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Tech-Crèche – a family try a car-free and tech-free break in the New Forest

Tom Christie, his wife Sarah and their children Callie, 13, Indira, 5, and Suki, 3, spent a car-free and tech-free weekend in the New Forest National Park. It was revealed this week that Britons spend more time using technology devices than they do sleeping. After travelling down on the train from Banbury in Oxfordshire they put their car keys, smartphones and tablets away to see what effect disconnecting from technology and their car would have.

It’s not easy reducing the amount of time we spend glued to our gadgets. Our phones are the last things we see at night before we go to bed, and the first things we pick up when we wake up in the morning. Even when we’re just checking the time, we’re also looking out for those notifications and symbols.

A minute in a queue at the supermarket and we’re checking our Facebooks; we’re logging in while we’re waiting for our laptops to boot up; we’re plugging in our earphones when we’re out walking the dog. When we finish work, we’re at home checking our work emails. When we leave the house, we experience a wave of panic if we think we’ve left our phones someplace else. 

Tom Christie, wife Sarah and their daughters Callie, Indira and Suki enjoyed a camping weekend at Hollands Wood near Brockenhurst

We measure popularity in likes and shares. Parents proudly boast that their kids know how to unlock the iPad and know how to face-time the grandparents or that they know all the words to Frozen. People are addicted. Not me, you understand, I’ve got the whole thing under control. But some people.  

We know we all use technology too much, so once in a while it’s good to just switch off, and go off-grid for a couple of days. That’s got to be a good idea. So why don’t people just leave their laptops at home if they don’t want to use them for a bit? Why don’t they just switch off their phones? Let’s have a bit of that old fashioned holiday feeling when you had Absolutely No Idea what anyone back home was doing, and they ‘d have to wait until you came back to find out if you’d had a good time. Those work emails can just wait. 

That’s easier said than done though. Try it. Try not to look at your phone for the next few minutes, and straight away and your brain is reminding you, where your phone is. Try not to look at it for a day, and the next thing you know you’re finding a dozen excuses why you need to just sneak a quick glance. It’s like asking a smoker to give up when there’s a full pack of twenty in his pocket, or trying to quit drinking and then teleporting into a pub full of all your friends.  So it was with a certain reluctance that we agreed to hand over all the phones, and the car keys, for a weekend of camping, cycling and adventures in the New Forest.

Our weekend in The New Forest without technology was rather beautiful, but I guess that the New Forest should take more credit for that than the lack of gadgets. It’s a lovely part of the world, filled with a sense of magic and wonder.  Being without that slab of all-knowing metal in our pockets meant that we did things differently though I guess.

On the two hour train journey down to Brockenhurst, while passengers around us amused their kids with a tantalizing iPad cinema experience, we all looked out the window and guessed what we might see next. As Victorian as it felt at first, it was actually fairly enjoyable. Our kids made do, playing top trumps and I Spy. When they got bored we sat and gave them a cuddle and chatted away and made up silly turn taking games until they thought of something else to have a go at. Walks to the train’s litter bin became an adventure.

I couldn’t say that our kids were any happier staring out the window rather than staring at a screen, but it probably did more for their imagination. I guess letting them watch a film would have been easier- and it would have given us a chance to log in and comment and like and share and everything, but it was lovely to speak to them without the normal distractions of everyday modern life. The kids would certainly have been quieter sat in-front of that screen. But should that really be our top priority when we are bringing up our children? Interacting with each other has got to be better for them than interacting with a machine. 

While in the New Forest, we were worried, as perhaps all campers do, about the weather. The worst thunderstorms in however many years had just blasted the country, and more were due. Had we had our phones with us, I guess that obsession would have been slightly more manifest, and we’d have been picking our way through weather websites and apps looking for the favourable forecasts that we were hoping for. As it was, we looked at the sky, and had a bag of coats at the bottom of the pushchair just in case. It turned out to be glorious weather, we couldn’t have asked for better. So I guess all that time we would have spent staring at screens would have been wasted. There’s a lesson to be learned there I guess.

We took an open top bus ride through some beautiful countryside on a route towards the sea-side. Normally, travelling on a bus or a train would be the signal to every phone-carrying human being to dig that phone out, and stare at that screen for a while. We looked out the window at the amazing scenery and played a game where we would try and get passing traffic to wave back at us. The kids loved doing that.

We went for an evening meal at a restaurant, and I guess that’s a situation where many parents would instinctively reach for the iPad or smart phone to keep the children quiet. Our kids were super tired by this point - but not that sort of super tired where they might be sleepy: the super tired where they are irritable and irrational and slightly insane. Including them in the conversation worked for a bit, as did guessing games and colouring in.

The revelation though was revealing the disposable camera that we’d brought with us. Growing up with the instant gratification of digital cameras, I didn’t think they’d appreciate the idea of taking a photo and then waiting a week before they could see it again. Our kids loved that disposable camera though. It was lovely to see them taking turns smiling and being the photographer. Even when the camera ran out of shots, it was still an object for them to share and treasure. I’m going to remember that trick, and can’t wait to see the images of out of focus, badly cropped portraits that they inevitably have taken. 

When people consider a few days without technology, they worry, and are convinced that there might well be some minor crisis that a mobile can fix. We heard it all weekend, “Any problem, just call me”, people would say before we explained our situation. And those people panicking are mostly right: your phone can get you out of trouble. But that doesn’t mean that those problems you encounter are unfixable without a mobile in your pocket.

We got lost in the morning, while out on a bike ride through the forest. I guess normally we could have called up the bike hire company or a friend with some local knowledge and asked them to come to our rescue. I guess we could have just used GPS or some Google Map magic. Instead, we asked a nice old lady who was out walking her dogs. You can’t beat a bit of human interaction.

We got lost again, about an hour later (I know, I know, directions aren’t my strong point) while we were looking for a pub we’d been told was amazing. We took a guess, and got it wrong. We didn’t get to the lovely pub we’d been told about. Instead we got to a lovely pub we hadn’t been told about, so as problems go, it really wasn’t that much of a hardship. It didn’t matter. That’s worth remembering. 

I’m trying to think about how our weekend could have been better if we’d have had our phones with us. What would it have added to the experience? We’d have probably recorded it more- updated our statuses and shared images with our friends to let them know we were having a good time. Would we have been any happier though? I don’t think so. Would the kids have been any better off? Definitely not.

I guess sometimes you need that breathing space to appreciate how wonderful the world out there can be, and more importantly you need to step away from recording your experiences - through Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and all that, to actually experience everything properly. You’ll never know the difference though until you actually try it yourself. Properly. So next time you’re away, lock that phone away somewhere. It might just make more of a difference than you can imagine.

Thanks to Camping in the Forest, the New Forest Tour, Careys Manor and Cyclexperience for their help in providing a car-free and tech-free weekend for Tom Christie and family.

Inspired to take a car-free and tech-free break in the New Forest. There are so many great ways to explore the New Forest National Park without a car - take a look at our Travel page for some ideas.

If you want a break from technology for a few hours why not leave your car keys, smartphones and tablets at the Tech Creche. It's open from 9am to 10pm until Septemeber 14, 2014, near Brockenhurst rail station. 

This entry was posted by Communications on Friday 08/08/2014


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