During a family vacation this summer I was strolling along the harborfront of Lake of the Woods in Ontario. The lake is my spiritual home, a refuge to escape into the almost five thousand square miles of sun spackled water dotted with 14,000 wooded islands. The beauty and tranquility soothes my mind and provides an omnipresent reminder of the powerful connection — both physical and spiritual — between we humans and the natural environment.
A pack of zealous teens erupted from a side street, holding their phones in front of them as they shielded their screens from the unabating sun. A bit puzzled by the focused determination displayed by these summer-hazed teens, I watched as they ran to a specific spot, stomp repeatedly on a square of concrete, and whoop and celebrate their victory. Finally I realized they were playing the recently released Pokeman Go.
As far as videogames go, Pokeman Go is an improvement because the game itself is better than sitting on a couch all day. (Or, hanging out in the dark arcade that use to exist up the street when I was a teenager) It draws many living room-dwelling kids of all ages out into the light of day where they share in each other’s company, get on their feet, enjoy the fresh air and have some fun. In this respect Pokemon Go and other forms of augmented reality, which are posed to become the next BIG thing, provide a possibility for improving the lives of many kids.
And since we are hurdling headlong into this digital age, there is a body of research that suggests it’s good for people — especially younger generations — to embrace and play with current technologies. Such technologies may well pop up in workplaces and social scenes of the future, and there are benefits to being fluent in their use.
Yet as a deeply spiritual person, and a stay-at-home dad to two utterly delightful daughters, I can’t help questioning the effects on children of placing filters between themselves and the authentic world. Especially in the form of somewhat addictive games like Pokemon Go and other apps that they simply can’t put down.
The difference between having a filter — or not — can be compared to experiencing a beautiful sunset versus watching it on a computer screen. Yes, much of the beauty is transmitted through the screen, but it loses something along the way. Just as the food industry purposefully creates less complex, “craveable” snacks and dishes by adding one-dimensional ingredients like salt, sugar, fat and caffeine in order to drive repeat sales, augmented reality creates “craveable” sterilized interactions with the world.
To experience the pure, awe-inspiring joy of splashing in a cool lake and diving off the wooden dock, or counting the stars at night, as my daughters have done this summer, kids can’t be riveted to a screen. Even if they’re outdoors.
Attempting to remove the screen, though, can seem like a futile and utterly draining battle. To many parents, it just doesn’t seem worth paying the price of whining and prolonged resentment in exchange for a few hours (max) of old-fashioned outdoor play.
If this sounds familiar but you still long to help your children learn to be present in and engaged with the real world, mindful of its wonders and appreciative of nature and other people’s simple company, here are a few tricks I’ve discovered for helping them find more balance between the real and the virtual environments:
● Play with them for a few rounds. Set a goal of taking a break each time you catch a Pokemon, framing the break as a reward.
● Point out something concrete and tangible in the world around you during the break and draw your kid’s attention to it. Modeling behavior for young kids is a powerful tool, and often they will emulate without prompting. If you split your attention between the screen and the unfiltered world, they may recognize that both are important. If they’re not getting the message, suggest that they stop with you after catching a Pokemon.
● Also during the break, encourage them by example or with words take in the surrounding world unfiltered by breathing deeply, noticing sounds and smells and how these make them feel.
● Turn the steps above into a ritual: Catch, pause, breathe, notice, repeat.
● Ask them to share their reactions to these sensations. What thoughts did they prompt? What new realm of the imagination opened up? Ask questions about what they say and allow the conversation to run its course.
Using a similar ritual to reconnect with the environment around me while working or writing, I found myself pondering the paradoxes of virtual “reality,” and was inspired to write my forthcoming novel, Evolved. The book explores the seamless interconnection between organic and silicon-based life in a distant future where the eradication of truly authentic experiences threatens humanity’s very existence. In other words, pausing, breathing and taking in the world around us provides a vital opportunity for kids and adults alike to grow.
Although none of this, of course, is the same as leaving the game behind altogether, it is a step in the right direction. Perhaps over time your kids will continue the ritual of “catch, pause, breathe, notice, repeat” of their own volition. Or maybe their craving for chasing the cute little yellow characters with pointy ears will start to dwindle.
And your participation in the game — no matter your ulterior motives — may give you an opportunity to connect and have fun with them in a whole new way.
Matthew McKay is a former financial analyst turned proud stay-at-home dad, an elected member of the Wellesley, Massachusetts Recreation Commission and a competitive swimmer. He holds a BA in Economics from Harvard University.