Sunday, April 26, 2009

Go Green, Ditch the Screens

In honor of Earth Week, last week millions of people around the world decided to put down their remote controls, shut off their laptops and make their way outside.

Today is the final day of Turn-off Week 2009, a worldwide event which lasted from April 20-26 and encouraged people to eliminate screen time in favor of a more rewarding, active life. Championed by the Center for Screen-Time Awareness (CSTA) and supported by national organizations like the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Education Association, Turn-off Week attracted about 5 million participants in the USA alone last year, and now, even though the official week has come to an end, you can (and should) join the movement.

Too much screen-time is physically and mentally unhealthy, but in the United States and many other industrialized countries we keep watching more and more television. The statistics are alarming. According to the CSTA Web site, the average American household has 2.55 people and 2.73 televisions, making us a nation of more television screens than people.

photo by Aaron Escobar

Here are some more interesting facts that may surprise you.

•Number of 30-second commercials seen in a year by an average child: 20,000
•Number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children: 38.5
•Number of minutes per week that the average child watches television: 1,680
•Percentage of children ages 6-17 who have TV's in their bedrooms: 50
•Percentage of day care centers that use TV during a typical day: 70
•Hours per year the average American youth spends in school: 900 hours
•Hours per year the average American youth watches television: 1500
•Percentage of Americans that regularly watch television while eating dinner: 66

As a nation, we need to find some balance in our lives. By simply switching off the screens for a bit, we have more time to read, see friends and exercise. You’ll probably find yourself feeling more energetic and more productive.

Why not give it a try? Extend your celebration of Earth Week by making it an every day commitment to appreciate more green with less screens.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Goodness of Green: When a little dirt and sunshine is just what the doctor ordered

After months of studying parenting magazines and agonizing over the perfect name, months of wondering what color her hair will be or if she'll have dimples, of daydreaming ahead to her enrollment at an ivy-league school or reception of the Nobel Peace Prize, when the big day comes and our baby finally makes her entrance into the world we are thrilled with the utterly simple: ten fingers, ten toes, and the realization that all that ever really mattered to us was holding a healthy, healthy child.

Holidays & Occasions
All parents want what's best for their kids, and after getting over the excitement of ten fingers and ten toes, most do everything in their power to give their children the right resources to learn and grow. Traditionally this has meant setting proper sleep schedules, providing nutritious meals or reading bedtime stories. But for the new, technology-savvy parents of Generation Y, the moms and dads who grew up in the internet-age of constant information, the right resources has come to mean interactive learning tools like Baby Einstein--a line of multimedia products for 3-month-olds to 3-year-olds that were designed to boost cognitive development. Hoping for the happiest, healthiest and brightest children, these parents put their trust in technology.

Babys hand on computer mouse

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Yet despite the marketing successes of Baby Einstein and other interactive products, studies overwhelmingly indicate that a new approach is needed. To be clear, the time has come to trade in the screens for a little bit of green.

In the early 1980s, Harvard University biologist Edward Wilson developed a theory of "biophilia," the idea that people have an innate affinity for the natural world. Removed from our natural environment, we face innate feelings of restlessness and alienation which may be detrimental to physical and mental health, and the same holds true for children.

Most of us have probably heard about these studies, about the results which confirm that unstructured outdoor play can improve children's psychological and bodily health by reducing stress, improving concentration and encouraging physical fitness. But did you know that nature actually has viable HEALING powers as well?

During the 1980s and 1990s, a number of studies showed that the mere act of looking at the outdoors can have direct benefits for hospital patients, office workers, prison inmates and car commuters. Indeed, a view of nature was found to help reduce blood pressure, headaches and illnesses, while also leading to greater job satisfaction among workers and quicker recovery rates for post-operative patients. It's not surprising, then, that doctors are increasingly issuing "green prescriptions," advising patients to battle their ailments with some exercise and time outside.

By looking at life through nature, or leaving our apartments and entering into life via nature, we gain a little bit of life ourselves. Just imagine how our kids might benefit.

So put away the Baby Einstein toys, turn off the television and go take your children outside. Enjoying nature can be as easy as walking out your front door and finding some chalk to play hopscotch, or encouraging a game of tag in the backyard. Take a look at some of these other fun activities for ideas.

Girl Playing with Grandmother

When it comes to helping our kids love nature, the options are endless and the need is real. Indeed, if you're looking to give them all the resources to grow and learn--to ensure the health you came to love years ago when you first counted those ten fingers and ten toes--a little dirt and sunshine is just be what the doctor ordered.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Just Write It Down

Today's Did You Know fact is a real doozie: There are 851 species of plants native to the Illinois plains. For those of you who thought that prairies were all boring swathes of dun-colored grass, think again: in springtime, the prairies are a veritable riot of color.

The smooth blue aster is but one of the many flowers that covers Illinois' prairies when spring arrives.

Your Miss is reminded of this fact because I keep somewhat of a loose illustrative journal, and in winter, it dies down to a big fat pile of words, whereas, in spring, summer, and fall, it is, on some pages, just a mess of ink and noise. I paste things in, draw macro illustrations of leaves and flowers, or just of funny patterns that I see on rocks or in the sky. I'm particularly fond of drawing in maps of where I am.

I am not skilled in the least, nor can I work in anything but pencil or pen, since I find carrying around a big clutch of writing utensils to be just too much for my rudimentary skills, but still--I jot it down.

A few of the Miss' past journals.

In short, I do everything I can to mark the scene. I'm fully aware that I can't duplicate everything I see, or even come close to it, but it's as if, in the very act of taking time to jot down a rough illustration of the things I've seen, I'm making that much more of an impression on my memory.

And it's true--these journals above are the ones in which I know where everything is. I can tell you that the one on the right, with the life cycle of a butterfly and the curiously tall drawing of a house, also has pasted into it a particularly charming photo of a dog. He's the oldest dog I know to have been adopted from an shelter, and his name is Charlie. (He has four teeth left.) I can tell you that the journal on the right has some really bad attempted illustrations of the Andes and some Amazonian plants from a trip I took to Ecuador.

I'm a writer by trade, so I can do this with some of the other journals I have, which are "illustrated" only with words, but the ones in which I've drawn are the ones that really matter as the materials that reference where, when, I was at a certain point in time. They add such a rich dimension to my memories.

The point is, of course, that, with 851 plants in the Illinois prairie system, and goodness knows how many across our United States--this is a great way to get your family deep into the stuff that makes up your surroundings. Drawing something leads to questions, a conversation, even, and remember, your drawings don't have to be terrific. (Don't be intimidated by gorgeous journals created by professional artists. They are amazing works of art, but every illustrated journal started somewhere, and your kids'--and yours--will have their own unique merits.)

This journal, from graphic designer Gay Kraeger, is something your Miss aspires to on a regular basis, but alas, she cannot draw birds. Or work in watercolor. Or do pretty lettering. Oh, well. (Journal copyright Gay Kraeger.)

Don't pluck anything out of the ground with the intention of pasting it into your book because you're frustrated that you can't reproduce it exactly on your page. When flowers and leaves dry, they don't look anything like they did when they were green and thriving, and anyway, your sketches will help you to remember what they looked like. (This advice comes from the heart. When I was much younger, I plucked things out and pasted them in with impunity, and all I'm left with is some loose scotch tape and some faint plant imprints.)

Do, however, encourage rubbings. Lay a page of your book over a rock or a leaf, or anything with texture, and use the flat side of a pencil or a crayon to rub over the page. You'll have a nice, unique memory of the way something looks like it feels--and that's just as nice, if not better than, having pebbles pasted into a book.

A leaf rubbing. When you're done, have your kids put the leaf back so that someone else can enjoy it.

You can get fairly inexpensive, recycled-stock bound books at any stationer or art store. Get something with a hard back, so you can hold it in your hand and doodle whatever you see in front of you. I like the Moleskine books, which are in the middle price range (although not of recycled stock) and come in a selection of sizes and styles. Invest in some good pencils and some nice erasers, find something pretty to look at, and draw away. Just a quick sketch will imprint the scene in your brain, at least until you see something else to draw--but then you will have something to look back on: Just turn back a page.