Figuring out a way to connect the digital world we live in today to nature is a challenge many parents face. Finding outdoor activities for your kids that they’ll actually enjoy in light of the alternative (video games) is a constant struggle.

Are video games bad for kids? Well, some parents go so far as to not allow video games at all in their homes, but studies have shown playing certain kinds of games can be beneficial to young children, especially those with ADHD. Playing the right video games can increase cognitive skills and improve study habits. They also provide a fun way for children to learn to retain information, solve problems, and manage their time.

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I don’t know about you, but my kids are seriously into computer games, specifically anything they can play with their friends on their iPads. Games like Minecraft and Angry Birds come to mind, but there are tons more. My 10-year old daughter loves to build and create with her best friend in their Minecraft world, but when my son steps in and starts disassembling things, she gets irritated very quickly.

When I watch them sitting on the couch staring at their screens and grumbling at each other, I remember how life was when I was a kid. There were no screens, other than the tv (and dad had control over that one), so we went outside to build and create our worlds. Today, things are different. Nature-deficit disorder, first introduced by Richard Louv in 2005, is very real. Children are detached from nature, and it’s affecting their mental and physical health on multiple levels.

Combining Nature and Video Games

My daughter’s 8th birthday party theme was Minecraft. I didn’t know much about the game at that time other than the creative building aspect. As always, I wanted to come up with some fun outdoor activities for the kids, but I needed a way to combine nature and video games. I knew my limited knowledge of Minecraft was a crutch, and I soon realized I’d have to dive in headfirst if I was going to be successful in my mission. So that’s what I did.

I quickly discovered this game highlights several concepts that easily relate to the outdoors, including survival, building with raw materials, mining, and hunting and fishing. Suddenly, I had much more to work with than I expected. My next objective was to develop an outdoor activity for the party that incorporated these various ideas.

Minecraft + Nature = Party Time

Most people see Minecraft as “online Legos,” but it’s much more. According to parenting and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa, Minecraft can “make kids more creative, improve their cognitive flexibility and working memory, and give them opportunities to feel great about their nerdy skills.” What she doesn’t mention is the concept of survival. This game teaches kids about the things they need to live in a world that doesn’t always give them what they want right when they want it. Sound familiar?

Although Minecraft makes finding the various components of the game a bit easier than in real life, at least my kids are developing an understanding of where things come from as opposed to simply believing everything will continue to magically materialize in front of them as they grow older. (I know that happens sometimes in the game, but it could be much worse.)

With that said, I chose to focus on the survival aspects when I developed my version of the game, rather than the building aspect. To briefly summarize, I created a live-action version of the game with multiple stations set up outside around our house. The kids moved as a unit through each of the stations harvesting veggies from their garden, mining diamonds, fishing, and traversing rough terrain, all with the ultimate goal of simply surviving the day. Their prize for all that effort? Cake and ice cream, of course. But they had to eat it outside…

The Results of My Minecraft Efforts

I expected my daughter and her friends to have fun, but it ended up being more than just a short activity. The kids played outside all afternoon, and I don’t recall my daughter taking time to open her presents until later that evening. The parents chatted while the kids raced around the house, visiting the various stations again and again. It might be considered cheating since the last station was a slip-n-slide that represented a raging river, but I’ll take what I can get. My mission of incorporating nature with a video game party theme was a success.

Other Examples of Video Game Party Themes

Minecraft isn’t the only video game that lends itself nicely to a nature theme. Pokemon, although it isn’t being played as heavily as it was when the app first came out, was designed to get kids outside, or at the very least, off their couches. Wandering around looking for Pokemon characters to collect not only pushed kids out the door, but also helped develop social skills they might be lacking. Pokemon still remains a popular birthday party theme. If your kid is into Pokemon, try thinking outside the box by hosting a party outdoors. You could easily develop a scavenger hunt that encourages the children to find characters from the game that are hidden around your yard.

Another example of a game that could easily be utilized as a birthday theme is Angry Birds. I would start with a live action version of the game using life-size props and making one team the birds and the other team the pigs. The goal would be for the pigs to build a “fortress” the birds couldn’t knock down. After a sweet treat as a reward for both teams, why not introduce some real nature to the party and present a short program on local birds? Depending on the time of year and your geographic location, this could be a fun and educational way for the kids to get more out of your party than just cake and ice cream.

Addressing Addiction

Although my first choice would be for my daughter to give up video games and spend all her free time outside (or even pursuing her other passion, which is art), I realize that just isn’t a possibility given our recent and future advancements in technology. Kids will always have screens to stare at, and our job as nature-minded parents will therefore always be a struggle. However, if you are concerned your child may be going off the deep end when it comes to electronics, check out this link to take a quick screening (no pun intended) and see where you stand.

Above all, don’t give up the fight! With a little extra effort, we can bring nature to our kids in just about any setting, as evidenced by my story above. If you have a similar story to tell, please email me or comment below. I’d love to hear your ideas for bringing nature and that imaginary online world together.

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