The nature of tweens: Wired worlds & outdoor ed


Update 2013: National Parks Traveler reports NPS is considering adding Wi-Fi. This is a classic point/counter-point debate in terms of perpetuating the disconnect with nature or ‘bridging’ worlds w/safety-GPS techno tethers as modern day carabiners.

Weigh in w/your thoughts? Here’s more from Children and Nature Network.

(Original Post 2006/Tweens and “Outdoor Ed”) Media’s accelerated expectations of ‘firsts’ floors me, whether it’s a Zack & Cody crush fest, a Hannah Montana preteen party or the media’s depiction of who’s doing what in middle school.

Rumor mills and shaky nerves aside, once kids get through the fact that it’s not a ‘mean girl free for all’ like a bad Disney movie or a gang-ridden hub of dangerous hoodlums that push around the newbies (like many YA book depictions) most settle into their new realities fairly well, fairly quickly.

Media fuels the pressure and peer-driven necessity to ‘blend’ or be chided for being different, so I really wonder why schools would add an extra layer of transition to an already disruptive time by tossing brand new students, teachers, and interpersonal dynamics together into a moshpit of ‘bonding’ and reframing it as ‘outdoor ed’ at the very beginning of 6th grade.

What’s up with that?

Many kids have never been away from home for more than a day or two, much less five days with strangers, so it seems odd that kids barely 11 are being yanked from family contact with butterflies in their tummies not wanting to ‘wimp out’ when most are still sleeping with nightlights and comfort items.

What’s the rush?

Is there a reason we’re pushing them to ‘experience’ so much so quickly and dial down this demographic to push them out of their comfort zone?

As an outdoorsy type, you’d think I’d be all over this with glowing approval instead of tsk-tsking the policy of a curriculum that inadvertently divides ‘haves and have nots’ based on cost factors of who ‘gets to go to the overnight’ and who stays at the day camp. Absurd. Not to mention they’re pre-empting kids’ agency altogether.

Since when did school move off campus as a mandate?

Much of my pushback comes from working so often with 5th graders for Shaping Youth, since it’s quite evident the angst level and buzz circulating around lunch tables at year’s end is nonstop regarding the huge transition to middle school.

Many were talking about this “outdoor ed” experience and whether or not they were going MONTHS ahead of time.

Taking the temperature of the peer climate this far in advance to get buy-in if they bolt from the norm is an unnecessary stress that little kids just don’t need.

“I want to stay in elementary school!” And “why do we have to even GO to middle school, I like it right here,” were some of the comments seeping out of the 5th grade playground chatter among closer friends when peer judgment was not at stake.


I talked to other parents and several psychologists about what this does to kids when we power past their reticent feelings with buck up bravado and make light of their plight as ‘come on, everyone’s going it’ll be fun.’

It wasn’t pretty.

The damage of ‘stuffing’ authenticity to go along with the crowd is completely counterintuitive to what we should be trying to teach kids in middle-school about peer pressure!

And yet, I’m told this is has been part of the California curriculum for quite some time and ‘most enjoy it immensely and never forget it.’ Okay. Well…

Why do we need such an emotionally charged litmus test of whether kids are ‘grown up’ enough to leave home for 5 days at the very start of middle-school?

Chances are, if they held this event at year’s END they wouldn’t have had 100+ kids uncomfortable (some terrified) about their ‘nature’ experience sniffling, “I just wanna go home.” To me, this is just common sense.

We’re pushing kids too early, too fast, too hard, too often to handle emotional contexts they may not be developmentally ready to endure.

I vowed that if my daughter voiced serious concerns or showed signs of distress on this outdoor ed thing, I’d opt out rather than force her into a volatile peer pack passing judgment on those who got homesick or labeling those less ready as ‘losers’ from the get-go.

Sure enough, she back-peddled on the whole concept:

“Why would I want to go to ‘outdoor ed’ with hundreds of kids I don’t know to eat bad food and live in a dorm? It’s like a longer version of last year’s gold country field trip.”

Point well taken. And this time they wanted $300 per child to attend.

So I kept to my word and decided to apply the same $300 toward a plane flight to the Rockies to ‘go off the grid’ and experience nature directly. She could even bring a friend.

We have a family solar cabin that’s propane fueled and WAY out-in-the-sticks, (and my brother’s a former park ranger, and runs the eco-nonprofit so we figured…

Let’s capitalize on this ‘outdoor adventure’ idea, test the wired vs. wilderness ways of two very different suburban tweens, see how they fare, then blog it.

Wow. Enlightening. For starters, I should put this in a mindful media context.

The sub(urban) pal we chose to bring with us has NEVER hiked within nature and is EXTREMELY wired with tech toys and gizmos.

She is Japanese, also speaks fluent Thai (having grown up primarily in Bangkok) and has learned English faster than most tweens can master an Xbox game. She’s extremely outdoorsy and athletic too, and the girls romp and roam around the island, having zero problems coming up with creative outdoor play.

All in all, it seemed a good fit for a remote adventure (no phone access, no tv, no electricity, etc.) the perfect chances for nature to be well received.

And it was. They had an absolute ball…But pairing two tweens for outdoor ed made for an astonishingly wired and weird experience even without electricity or phone access

Media’s subtle infiltration was everywhere, impacting their worldview and filtering how they interpreted and explored nature and their surroundings.I’ll spare you the full play by play, but suffice it to say, my overall take on it is…

These two ‘net generation’ tweens tended to experience nature (and much of this expedition) in a cursory, fast-paced, ‘what’s next’ fashion.

And they’re more patient and outdoorsy than most! It left me longing for a solo hike to enjoy the quiet serenity and languish for hours just wandering aimlessly.

It was almost as if there was a checklist of ‘to do’ items gleaned from ‘visions’ of media moments…kinda the camp scenes from the Parent Trap movie.

Gear? Check.

Attire? Lookin’ the part.

Campfire, marshmallows, hot dogs on a wire hanger? Got it. Did it.

What’s next?

Very Fellini-esque if I were to choose a media reference…

For starters, en route to the mountains out of Denver (before we were ‘out of range’) our neighbor pal kept text messaging and phoning home to the tune of about 27 times a day, with such urgent issues as ‘RU hungry’ or what they were watching on TV.

At first I was concerned she was homesick or bored already, but then I realized this was a ‘passing of the time’ transit thing which took place when any point A to point B destination slipped over a few minutes. She assured us this was normal ops within her family.

My own offspring was incredulous at first, poking fun at the cell scene with eye rolling and ‘again?’ at every chime. But the next you thing you know, she wanted in on the action, begging to text message our other neighbor at home to say ‘hi.’

Nothing else. Just ‘hi.’

A minute or two later, my own phone bleeped with an incoming text message from…the backseat.

Clearly, this text messaging as toy replaces the ‘nose in a comic book’ days of going across country when parents used to admonish, “you’re missing the scenery!”

It’s pervasive with tweens…

It happened much more prevalently on the drive to the “Corn Maze field trip” this past week when I chaperoned…One of the middle-schoolers was changing her ringtones and wallpapers constantly, snapping photos of the other girls, adding captions, showing off, and in general jockeying for social status and attention.

In addition to pragmatic basic phones, cells appear to be the hierarchial ‘tude toy for preteens, complete with ‘bling’ and ‘pimp my phone’ slang on campus…

Anyway, once we settled in at the Colorado cabin, I sent the girls out to collect kindling and bide some time hiking to the nearby landlot to see the handcrafted teepee while I started dinner.

Next thing you know, there were squeals and thunderous sneaker stomps as they breathlessly explained a “funny looking lizard chased them” prompting a ‘must have’ video-cam moment.

One whipped out her cellphone cam, the other scrambled for my idiot proof Kodak digital, “don’t worry mom, it shoots video, you just don’t ever use it.”

Sure enough, they engaged with electronic media out in the woods for almost two hours until sunset, shooting rustic films, ‘hilarious’ stories of their nature encounters (mouse droppings, deer tracks, faux drama, etc.) and happily interfacing with man-made media moments.

Not exactly what I had in mind placing them away from wired media.

Hiking? Let’s be honest. They’d rather play ‘Dogopoly’ back at the cabin and look at the view of the snow-capped Rockies through the panoramic picture window.

One got cold. The other blamed altitude fatigue. (ok, we were 9500 feet up, but it’s odd when mom is the rugged one, and the kids need creature comforts; seems topsy turvy)
Trailblazing? They couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag, even though they had tons of fun trying.

They’re in great shape, but these hardy hoofers started power-whining after only a few miles; yakking and goofing most of the way.

We hiked out onto a precipice and then I told them to ‘lead the way back.’ There was deafening silence as they exchanged wide-eyed glances of shock.

I was trying to make the point that they need to pay attention to the stillness, the sounds, the signals and subtlety of their environs, rather than trudge past tree after tree thinking they all look just the same.

They actually loved the concept of being ‘lost’ in a mock adventure sort of way.

They collected branches for ‘survival huts’ (which they abandoned after getting the gist of it too); they had muddy encounters with squishy clay…Tried to figure out animal tracks…And were deeply humbled from their ‘I don’t need a jacket’ know-it-all-ism when the weather shifted to an unexpected snowfall.

Later, the pitch blackness of the night and looking at the Milky Way and stars unobstructed was a novelty that amazed…

But the awe only lasted awhile before whammo…on to something else.

Nature deficit disorder. Love that term. And boy was it appropo.

Was this really the same child that hung out at the cabin only a year ago watching hummingbirds feed for hours?

Is it really that different with a peer present? Or is this the tween age of go-see-do perpetual motion and search for all things edgy, new and dangerous?

The next day they lived “life as a reality show” donning construction garb and descending 1000 feet straight down into the country’s only vertical shaft 1890s gold mine packed like sardines carrying six sideways in the lift.

They absolutely loved the hands-on, experiential, ‘digging for ore’ history but got snap-happy once again with the digital gizmos-n-gear taking underground shots of the veins. They were also impressed by the fact that the young buck guide was a ‘real’ miner.

At the historic gold rush museum from the bawdy brothel days I got some VERY pointed questions about the women’s faces on the coins and the mannequin of the Madame encased in glass, what they ‘did’ there, etc.

These are middle schoolers mind you, they can CLEARLY read the signs, but this was another one of those ‘sex and the media’ moments that gets overblown into pre-pubescent queries way outta my comfort zone, for they’d heard references made to ‘hookers and whores’ on TV and were amazed that there was actually a museum of the days of selling sex.

Again, not exactly the outdoor ed I intended…

The wild west town of ol’ Poverty Gulch is now taken over by the clang of Cripple Creek casinos, which trumped nature in frenetic pace and hyperactive gambling allure, “Just pull the slot once mom, puhleeeeeeeeze? A lot of people win, you know.”
No. I don’t know. Where’d you ever get that warped idea?

This too was media generated hype acquired on some reality-game show dealing with wagers & betting, seen at a friend’s house recently.

Go figure.

Oh, and later that night after cocoa and campfire, we “NEED” to play poker, because (surprise!) her pal already knows how via online gaming and lookie there, it’s also on her cellphone.

“Can you charge a cellphone on solar power/off the grid 12 volt energy?” Answer: yes. Getting scarier by the minute for me…

When we went to Victor, to see the boomtown gone bust scars of environmental damage of strip mining firsthand, the girls were MORE intrigued by the rag tag biker bar that served pizza.

It was the only place in town that had food, and another ‘edgy’ highpoint, for they learned to rack up the eight ball, play pool amidst the locals, and absorb the rough-n-tumble ‘been around the block’ environs. (games/entertainment redux)

Thankfully, their favorite part of all was hand-feeding the wild burros, a dozen of them, which became a daily ritual…going into town to buy carrots and apples, having the donkeys wander up to the barbed wire fence and hee-haw their appreciation, making mouth-mush of the offerings…

These were the same burros she’d fed when she was 3, and again at 10, and she even remembered their ‘pasture schedule’ for when they’d be close enough to reach the frontage road. It was a treat to see the continuity, the big ol’ gentle donkey eyes blinking at us and braying for more.

NO media moment could match that one…Not one!

Don’t get me wrong, it was a great trip overall, and a grand first effort…

I was just surprised how my outdoorsy daughter who is NOT online much, nor a TV couch potato (though she would be if she could be) could be teeming with pop culture media references, ambient peer influences, and a whirlwind approach to the next pitstop on the highway of life.

Nature at mach speed. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Media has accelerated the pace of their little lives, along with their behavioral cues.

There’s even a ‘That’s So Raven’ episode about girls going camping and blending smoothies with battery-operated gizmos, dancing to ipods in their tents.

And now most TV versions of outdoor adventures have the requisite cute camper wardrobe, girl/boy pre-adolescent tent raids, first kiss opportunities or tip-over-the-canoe clichés.

How does one compete with that?

Ultimately, ‘outdoor ed’ on this trip was mostly MY media education of how tweens interact with the great outdoors.

As we cleaned up the cabin for an incoming family from Kansas, and showed them the ropes with the solar, three tall teens lumbered in…

One asked if laptop charging would drain the solar panels…another asked about cell reach…and the third was hunting for food in the cupboard marked “do not touch, owner’s supply.”

Sigh. Get ‘em out. Take a hike. Enjoy ’em while you can.



  1. Amy,

    Wow…you certainly have been busy…both in activities and writing. Excellent blog item! You parents have my sympathy and any help I can bring.


  2. yeah totaly boring…….
    just kidding and very true facts!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    this is something tweens should get to read

  3. this is an intresting site

  4. Hi Karan, are you a tween? Teen? If so, what’s your take on this? fyi, you might like the link above that I just wrote with a list of all our posts about nature/kids media and green/eco links all in one hub.

    Later today I’m going to write about some cool ‘green gaming’ online in virtual worlds, and green media taking place on tv w/pbs kids’ etc.—Stay tuned

    Come back and visit soon, eh? –Amy

Speak Your Mind