereal boxes (fruit loops included!) It just seems easier for the first thing in the morning time when pancakes aren't ready yet. You do what you got to do.

  6. Great post! It is all about the kids, and what one kid needs is different from the next (and from the previous trip!)

    My husband and I are both nerdy/computer programmers/mathy people and when we had a little boy I pretty much freaked out about his risk of autism. I worry that time spent with technology and not human interaction is going to hurt his development as a clearly genetically predisposed child. So we've really scaled back on our own technology usage, and when it comes to camping and the outdoors, we work hard to keep the iPad and phones totally put away (an there's no tv or dvds in our trailer). This makes trips occasionally rough - we do have to have at least one adult get up at 5a and hang out with the kiddo outside while the other sleeps in (my husband is a saint). We all get grumpy when nap time is short and occasionally have evenings where the toddler runs wild and we are bad (resting) parents. And we have pretty much cut out long road trips all together.

    So, technology can make life better and easier and let you do more.... but it is still possible to get out without it.

    1. Thanks Kate. We try hard to focus on our kid's individual needs. He is highly sensitive and we really struggle with the down time when camping - hence movies, books with sound panels, and even a leap frog tag reader. I bring tons of books to read to him as well (you'll see photos of story time on many of my blog posts) but I draw the line at 20-30 minutes when my throat starts to get sore and my voice tired of reading.

  7. We carry an iPod touch for the boy... We've turned off the Internet access and loaded it with children's music and videos. He actually asks for it more in the city than on long road trips; I have an extensive repertoire of car games from my own childhood and he loves to watch scenery (his mother's son) but when he gets fractious, out it comes! When camping, though, it's use is limited to afternoon quiet time or to play his bedtime music. Yes, we get up at six...

    1. Seems to be a recurring theme Frances. Gadgets for car time, quiet time, and perhaps at other times in the tent or trailer. Meanwhile, during the rest of the day, kids should be out running around, exploring, hiking, swimming, etc. It would bother me to see a 10 year old playing video games all day long in a campground instead of playing with other kids. I admit that. It would also bother me if a group of kids chose to sit in a tent and watch a movie rather than go play in the creek. But moderation seems to be the key.

  8. Great post! We prefer to go as electronic free as we can. We don't want our kids to miss out on nature and outdoor adventures because their nose is buried in an Ipod.

    But, Tanya, I don't think anyone who follows your blog would think that your child is missing out on nature or an outdoor adventure!! You inspire Moms and their kids to get outside. And as moms, we each must do what is best for our families. Thanks for starting this discussion.

    And no matter how you feel about technology and the outdoors, we all can meet on common ground-- our love for the outdoors.

    1. Thanks Tiffany. Haven't seen this many comments on a post since... - can't remember actually. Well summarized comment. I wish more people would look for common ground.

  9. Thought provoking post. I must say that I am one of those parents who leaves the technology at home when we camp (I take my camera and the phone stays in the car for an emergency). But I do not in any way look down on those who do. I don't have some elitist backcountry purity standard that I hold others to. Everyone has their preferences and that's fine with me. But do I wonder why families cannot disconnect from their phones and i-pods even just for a weekend sometimes? Sure, I wonder why but then I figure, at least they are outside at the campground. As for kids being bored at times? Oh well, that's life! Time to get creative and learn how to entertain yourself when "there's nothing to do". To me, that is just an important lesson to learn in general.

    1. Glad you found it thought provoking. That was my intent. We don't all have to agree but I at least hoped everybody (myself included) could learn a little bit from the "other side of the fence" and maybe seek to understand the other side of the debate a bit.

      My thoughts on why people can't disconnect from phones and i-pods:
      1 - some people really like sharing their joy and new discoveries with others. Last weekend when we saw our campground I was so overwhelmed with how awesome it was that I seriously wanted to tell the whole world. I had no cell coverage but otherwise I would have been on twitter and facebook broadcasting my joy to the world. I don't think I'm alone here.

      2 - A lot of people like to share photos real time. If their child is doing something awesome, they want to take a quick photo on their phone and send it out to their friends at home. I guess it's a way of connecting with those you couldn't take with you. It's a social thing and not a technology thing. Last summer on vacation I'd often take photos and send them off on facebook so my brother would see them and show my mom.

      3 - Some people are really influenced by music in a positive way. It may calm them down, it may help them relax, fall asleep, or meditate even. Maybe they want to just to veg out in their tent with their fav. CD while they fall asleep. Myself, I've used my i-pod on long glacier slogs or ski trips in the backcountry because otherwise I wouldn't have had the motivation to continue. Kanye West's "Stronger" got me into one backcountry hut! I kid you not.

      Just a few thoughts - again to help people understand the other side.

      As for the bored thing, for many kids it isn't about being bored. It's about needing down time. My son is highly sensitive and gets overstimulated. After running around for hours on end, he needs to relax doing something quiet. Watching a quiet happy little video works the trick for him. For other kids I'm sure there are different tools that work to calm them down when they've reached that point.

  10. Before this post, I would have totally disagreed with taking any technology for camping for the purpose of (kids') entertainment. After reading your post however, I am reflecting on it big-time, b/c this made me realize that nature will not entertain a kid 24/7, much as I might try. Thanks for the post.

  11. Thanks for the post.I think this was well balanced and excellent. Our DVD player saves our butts on road trips. And Angry Birds has saved us a number of times at the crag or at numerous restaurants. I have 10 grandchildren. The 2 newest additions are twin boys who would love the Strider. They are 1 1/2 and it would be perfect for them. Good luck to everyone.

    1. Hi, I'm afraid there is no contest for a Strider bike on my blog at the moment. I'm not sure where the confusion came from but I'm sorry. Check back in a couple weeks because my Christmas gift guide will have lots of giveaways.

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