Nature Unplugged

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant and Writer


The use of technology for information, entertainment, and communication is a given, worldwide. My smartphone’s navigation function, using a pleasant-sounding woman’s voice, guides me effortlessly through streets in unfamiliar places, to new destinations. As I drive, there’s often a CD playing in the background.

In 2010, during a visit to an elementary school in a jungle town on the Indonesian island of Bangka, a girl tugged at my shirt. “Mister, do you Skype?” she asked. At that time, Indonesia had the world’s fastest growth rate of social media adopters. Inexpensive “handphones” and data plans placed information, entertainment, and communication in children’s hands; even in the jungle.

As technology’s devices shrink, the scope of our world often does, too. Most of us probably feel that while devices can inform, entertain, and keep us in touch, technology often distances us from richer forms of direct experience.  We feel this, despite accepting ever more forms of technology into our lives.

Yet, would you believe that, in some conditions, nature actually prevents a simple technology from working? That, during one of the most critical periods of communication in a person’s life, anyone, graduate degreed or uneducated, young or old, can outperform digital technology just by being themselves?  What if I told you that nature can actually prevent technology from working at all while giving a five-year-old child the power to work wonders?

For the full, rich details of this assertion (and much more), please experience this extraordinary TED Talk; “The Linguistic Genius of Babies,” by Patricia Kuhl. It’s available here. (Thanks, technology!)

Kuhl and her researchers have discovered that babies who are 6–9 months old actively learn the specific sounds they’ll need in order to speak their native language. The babies start taking “statistics” on the spoken sounds they hear, differentiating them from other non-language sounds, storing them, and soon learning to form them into language.

During this 90-day window, American babies exposed to a Mandarin Chinese speaker will “take statistics” on these new sounds in addition to the sounds they hear in English. If they aren’t exposed to these extra sounds at this critical period, they won’t be able to differentiate them from other sounds when tested just a few months later. If they do hear Mandarin Chinese sounds, these babies are fully equivalent to their Taiwanese counterparts in recognizing them during the testing.

But there’s a catch. It’s not just hearing these sounds that make them stick, it’s hearing them spoken by a person. Babies who hear the same Mandarin Chinese sounds through audio or video don’t learn them at all. Meanwhile, babies exposed to a person speaking Mandarin for just a few hours a week over two months do learn these sounds. The actual person is the signal to the baby that the sounds the person is making are for language. In terms of language acquisition, during this period, the barking dog and Elvis on the stereo are just noise. So are those baby language enrichment CDs. Technology out. Nature in.

Until technology entered into the relationship between children and nature, nature did quite well by herself. The young child’s brain and body are designed to explore and discover. Unless influenced otherwise, children have an inherent affinity for exploring natural environments. Technology can sometimes enrich the child’s experience of nature, but it also has the power to impair this vital relationship. Could there be areas important to our development, other than language acquisition, in which technology might actually harm an otherwise natural process?

Consider two young children watching an anthill. One child looks briefly, then asks an adult to help him learn more about ants on the Internet. The other child studies the ants’ behaviors more closely, watching them longer. She’ll probably develop her own theories of the behaviors she observes, creating stories or drawings to convey her thoughts. She may then ask an adult to help her learn from a book or the Internet.

In the first instance, a transitory interest leads to reflexively consulting a habitual source of information. Reliance on technology has effectively short-circuited what could have been a far more enriching experience. For the second child, close observations are followed by creative hypotheses and artistic expressions, then by learning from other sources. No short-circuiting here.

The child fascinated with nature as an end in itself is participating in a wholly different experience than the child who is dependent on technology for answers to his questions. And, the child who lingers with the ants is more likely to develop an abiding appreciation of nature.

Nature’s power to enrich and transform children may be compromised when nature becomes just another experience that requires enhancement by technology. As with the baby learning language, sometimes nature by herself is what nurtures best.

Nature is the only environment in which anyone of any age can test himself or herself, and learn. The baby learns about textures, odors, and colors through contact with fragrant plants and flowers. He tests his tolerance for various sensations by exploring, then withdrawing from something uncomfortable or unfamiliar, followed by more exploration. The toddler both tests and improves her balance by running up and down a small hill. The elementary school-aged child learns caregiving by taking care of animals. Older children may develop self-confidence while gaining skills in camping or backpacking. People of widely varying ages test themselves and improve fitness in outdoor, nature-based sports. Mountaineering, skiing, paddling, and biking are just a few of the many activities that refresh our ties with nature.

Many, in the closing years of life, turn to gardening for exercise and relaxation. Gardening often has a poignant way of recapitulating for the elderly mature expressions of the small child’s experience with nature. Here is a gentle activity that may unite exercise, texture, odor, color, planning, taste, observation, caretaking, and more through a simple communion with nature. Which technology, thing, or environment can yield so much for so many so simply? So naturally?

As Kuhl demonstrates, sometimes nature has designed us to remain unplugged.  The next time you think of children spending time in nature, when their experience could in any way be connected with technology, consider pausing for a moment. Will this connection between nature and technology truly enrich the child’s experience, as some of these connections can? Or, will the proposed connection actually impair the child’s potential to form a transformative, lifelong relationship with nature?

Nature isn’t subject to blackouts, or to running out of battery power. Not only are batteries not included, they’re not needed. Leave them home when you bring children to an environment that holds the promise of engaging their intellect, emotions, spirits, and bodies like no other.  This is a promise best delivered unplugged.