"What if all the electricity was off for a long time ... like in Japan after the tsunami?" I recently asked an assembly of fifth graders at a local Seattle school. "No cell phones, no computers -- could you survive?"
An unusual moment of hesitation from these bright children; they were gathered to hear about our new picture book, Leopard and Silkie, on how kids can volunteer to help protect seal pups on Seattle beaches.
"How would you do out there in the wild on your own?" I asked.
Then a hundred hands shot up.
"I'd go fishing," a boy shouted proudly.
"Got a fishing pole?" a little girl near him demanded.
The boy frowned, shaking his head. Already you could see gears in his head spinning about how to make a fishing pole. This was a highly creative school that placed a value on self-directed learning. Many of the kids had good ideas about how to forage or hunt. But at least half of the children didn't think they'd do too well on their own on the beach or in the woods without electricity.
"How much time to you spend outside versus inside on your screens?" I asked them.
The consensus was immediate and sobering: much more time on their computers and phones than playing outside. I was asking these questions because I'd just read this shocking statistic from the National Wildlife Federation: "The average American boy or girl spends just 4 to 7 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each day, and more than 7 hours each day in front of an electronic screen."
The NWF is advising parents to give their children one "Green Hour" a day to connect them to their natural world. The health benefits from playing with nature are well-documented: according to the NWF, playing outside eases stress, reduces obesity, raises levels of Vitamin D, offers protection from diabetes, heart disease, and helps reduce ADHD symptoms.
When our kids are in good shape, can run through the woods or along the beach like wild horses, can climb trees and build sand castles, and play pirates and build tree forts -- their play builds good health and survival skills. In a future of global warming, rising seas, monster storms, and climate change, teaching our kids how to survive in the wild, without electricity and electronics, might be the best gift we can offer them.
According to NWF, "children's stress levels fall within minutes of seeing green spaces." Playing in nature also increases student performance and encourages social interaction and self-esteem.
Recently, I witnessed another group of children discover and claim their outdoor survival skills in the old-growth trees on a national forest and biosphere in Blue River, Oregon. As a writer-in-residence at the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest, I spent a week studying this vital Long-Term Ecological Research Network (LTER) sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
Calling for owls at midnight, hearing research biologists explain why old-growth decay nurtures the whole forest, sharing stories of how to engage the next generations in conservation -- it was a fabulous reunion with the old trees and devoted scientists of the U.S. Forest Service.
But my favorite experience at the HJ Andrews Experimental forest, was tree-climbing with the schoolchildren. I don't mean scampering up a small pine tree together. I mean donning helmets, rock-climbing gear, and using all our muscles to cinch up inch-by-inch with ropes slung expertly over the wide limbs of a 500-year-old cedar. The 7th graders hefted their trim bodies up the mammoth tree with the expert guidance of adult climbers from Pacific Tree Climbing Institute.
One obese child and a terrified girl were left behind in the lower branches. The overweight boy was red-faced and humiliated as he hung from his harness. Swinging near him, the girl's "sewing machine legs" trembled in terror.
"Don't be afraid!" the other kids called down. There was no teasing or ridiculing, just communal support.
"You can do it!"
"Just lift up with your knees and then push up one step at a time," the Pacific Tree Climbing guide showed them the technique.
Very slowly, the boy lifted his heavy body up until he was much higher. His expression was pure joy and pride as he swayed above. His courage inspired the girl who suddenly got the hang of the rope and harness. In a burst of speed she climbed straight up. With the sudden grace of any primate, she joined the others in the canopy. Everyone cheered and hollered and hooted.
The kids climbed so far above me I could only see their colorful dangling legs and ropes high up in the old trees. Their chatter ceased as they listened to birdsong and squirrels and an eagle screeching by.
As I swayed below in the lower limbs, leaning way back on my rope to take in the dizzying heights and the kids above I couldn't help but think, They see much farther than I do. They are already in the future.
Our children can navigate the Web, and if we give them back their natural birthright, they can also navigate the woods and the beaches. One Green Hour a day -- maybe that's all it takes to restore not only our kids, but also our habitats.
There is no on-off switch in nature. All our senses are heightened and engaged. We are fully alive and present. We are confident survivors and eternal students. We remember that we are, after all, animals. Predator or prey. Or play.
More Resources: Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together, MIT Press.
Seal Sitters: http://www.sealsitters.org
Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author whose 17 books include the new picture book, Leopard and Silkie: One Boy's Quest to Save the Seal Pups. Her recent memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, was selected among "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor.