The most enriching, eye-opening learning experience happened nowhere near my child’s school this year.
For 45 years, the Parkway School District in St. Louis has sent its sixth-graders to an outdoor school on YMCA campgrounds a couple of hours away by bus. It’s a four-day experience; it used to be a week, until budget cuts eliminated a day.
“We talk about connecting with nature,” said Ron Ramspott, coordinator for Healthy Youth Programs for the district. “It’s really about disconnecting with electronics.”
My daughter’s class recently took the trek into the wilderness (a very tame wilderness, as all the cabins have air conditioning and electricity) for lessons on water ecology, wildlife and soil quality, along with outdoor activities like horseback riding and hiking.
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The most daunting aspect is the absolute ban on any digital devices for the entire duration of the trip.
“We weren’t sure we were going to make it,” my daughter said.
One of her friends packed grid paper in case she got Minecraft DT’s.
Twelve is the perfect age for such an immersive off-the-grid experience. It may be the first time in their conscious lives that they don’t have a tech device nearby for four consecutive days. They are part of that first cohort who won’t remember a time before ubiquitous handheld screens. They were toddlers when YouTube was born. Google, only four years older than they are, has been their constant guide.
Removing them from their hyper-connected, screen-saturated environments offered some of the most significant lessons of the year.
They immediately noticed the loss of instant access to information.
“If you wanted to know how to do something, you had to look it up in the field guide or ask a teacher,” my daughter said. “You couldn’t just search it.”
It’s not surprising how often questions strike a sixth-grader. During a class outside, a student wondered what the most common rock in Missouri was. No phone to find an answer. On the bus, a student wanted to solve a Rubik’s Cube. She couldn’t Google the solution. They couldn’t even check the time or set an alarm without resorting to anachronisms like watches and alarm clocks.
In addition to finding new ways to access information and solve problems, they had to manage new ways to communicate.
“We couldn’t contact our friends on the other teams (through texting),” my daughter said. If you needed to talk to someone, you had to do it face-to-face. Imagine that.
The hardest part for her was being unable to document the experience through the camera she usually carries 24/7.
“There were lots of things I wasn’t able to take pictures of,” she said. That was annoying. After all, this is the pics-or-it-didn’t-happen generation.
Eventually, the impulse to constantly document lessened, and the moment took on its own value. The camaraderie was vital.
“I coped because I had 12 of my friends with me in a cabin,” she said.
The absence of their phones and tablets proved less of a distraction at night, which is when most school children retreat into their digital cocoons.
“I got closer to people I wouldn’t have talked to otherwise,” she said.
Even if the students didn’t think about that overtly, at some level, the experience reinforced the importance of human connection.
But it wasn’t just the children who broke away from their tech dependence. As parents, we have become accustomed to the digital tether. Sending your child away without any way to check in on them runs counter to the prevailing parenting norms.
Becky Lopanec’s daughter, Julia, also went on the trip. Lopanec said she may have missed her daughter’s phone as much Julia did.
“I spent the week sending her random text messages knowing that her phone was off and at home,” she said. Lopanec sent a series of texts during the next four days: “How’s the bus ride?” “Who’s in your cabin?” “Sleep tight.” “I’m leaving the light on in your room because it makes me think you are here.” “Don’t forget to brush your teeth,” and so on. She even sent her pictures of the dogs.
“It’s how I coped with her first overnight,” Lopanec said.
My own phone was a reminder of how terribly I missed my girl. I caught myself rereading our old text conversations while she was gone. They are heavily emojied.
My daughter had a sentimental reunion with her sky-blue iPhone upon her return.
She cradled her phone in her hand like a delicate baby bird when she first saw it in her bedroom.
“Wi-Fi,” she sighed. “It’s so beautiful.”
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.