We aren’t a huge T.V. family (we actually don’t even have cable) but the pros of television are not lost on us either. Who doesn’t want to have some good family down time, all snuggled up together in close proximity, popcorn and treats at the ready? There is something Rockwellian about the scene, though as we’ve found all too often it’s the content you’re watching that can ruin an otherwise perfectly wholesome and enjoyable family moment. In a family wiIth ages ranging from 40 down to 5 there are bound to be some disagreements in what constitutes good, watchable entertainment. We’ve gone through many cycles of ROKU shows trying to find something that satisfies everyone’s palette. In the past we’ve settled on speechless yet snarky Pink Panther cartoons, satirical and offbeat Phineas and Ferb, the ‘I can’t believe someone actually does that’ Dirty Jobs, and our perennial fall back- the Nature programs–Dinosaurs vs Giant Octopus, and Stephen Hawking’s Into the Universe. But this past summer we hit on our most successful family TV watching experiment yet: survival shows.
Survivorman; Man vs Wild; Man, Woman, Wild; Out of the Wild: Alaska and Venezuela were our family favorites. There is built in, real life drama in these series. The nail biting moments of literally watching someone battle the elements, search for food or drink after days, and the fear of wild animals. It turns out the survival tv genre also contains a sizeable amount of education. There are discussions of what is and isn’t edible, ways to keep warm and conserve energy, methods of starting a fire (the award for most creative fire starting goes to Man, Woman, Wild–no contest), and building various types of shelters to protect one from exposure.
All this vicarious learning didn’t go un-sung in our household. I was surprised to find how often my kids were talking about what they’d seen and how they would put it to use if our family ever found ourselves in a similar situation. One day, I even found my son dangerously close to fire starting at the park–intently rubbing two sticks together and waiting to see smoke from the friction they make! Our binging on survival type shows definitely created good dinner table conversation too. We would suddenly be discussing how lucky we were to just be sitting down and eating food, food that practically takes on a magical poof like trajectory in modern life: food and sustenance ‘appear’ in our fridge and cupboards, then on to the plate and fork, and finally to the stomach. We get to have choices in our food, we don’t just have to eat whatever we can find even if that thing is hardly edible. (The insect and reptile eating in survivor shows always garner A LOT of ooh,aah, icks, and how could you’s.) Thanks to these programs, we would spend time talking about feeling warm and safe in our house; feeling lucky to have each other instead of spending a long night alone in the dark hearing scary noises, and feeling the creepy crawlies. Watching other people work to survive reinforced our lucky plenty and made gratitude a topic that we touched on more and more simply from suddenly having this comparitive context to draw from. This really is the thing that this ilk of t.v. show provides and that I truly believe most American kids simply do not have-a comparison of what it’s like to go without, to have to work hard for every little thing we all take for granted each day. Running water, hot water, flipping the light switch, safety, protection from elements and temperature, hunger, toilets! The little triumphs of daily life are what surviving is really reduced to and that’s what my kids see in these shows.
In fact , I was so wowed by all that my kids were gleaning from survivor t.v., I decided to take the next logical step: make it real for them! I’m a big fan of the Chinese proverb that says “tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand”, so with this in mind we turned months of survivor show inspiration it into a hand’s on opportunity to spend time together as a family creating and doing. The four of us gathered a few key supplies (axe and pocket knives) and ventured up into a favorite section of nearby mountains inspired to create a shelter like the ones we’d seen these people on tv whip up using, basic natural ingredients around them. A bivouac is the technical term for a temporary shelter made usually just for a night, but I would venture to say the structure we made verged more into tipi or art territory.
Made even more beautiful by the blue sky, the bright yellow aspen leaves, and the golden light of autumn, this shelter all but made itself. We gathered bundles of fallen timber and branch littered all over the woods, tied a simple 3 pole structure together using lengths of grasses and willows, then perched and leaned everything against a small upright aspen for stability. Voila! A structure was born. In little more than an hour we had the basic form secured and then we spent another hour just tinkering and enjoying the light and the gift of a good project. We gathered and leaned more sticks, stacked clumps of bark and bundles of grasses to create a barrier over the structure from wind or water. It was magical to watch my kids work steadily and with full focus. There is nothing like the outdoors to give kids a sense of simultaneous purpose and abandon. We all agreed when we’d done enough and stepped back to admire our handiwork. I can genuinely say that we felt real pride in having crafted something useful in such a short time. We sat down inside the structure, our structure, and imagined how we’d sleep spooned up one against the other. We didn’t stay and sleep there, that was never the plan. Maybe for our next survival experiment… but I don’t think there is one of us that doesn’t wish we had.