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Unplugged: Entertainment Off The Grid

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We often think of self-sufficiency in terms of learning to provide our own necessities–food, clothing, shelter, medical care etc.  Learning to amuse ourselves rather than passively consuming entertainment has less obvious survival implications than learning to feed and clothe ourselves; however, I am convinced that it does increase personal self-reliance and family and community strength in several ways.

It saves money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2005 the average American household spent more on entertainment than on gasoline, household furnishings, and clothing. That share has fallen a little during the recession, but the average household still spends more than $2,500 on entertainment yearly.  Young people especially seem to believe that enjoyment must be bought.  A group of fairly affluent high school students once spent a week helping out at the homestead/Christian community where I live and work.  During their free time they didn’t have access to TV or electronic games; they did have access to our stilts, kites, Frisbees, and boomerangs, and they made good use of them.  They told us at the end of the week that they’d never known you could have so much fun for free.

It promotes independent thinking and competence. Screen watching affects our brains differently from reading or playing live games with other people. We slip into an almost trancelike state where our emotions are easily hooked and our critical thinking faculties are mostly dormant.  In this state we’re usually exposed to a barrage of ads. Also, when we spend more time watching stars than doing things ourselves, we learn to feel inferior and helpless.  Anthropologists in communities newly exposed to TV report that people who had previously enjoyed dancing, making music, and playing sports spend much less time on these things after TV arrives. This is partly because they are distracted by programming, partly because they say they’ll never be as good as that person on the screen, so why bother trying? Many of our guests assert that they just can’t sing.  Some of them finally let themselves try it and find that they can, and that they enjoy it. When people practice artistic or athletic disciplines themselves they gain emotional balance, strength of character, and a depth of satisfaction that passive entertainment can’t rival.

It strengthens families and communities. Friends or family groups who come to my farm together start telling us their stories in the evenings, and often at some point they look at each other and say “That’s so funny! [or moving, or inspiring…]” or “I never knew that! Why didn’t you ever tell me?” Perhaps it’s because they haven’t taken time.  Studies report that average parents spend between eight and eleven minutes a day talking with their children, while the average person spends about eight hours a day on screens.  There’s something a little out of balance here. It’s not wrong to use or enjoy screens.  But there is a real difference between listening to the stories of your family members and your neighbors and watching the stories of distant celebrities.  There is a real difference between playing games alone with your computer and playing them with real live people.  There are occasional stories in the media about people coming together to play board games at libraries or cafes and discovering that they really enjoy the human interaction this allows.

It strengthens our connection to the natural world, to the places where we live. Nature exploration isn’t as immediately stimulating as screen time, but with a little time and patience it can yield great satisfaction. In April, during Screen-Free Week (which used to be TV Turnoff Week) we invite people in for sunset walks in the woods and fields. We point out the first wildflowers, look for salamanders under logs and stones, help people identify trees by bark and twigs, look for animal tracks in the mud, and watch the sun going down over the hayfields and the woodcocks engaging in their spectacular courtship flights. One adolescent who came with her family said as she was leaving, “I’ll be back. I mean, who wouldn’t like nature if they knew there was all this stuff going on in it?”

When I was a little kid my mother encouraged me to choose a particular tree on our land or a particular piece of ground at the edge of our swamp and go there at least twice a week to sit quietly, observe what was growing there, and watch for insects, birds, or animals passing through.  I got a clear sense of the changing seasons, which was helpful in understanding the garden schedule.  I also learned to slow down and pay attention, an ability that I’ve had to draw on in all my work since then.  (Years later we discovered the One Small Square books, which encourage this kind of attention to a particular place and provide suggestions for observation and exploration in different environments—backyard, woodland, pond edge, etc.) Later in my homeschooling I tried to find, identify, and press all the different types of flowering plants that grew on our two acres.  I thought that would be a quick project.  Over the season I discovered that we had dozens of flowering plants, many that I had never noticed before.

I encourage you to set aside some family time that is free from digital entertainment.  Some people observe Screen-Free Week once a year.  Others take a digital-free day each week. William Powers writes in Hamlet’s BlackBerry about his family’s practice of taking ‘digital Sabbaths”; from Friday night through Sunday evening they disconnect their computers, unplug their televisions and spend time in the real world.  He said they felt lost or disconnected at first, but soon found that they enjoyed and connected with one another, and with neighbors and visitors, much more than they had done before.

New Interactive Workbook offers dozens of fun things to do during every season… Keep Your Children Entertained

There are all kinds of things to do in your unplugged time, some of which I’ve mentioned in the paragraphs above. Here are a few more suggestions to get you started:

  • Learn to make basic toys.  We’ve done this with guests of all ages, having the older and more skilled ones help with drilling and cutting and letting the younger kids sand and finish. Most people enjoy being makers.  Many also enjoy playing with the toys, even those that that might be considered young for their age.  One twelve-year-old boy who often complained of boredom found our climbing bear, which I thought of as toy for young kids, and played with it for quite a while and declared it “more addicting than Nintendo.”  Instructions for some simple homemade toys can be found online.
  • Read aloud together. (This can be fun for groups of adults too.)  Choose a play to read dramatically, and double up on parts if you have to.  Or try out Paul Fleischman’s books of poetry for choral reading (Newberry-winning so probably available through your library); parts for two to four readers are written in side-by-side columns so that readers are sometimes in unison, sometimes taking alternating lines, and occasionally reading different things out at once.
  • Check out free activities in your neighborhood: walks and teach-ins at nature centers, discussion groups in libraries, chess clubs…. you get the idea.
  • Volunteer, either officially at your local church, library, or nonprofit center, or unofficially, growing food to share, making toys for refugees, or cleaning up your street or block.

Your neighborhood, local extension office, and library are full of resources for further exploration.  State departments of environmental conservation offer brochures and articles on regional wildlife, and Joseph Cornell’s book Sharing Nature with Children is full of ideas for helping kids slow down and notice what’s going on all around them.  Mary Pipher’s book The Shelter Of Each Other discusses the challenges of family life in the consumer culture and offers suggestions for a variety of real-time re-integrative activities. Look some of these up and enjoy the adventure!

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