One of my favorite springtime rituals is joining the 5th and 6th graders for their annual trip to the Farm School in Athol, Massachusetts, about an hour and half drive from Fayerweather. During their three day overnight, the students participate in a wide variety of activities and chores, giving them a unique view of life on a small working farm, and a better understanding of where their food comes from. Their time at the farm also allows them to experience something that modern urban life has all but forgotten — how to slow down, relax and focus on a single task.
The day starts bright and early at 6:00 am. Morning chores vary from collecting eggs and making breakfast for 40 people, to feeding pigs and cleaning the cow barn. After breakfast, there is more work to be done, which might include chopping firewood, weeding gardens or tapping maple trees for syrup. Since the trip is in mid-March, the mornings are quite cold and mud almost always plays a major role in the experience.
There is also one other aspect of the trip which is important — the complete absence of technology. There are no TVs, no computers, no cell phones or video games for three days. Instead, there is morning yoga in the field, nature walks in the afternoon and storytelling at night. Before bed on our second night, our evening activity entailed walking to a nearby field and each finding a place to lie down, away from others. Once we were comfortably on our backs, we were told to simply look at the sky, without talking for 15 minutes. Interestingly, there was no giggling or whispering, only silence. When we were done, we all got up and quietly walked back to the bunk house. On the way there, I asked a boy, who is particularly fond of video games, how his experience was without technology. He paused for a moment and then asked, “Are there two kinds of good?”
His response struck me as quite profound, so the next day, during our closing gathering in which kids shared their thoughts about the trip, I asked how it was to be without cell phones and computers for three days. Almost without exception, the entire group responded that they felt less worried and anxious. Yet, when I asked if they would consider changing their habits, they said absolutely not. They couldn’t wait to get back to texting and playing video games. When I asked why they would return to doing something they now knew contributed to making them feel less then great, they said it wasn’t really a choice. Everyone used technology and if they didn’t, they would feel left out.While increased access to ever more sophisticated technology has clearly brought great benefits to how we live our daily lives, as a school leader, I worry that we often ignore the negative impact it can have on young children and adolescents; in particular, shortened attention spans and increased anxiety. While I am not advocating that we return to rotary phones and mainframes, I do think that as our children’s world gets faster and more complex, it is equally important that we teach them how to slow down and relax. Our kids may not need to clean the cow barn before breakfast every day, but they can turn off the TV and walk the dog… leaving their phones on the kitchen counter.