MANCHESTER >> The reddish colored hula hoop is barely visible as it sits on the layer of leaves that carpets the ground under the ropes course behind Burr and Burton Academy this Saturday afternoon,
It's about to become more than a toy for the group of 12 middle school-age girls listening to Andrew MacArthur, a physical education teacher at BBA, who's standing inside its ring. Stepping away from it, he encouraged them to think of it as a personal comfort zone.
"What we want to do today is straddle this line, between our comfort zone and things that give us anxiety," he said. "We want to feel a little bit nervous and anxious today, because we're pushing the bounds of our comfort zone — we want to challenge ourselves."
What lies outside the comfort zone today is overhead. The ropes course offers a variety of ways to navigate through the trees, at varying heights off the ground — the lowest of which is still amply high enough off the ground to take the inexperienced out of any comfort zone. A long wooden ladder-like set of steps up one tree to a small wooden platform is the entry point.
Following a discussion about safety procedures and harnesses, one girl offers to be the first to try it, and up the ladder goes Hilary Wren Morrow. Within a few minutes, she's traversing a wooden beam that takes her from one tree to the next. Others follow.
Getting outside, into nature, into the unknown and the different, and minus the ubiquitous handheld portable devices that often seem to substitute for conversation and genuine communication, is the purpose of "Unplugged," an outdoors adventure program launched by Lisa Kelly, a former BBA teacher and coach who now a now teaches Spin at the Sports Center at Stratton Mountain Resort. Four years ago, she gathered together a group of a dozen girls from several different area schools and they went on hikes around Stratton, camping and rock climbing. The idea was to expose them to the world of the outdoors and take them out of the "comfort zone" of smartphones and other electronic devices that distracted them from trying the new and unfamiliar, Kelly said.
That first summer pilot program in 2012 went well enough to launch another round of outdoor actvities that fall, now with 30 girls involved, and she hasn't looked back. Now constituted as a formal nonprofit organization, Unplugged has a series of events held once a month and running through June for 52 girls and its first cohort of 25 boys. Horseback riding, outdoor rock climbing, camping and fat tire biking have been added. The students range from third through eighth grades, usually divided into groups based on age.
Smartphones and other modern technological items are great and have their usefulness — but there's also a time to turn them off and put them away, Kelly said.
"Kids are getting cell phones earlier and earlier and losing the ability to look into adult's eyes, have conversations and get to know people — I just think you miss that personal contact," she said, adding that for many kids texting rather than talking face-to-face is the primary way many communicate with each other.
And yes, she has a cell phone too, she's quick to admit.
"But at least I grew up in a world where we didn't have that so I know when to turn it off — and that's the whole thing — the balance," she said.
The entire issue of how much time today's youngster's spend in front of electronic screens has been the subject of much study and angst. A 2010 analysis by the Kaiser Foundation found that the average 8- to 10-year old spent nearly eight hours a day with different media, and older children and teenagers spent more than 11 hours a day. And that was five years ago.
Another study, this one from the Pew Research Center released in 2012, found that half of all children aged 12 to 17 send or receive 60 or more text messages a day. The JFK Medical Center has found that teenagers send an average of 34 texts a night after going to bed, compounding an already existing problem of sleep deprivation.
So while tablets and smartphones are rapidly becoming close to indispensable for a wide variety of people and purposes, learning when to turn them off is also important, Kelly said.
"I just think it's OK to let kids know it's OK to turn your phone off for awhile," she said. "It's OK to go into the woods and be present — we're 'on demand' all the time with these phones."
Sage Lalor of Manchester, now a freshman at Burr and Burton, started with the first group of "Unplugged" veterans, and is now working with Kelly as a mentor with the current groups of students joining the program. It was a great way to meet other girls her age from different schools, she said.
"For me, it's just interesting getting outside with a bunch of people that I didn't know," she said. "It was fun to get to know them all, and do outdoor activities like canoeing or rock climbing and doing that not connected through Facebook or Messenger or social media."
Getting away from the screens for a few hours once a month or so probably doesn't change adolescent behavior around portable devices that much, but it helps them be more aware of it, added Devon Cohen, a group leader who has been helping Kelly with the events for the past couple of years. And it's not hard to get the kids to turn off the phones and dive into the woods, she said.
"If they have the opportunity to try the things that we're doing, then it's easy to get them to unplug," she said. "For some kids it's the first time they've tried some of the activities."
This is also the first year a group of boys have been added to the mix, something Kelly has wanted to add on to offerings for awhile. Eight activities, including a snow shoeing outing, mountain biking, hiking and camping have been set up for them, running through June 5.
The events can be anywhere from 2 hours in length to all day or even overnight — most end up being half a day, Kelly said.
As counterintuitive as it may seem, "Unplugged" also has a website, unpluggedvt.com, for more information.
Smartphones and other devices may be effective tools for keeping kids quiet, but they may also come with some unwanted consequences — there's no shortage of disturbing research on how video games, especially some of the more violence-oriented ones, are influencing young kids, she said.
"If we can just find ways to talk about it more, just to have it be OK — it provokes some good conversation because it's not as easy as you think," she said. "We have to start somewhere."