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Could your kids navigate the old-fashioned way?

For 70 years, generations of my family have been racing to a rustic cabin in the woods whenever we don’t have work on a summer day.

The one-room log cabin has electricity, an outhouse, and no running water. If you want heat, you have to crawl out of your sleeping bag to chop wood and build a fire in the cast iron fireplace.

You also learn to cook eggs and pancakes over that cast iron fireplace/oven. And yes, you burn quite a few breakfasts in the learning process!

I still remember the day my dad took my siblings and me for a day hike along the property lines, which were marked with strands of barbed wire fence. “If you get lost,” my dad said, “remember what you’re seeing today.”

He showed us how to determine which mountainside was north-facing and which was south, based upon what grew there.

We learned about using the sun as a guide, and we hunted for corner markers and moss on trees while weaving in and out of those barbed wire fences.

We learned to study the clouds, watch the weather, and read maps.

Today, I use those navigating skills on a regular basis. Just a general knowledge (and confidence!) of navigation has helped me get un-lost a thousand times, whether I’m back here in the Montana mountains or I’m living abroad somewhere like Berlin, Germany.

Whether you grew up near the mountains, in a small town, or in a great city, you learned something about navigation from your parents and mentors, too. You learned to trust your instincts and use the clues available to you.

navigationPhoto by Katie Clemons

Are we teaching future generations the same?

Last night, my husband and I were watching a fantastic TEDTalk by Ken Jennings. He’s the world’s trivia king, holding the longest winning streak on Jeopardy. And you know what he says? He reports that the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain that helps us with navigation, will actually shrink if it’s not being used.

Our society is more mobile than ever before. Wouldn’t this part of our brain be getting stronger in future generations, not weaker?

Ken Jennings holds up the smart phone he’s had in his pocket and shakes his head. He argues that we’re letting our smart phones figure stuff out for us because it’s easier than problem solving, learning, or investigating ourselves.

What do you think? Are we teaching kids enough about stuff like moss on the trees and topography or are we handing them a smart phone with a built-in GPS when they go out to play? And what about us and our navigation?

P.S. This Friday, September 20, I’m giving my own TEDTalk at TEDxMinot in North Dakota. My presentation is entitled “STORY MATTERS: Empowering Our Community and Lives Through Shared Narrative”, and I’d love to see you there.

Reading Time:

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  1. Jessica

    This is very interesting. I personally get very frustrated when people are forever ‘looking things up’ on their phones, when if given half the chance we would probably be able to work it out or remember the detail ourselves. I also find it quite socially rude, it interrupts conversation and tends to distract people, it also makes me feel like my company is not valued or interesting enough to sustain their attention.

    From my time working in Occupational Therapy, I definitely believe screens and modern technology are having a negative effect on children if not properly supervised. Screens do have a place, they can be both educational and entertaining, but they are not a substitute for the real play that allows children to use their minds and bodies to reach important developmental milestones.

  2. Crista

    I know that I could not navigate the “old fashion” way. I am so used to gps in my car and I think if it went out I would lost!

    • Susan

      Granted, my mom lives in a huge city, but she has lost her common sense when it comes to finding a place. She has relied on her GPS so much throughout the years, that she can pass a business 3 times without seeing it. She will also call ME when she gets lost, I’m 500 miles away and haven’t lived in her city for 10 years. Frustrating!!!

  3. Desiree

    I’m only a few hours from Minot, I’m going to try and make it!!

  4. Allie

    My biggest pet-peeve is when people use a GPS to get around our small hometown (9 square miles). I’m probably a little extreme, but I really want myself (and my children, when they’re old enough to drive), to have some feel of the roads without technology. Basic navigation skills are so important. Finding a road by yourself forces you to pay attention to the world around you, and helps you “map” things out in your head. You might be heading to a new grocery store far away, and realize that you’re near the high school your kids may one day attend. Or, just be confident that you don’t need to use a GPS to get somewhere a block from another location you currently go to :).

    I’m not anti-technology. It has a time and a place , and driving cross-country would be must harder without it! But I do think that challenging yourself to drive without a GPS is important.

    Also, my GPS tends to launch off my dashboard and into my lap at the WORST times, so maybe I have a bit of a vendetta.

    • Anitra

      That’s just it, though – GPS is a God-send to people like me, who are so landmark-oriented, that I can get totally and completely lost 3 blocks away from an area I’m comfortable and familiar navigating. (I’ve actually learned to do the opposite of what my instincts tell me when I get lost. Works most of the time.) My GPS helps me to find my way WITHOUT taking 3x as long and getting super frustrated in the process. And it actually helps me to pay MORE attention to the road and landmarks (sometimes) because I’m not trying to read directions off a piece of paper.

      • Anitra

        That said, I am usually trying to use my GPS only to get to places I’m unfamiliar with. It may take me 3 times going somewhere new before I’m comfortable turning it off, but I depend on it less and less each time.

  5. Mary @ Giving Up on Perfect

    Ohhh, what a great post! I’ve talked about this kind of thing so much with my husband and my best friend. It’s tricky because I realize that because of technology, our kids might not NEED to know all the “basic” skills we learned as kids (like looking something up in the actual, bound, on-the-shelf encyclopedia, maybe?). But…maybe they do need them anyway? It’s like schools deciding not to teach cursive writing. I don’t know if we truly need that skill, but the loss of it really bums me out. Then again, it’s not like I feel sad over my lack of butter-churning knowledge. I don’t know. This is tricky.

    As for navigation in particular, I definitely think that is a good skill to maintain because cell phones die or lose service in remote areas where you need these skills the most!

    • cindy

      butter-churning knowledge- I loved this!

  6. Leticia Justus

    This is a awesome post !!!
    My husband and 3 kids (13,10,8) are planning an overnight campout on our mountainous property in Montana this Autumn. We plan to bring some supplies like food and sleeping bags but we will make our own shelter and make a campfire for warmth and for cooking over. We all “know” what goes into making a shelter but thought doing it “hands on” would be better learning experience and a fun family adventure 🙂

  7. Kristin S

    I venture to say most young adults now have no sense of direction or ability to make decisions with confidence on their own. They look everything up on their phones. Pay attention and you’ll see lots of tops of heads.

    I work with college students. It is so hard to get them to make decisions without their phone or texting their parents.

  8. Tiare

    Another well-timed post as our family is going to visit the Hōkūleʻa tomorrow.

    The Hōkūleʻa is a Hawaiian voyaging canoe which is fully operable and is made to replicate ancient Hawaiian wa’a kaulua. Since being launched in 1975, it has made many voyages, several of which were completed without the help of modern technology. Instead of present-day navigation tools, the canoe was guided using ancient Polynesian voyaging techniques.

    My cousin, a master boat-builder, was honored to be onboard one of the Hōkūleʻaʻs expeditions. Like all ancient Hawaiians before him, he learned to use celestial beings (sun, moon, stars, planets) and other natural markers (tides, animals) as his guide. This fostered my pride for the achievements of my ancestors, and for the renaissance of young people, like my cousin, who are trying to learn what our ancestors knew.

    I admit that I’m a technophile and am awed by the possibilities of technology. But I agree with the thought that our societal dependence on technology comes at a huge cost – the cost of understanding things deeper than face value, of how to actually figure something out beyond just being able to push a button.

    The popular view is that technology is the final frontier and therefore, we should aspire to it. Why learn how to navigate when we can learn how to make a machine do it for us?

    I agree that technology is the final frontier, but not in a good way. As Mr. Jennings said, if we don’t exercise our brains and the blessing of being able to think, learn, and understand, we’ll eventually stop doing it altogether.

  9. Courtney

    Katie – I love this post. (And, I gotta say, I just hopped over to your website and blog and loved it there, too. So glad to “meet” you here through Tsh.) I grew up in a rural area and often lament that my children are not free to explore like I did. I am the one restricting their freedom, of course. We live in a much more suburban environment. Still, my husband and I make efforts to get out into nature as often as we can – and I love this idea of getting “lost” on purpose. I’m convicted on the smart phone issue, too. Totally guilty there. I’m going to make a conscious effort to depend on it less for navigation, and other things . . .

  10. priest's wife (@byzcathwife)

    I’d love my children to know more about the old, sustainable ways….it is difficult living in an urban environment

  11. Diana

    You should write a post about these tricks you know–not everyone’s parents had a chance to teach them and you’ve made me curious! 🙂

    • Katie Clemons

      That would be very cool! These things are so regional, though, that I’m afraid a broad post wouldn’t cover some of the most important things you’d want to learn. Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts are good at covering it, though. 🙂

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