May 7, 2015 – quite a day!
Our book, Wonderlust, was launched at the Marriott Hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida, before a packed house of 200 people. Each attendee who contributed $100 or more to one of four designated charities – Pinellas Education Foundation, Tampa Bay Watch, Morean Arts Center or WEDU/PBS – got an autographed copy, a 10 x 12 coffee table book with about a 100 photos nestled among 26 stories.
We presented a thirty minute “insiders” program about Wonderlust and how it came together. The presentation began with a video from WEDU’s Arts Plus program, in which I expressed my concerns about kids getting too much of their learning from today’s virtual reality rather than from real world experiences, and our advice to kids to get out from behind their iPhones and iPads and explore – it’s called “Dirty Hands and Wet Feet” learning.
Following the Arts Plus video, I spoke for a few minutes, describing Wonderlust’s rationale and organization – beginning with its first section, “Into the Wild,” introduced by Thoreau’s:
“It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see.”
Within each of us, I said, we have an artist who shapes our character and values, and when our artist within aligns our interior with the exterior we convert a travel experience into a spiritual experience. That’s what going Into the Wild can do for us when we no longer merely look and learn to see.
After our talk, I spent the next hour specially autographing books for those who wanted a little more than an author’s signature. The special request of a young father touched me.
His son, Kurt, was having a birthday and he wanted Wonderlust to be his birthday present.
Kurt was going to be five!
He knew Kurt was too young to read. But he was going to read to him until Kurt was old enough to pick up Wonderlust on his own. Like only a loving parent can do, his mission was to encourage his son’s “Dirty Hands, Wet Feet” learning.
And so I happily added a special “Dirty Hands, Wet Feet” message for Kurt.
We talk a great deal in Wonderlust about the importance of getting Into the Wild, about Dirty Hands, Wet Feet learning; and a chapter is devoted to the Power of Play. But . . .
Perhaps it’s worth taking a few minutes to elaborate our thoughts about virtual learning, something I couldn’t do in a 20 minute talk at the Marriott.
The February 2011 issue of the Smithsonian includes an “Interview” with Jane McGonigal, a computer game developer from San Francisco. The theme of the interview is that computer games can make people smarter and help humanity. The games, Ms. McGonigal says, are developed to take place in a virtual reality, but are designed to encourage players to action in real time. Her book, Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World develops her thesis.
Her Ted interview touts the idea that the best way to save the human race is to increase our time gaming. She says that by age 21, American children spend as much time gaming as they do in school – about 10,000 hours. Ten thousand hours of gaming creates a “virtuoso” and virtuosos are experts at what they do. As a result of their expertise, she advocates, they can help us save the world.
There seems to me to be a deep question not addressed in the Smithsonian article, or McGonigal’s Ted interview. It‘s the question of abstraction, in particular, premature abstraction. When is it “safe” for youngsters to obtain their primary experiences from the electronic virtual world of abstraction in contrast to hands-on and real-life experiences? Studies show that the heavy use of our brain power in abstractive processes like computer games and other electronic media presentations at too young an age results in phobias that stay with us the rest of our days and impede us when it comes to dealing with our lives in a healthy way. When it comes to our natural world, premature abstraction can lead to ecophobia (fear of nature and our environment) instead of ecophilia (love of nature and our environment). Educator David Sobel develops the theme in Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education.
The virtual world acquaints our young with the real world in a broad sense. Although today’s children spend less time in the natural world, through their electronic experiences of rain forests, polar bears, crashing glaciers and vanishing islands they do seem to have a greater concern than most adults for the possibilities of the disappearance of nature. But Sobel expresses concern:
“What’s emerging is a strange sort of schizophrenia. Children are disconnected from the world outside their doors and connected with endangered animals and ecosystems around the globe through electronic media.”
Unfortunately, the increase in knowledge of our troubled world through premature abstractions at a young age is not healthy. With electronic imagery the prime source of information about our Wild – and no real life experiences to provide perspective – children can easily develop phobias, feelings of helplessness about acid rain, oil spills, rainforest destruction, and global warming. The result becomes a fear of being outside, of our natural world itself. What follows is a retreat into the virtual world of abstractions – visualizations provided by the electronic media. McGonigal admits gamers use the virtual world as an escape from the real world. However, she believes this to be temporary and that the gamers‘ retreat into the virtual world can be redirected into a passion for solving the problems of the real world. She expresses no concern about ecophobia.
In contrast, Sobel says:
“We can cure the malaise of ecophobia with ecophilia – supporting children’s biological tendency to bond with the natural world. … Most environmentalists attributed their commitment [to the natural world] to a combination of two sources: ‘many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.’ . . . No rain forest curriculum, no environmental action, just opportunities to be in the natural world with modeling by responsible adults. . . . What’s important is that children have an opportunity to bond with the natural world, to learn to love it and feel comfortable in it, before being asked to heal its wounds.”
It looks like Kurt’s father has it right!
Within our community, Tampa Bay Watch appears to me to have the ideal approach. In its mission statement, Tampa Bay Watch states it is “dedicated exclusively to the protection and restoration of the marine and wetland environments of the Tampa Bay estuary through scientific and educational programs.”
What is truly significant, are its “hands on” programs – Dirty Hands, Wet Feet Learning for our young. Among its many hands-on programs described on its website:
“To help [Tampa Bay] recover, Tampa Bay Watch initiated a coastal wetland nursery program in 1994 called the Bay Grasses in Classes. In this program, salt marsh wetland nurseries have been established at several bay area schools, monitored and maintained by students of all ages. Coordinated with school science teachers and their ecology and science clubs, the nurseries provide a source of native wetland plants for use in habitat restoration projects. The program also provides students with valuable hands-on experience in habitat restoration activities while promoting science education and the value of maintaining a healthy environment.”
Hands-on programs provide the kind of love for our environment that can only come from participation. And it is through the participation that well-grounded knowledge grows. As Sobel puts it, and as Tampa Bay Watch lives it:
“John Burroughs (a 19th century naturalist) remarked,’Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow. Our problem is that we are trying to invoke knowledge, and responsibility, before we have allowed a loving relationship to flourish.'”
We cure ecophobia by escaping from video games and electronic media and by providing our young with hands-on participation in the real world early on, so they can fall in love with the wonders of the Wild. And when they fall in love with the Wild, understanding is sure to follow. It may be that McGonigal is right, that the gamer’s virtuoso knowledge can provide the spark and the enthusiasm for gamers to change the real world; but first the gamers must, as Tony Bennett did in one of his great concerts, become “Unplugged.” Louie Armstrong made famous the idea of “Gone Fishin’ instead of just a-wishin’.“
Converting virtual world “wishin’” into real world “fishin’“ or similar, unplugged experiences right outside our doors is how our kids end up with less ecophobia and experience ecophilia at its best.
Our kids will thrive on their memories from the Wild forever!
(The poster photo is of our son and daughter, Julie and John, in the mid 1960s. The discussion continues in chapter 22 of Wonderlust.)
To learn more about Wonderlust, click on:
For WEDU’s Arts Plus, click on: