IPad? or "I Played!"
Like every modern parent, I struggle with screen-time. How much? When? What? How to control it? Ugh. It’s a thankless job I would not wish on anyone. How can I possibly compete with Minecraft?
What I look for more and more are ways to get my kids out of the house, unplugged from any screen at all and tuned in to something educational and memorable. Sure, I can drag them to the park and we can go around in circles on the concrete, but they do not really learn anything new and mostly they do not even remember that we went to the park the next day. Fortunately for us, we live in San Francisco and there are lots of opportunities to go outside and connect with nature. My favorite one, by far, is Slide Ranch in Marin County.
Slide Ranch's Sheep to Shawl Family Farm Day as the Antidote
On a recent weekend, we went to a Slide Ranch Family Farm Day to watch the first spring sheep shearing. When we got there, the teachers gathered us all around in a circle and introduced themselves and their farm names. Farm names are made up, and we all got the opportunity to make one up for ourselves. The teachers all had their real name plus a made-up farm name related to wool (i.e. Cathy Cardigan). So cute!
Then there was the conveyance of rules:
- Get dirty (at least a little). In fact, do it right now!
- Try something new.
- Have fun.
They delivered on all three points and so much more!
Sheep to Shawl Events
Yes, I can tell my kids all about sheep shearing and wool production in the US. But for my six-year-old twins this all means very little. For children it’s got to be right here, right now and "can I touch it and play with it? P-L-E-A-S-E!"
Blair, from Hidden Villa in the Santa Cruz mountains, sheared Xiao, Mule and Little Girl for an enormous quantity of wool - almost 20 lbs! Afterwards, Christie Collins and folks from Clemes and Clemes, showed participants how to use wooden carders, spinning wheels and drop spindles to turn raw wool into yarn. The Slide Ranch teachers taught finger knitting, felting and other wool crafts. The kids were mesmerized watching a strong, skilled person wrangle and shear a sheep in just a few minutes. Once the wool was shorn from the sheep, they passed around clumps of it for us feel and smell and play with. Y-E-S! This is exactly the kind of activity I had been looking for as a parent. (Take that, Minecraft!) It's an experience my kids will not forget two minutes after they go back to the iPads. Did they learn something valuable in the process, my husband asks? Yes, I think they did.
Kids + Animals = LOVE
As Patty Born Selly pointed out in a recent article for Natural Start Alliance, “adults . . . tend to value animals for what they can provide (food, leather, wool), or how they can serve us (as companions), [but] children tend to value animals simply because they are. Children recognize the intrinsic value of animals—that simply because they are living creatures, they are important.” It’s a very pure and touching emotion; you have to be there to get it. It’s just not available on YouTube!
A growing body of research shows that children who are supported in their love for animals tend to generalize that love to other living things, such as plants and nature. Research also shows that when children are encouraged to care for animals, they tend to be more sensitive and caring toward other people as well. "By supporting children’s love for animals," Selly writes, "you’re helping nurture those all-important feelings of connection and stewardship as well."
Little Risks = Big Rewards
As parents, we know the animals are safe for children to be around. Otherwise, Slide Ranch's staff would not let the public near them. But for children, it’s a big risk to go up to a sheep or a goat that is about their own size, but shaped and oriented very differently, and pet it or feed it and get up close to its teeth and tongue and let it eat out of their little hands. Being at Slide Ranch allows young visitors a rare opportunity to assess risk for themselves.
Play that includes risks has important learning outcomes for children. They become strong stakeholders in their own development. They show an increase in confidence and competence. They become independent and responsible for their own actions. They develop coping mechanisms, problem solving capabilities and transferable skills, which also increases their self-esteem and belief in themselves.
Children also develop a respect for danger, hazards and experimentation. We can add to these potential outcomes by looking for activities and opportunities to connect them to nature and the outdoor environment.
Kids in nature are healthier
Most children in the US dwell in inner city or suburban neighborhoods. Long gone are the days of playing out in the woods behind your house. In his best selling 2005 title, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Luov declared that nature deficit disorder among our children was a state of emergency.
In the 10 years since his book was published, we have seen more and more studies that show that "the more kids use digital media, the more their social skills decline.” A 2014 study published by UCLA professor Dr. Patricia Greenfield and some of her colleges found that “five days at an outdoor camp without screens improves pre-teen's skills with non-verbal emotion cues.”
So what’s a modern parent to do?
Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers. I can, however, from personal experience, recommend unplugging and going outdoors to do something worthwhile with your kids. If you are in the San Francisco Bay Area check out Slide Ranch. They will make your task much easier and more enjoyable. If you live elsewhere, you can check out Farm Stay US for nationwide opportunities.
Oh yeah, don’t forget to pack your wool sweaters. It gets chilly in Marin when the fog rolls in. Happy Ranching!
PS. When we came home, my daughter informed me that Minecraft has sheep and sheep shearing and yarn making. Huh! What will I do next?