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The Importance Of Unplugging at Sleepaway Camp

We spotted two interesting articles online this week, one in OutsideOnline.com and PSmag.com, both on the importance of unplugging from our wonderful world of electronics.  It certainly has been conventional wisdom for quite some time that our children need to disconnect more regularly from their TV screens. New research conducted in the United States and Japan seems to suggest that unplugging ourselves from our gadgets can have a profound impact on our brain’s ability to process information, think creatively, manage stress levels, form appropriate social attachments, and more effectively problem solve. I can recall being five or six years old and hearing my mother regularly ask “why don’t you stop watching cartoons and go outside?” This rhetorical question was typically followed by her belief that so much TV watching would “rot my brain”. It now appears that there may have been solid scientific reasoning behind what she was saying. 

David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of

evergreen campers hugging outsideUtah, noticed that his brain felt more limber, his thoughts more fluid, on backcountry trips in the Southwest than they did in the lab. His undergraduates reported a similar mental boost, as did his colleagues. The peripatetic life seemed ideal for thinking about thinking. 

Strayer began to organize yearly camping trips for his fellow neuroscientists. In 2010, Ruth Ann and Paul Atchley, a wife-and-husband team of psychologists from the University of Kansas, joined him on a weeklong trek through Utah’s Grand Gulch. Ruth Ann asked the group to complete the RAT [“remote associates test] before hitting the trail, and again a few days into the 32-mile hike. “It worked really, really well,” Strayer says. “We had about a 45 percent improvement. So we said, ‘This seems to be perfect. It’s cheap, and it produces a nice big effect.’ ” 

The RAT was easy to administer—no laptops involved—so Strayer and the Atchleys contracted with Outward Bound to run their experimental design. Fifty-six students were given the test; half took it before their course began, and half took it midway through. Because technology is strictly verboten on OB trips—students aren’t allowed to bring even books—the psychologists were able to measure the effect on creativity of being isolated in wilderness, untethered from the digital world. 

The results, which appear this month in PLoS One, were striking. Students who took thetest after a four-day immersion in the backcountry scored 50 percent higher than their coursemates. “The current research indicates that there is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting,” the authors write. 

(exerpted from PSmag.com)

A 50% higher score than their coursemates? It would be hard to overstate how important these findings might be. We all want to provide our children with every possible opportunity to help them succeed, and yet it appears that one of the most vital gifts that we could give them is greater time outside engaging in unstructured play.  Think of what parents pay an SAT tutor so that their child’s score can improve by 10%!  And this was achieved simply by disconnecting from the virtual world and spending some time fully immersed in the real world outside. As the article points out, this study needs to be reproduced with both a larger and more random sample, but the results are nonetheless intriguing.

At a time when academic and business leaders like P21.org are telling us how vital it is for our children to increase their capacity for creativity, critical problem solving, and self-directed learning, this study makes it clear that spending appreciable amounts of time outside is crucial for the proper development of our young people. 

It’s now becoming clearer that the benefits of unfettered time outside also go beyond that of academic achievement. Take a look at these two passages from a thoughtful piece in OutsideOnline.com, which investigated different groups of scientists in Japan who are uncovering a causal link between time spent in nature, and a significant lowering of blood pressure, depression, stress levels, and even cancer. 

To prove it, [Professor] Miyazaki has taken more than 600 research subjects into the woods since 2004. He and his colleague Juyoung Lee, also of Chiba University, have found that leisurely forest walks, compared with urban walks, yield a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity, a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. On subjective tests, study participants also report better moods and lower anxiety. 

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One of Miyazaki’s collaborators, Qing Li, an immunologist in the department of hygiene and public health at Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, had the same question. The chairman of the Society of Forest Medicine, a small but growing international group of academics, Li is interested in nature’s effect on the human immune system. A person’s natural killer immune cells (NK cells for short) can, like cortisol and hemoglobin, be reliably measured in a lab. A type of white blood cell, NK cells are handy to have around, since they send self-destruct messages to tumors and virus-infected cells. It’s been known for a long time that factors like stress, aging, and pesticides can reduce your NK count, at least temporarily. So, Li wondered, if nature reduces stress, could it also increase your NK cells and thereby help you fight infections and cancer?

In 2005 and 2006, Li brought a group of middle-aged Tokyo businessmen into the woods. For three days, they hiked in the morning and again in the afternoon. By the end, blood tests showed that their NK cells had increased 40 percent. A month later, their NK count was still 15 percent higher than when they started. By contrast, during urban walking trips, NK levels didn’t change.

Since most of us can’t spend three days a week walking in the woods, Li was curious to know if a one-day trip to a suburban park would have a similar effect. It did, boosting the levels of both NK cells and anticancer proteins for at least seven days afterward.

boys playing wiffle ball outsideIt appears that as we learn more about the connection between our minds and our bodies, that we must strongly consider the importance of unplugging, both for our children and for ourselves.  Doing so may yield incredibly important results for our mental health, our enjoyment of life, and for our productivity in the workplace. For these reasons and more Camps Kenwood & Evergreen proudly ask our campers to unplug each summer and leave their iphones, ipads, kindles, and other electronic devices home for the summer. Throughout each day of our 50-day season we ask our children to go outside, run around, throw a ball, roll around in the grass, jump in the lake, initiate a conversation, hang out with a friend, and do so many of the other fun things that kids have participated in since the dawn of time.  Clearly, the importance of unplugging is even more vital than when my mother encouraged me to do so more than 30 years ago.