From Tech-Lover to Nature-Lover: Using Technology to Connect Kids with Nature

Can Nature and Technology Be Friends? 

Kids' overuse of screens and underexposure to nature seem to go hand-and-hand. But given the fact that technology is here to stay, and most likely will always sing its siren song to digital natives, I think it's best to harness that power to turn kids onto things I care about, like the natural world! Here are 8 ways to use technology to increase kids' interest in and engagement with the natural world. These suggestions are especially relevant for tweens and teens, who are pushed toward ever greater technology use by both school and peers.

The following suggestions were largely inspired by the book How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Scott Sampson, particularly his chapter on nature and technology.

Digital Photography

This is perhaps the easiest way to use technology to enhance outdoor experiences. Photographs make vivid mementos and help kids create lasting memories of their time in nature. Give your kid a camera or your phone and let him take photos and videos of his most interesting finds. You can use the photos to identify species when you get home, or create a slideshow. Share the photos, slideshows, videos and other creations on social media. Just make sure the camera is put away most of the time you are outside so your kid has a chance to soak in the outdoors.

Use the Internet to Answer Questions, Find Nature Nearby

After outdoor experiences, use the Internet to answer questions that may have come up during your adventure. You can also use the Internet to find ideas for local nature activities using websites such as NatureRocks and NatureFind.

Nature and Social Media Apps

There is a large and ever-growing number of apps that can enhance your nature experience. Many of them operate offline to allow use in remote locations far from cell signals. Use these apps (or get your kid to show you how to use these apps) to model how technology and nature can complement each other. Here are 10 nature apps your tech-savvy tween or teen might enjoy (some free, some not):
  • Leafsnap is an electronic field guide that uses visual recognition software to help identify tree species from photographs of their leaves. 
  • Peaks allows you to take a photo of mountains and then identify the name, location and altitude of the peaks you've captured.
  • Audubon Birds Pro is another field guide that includes high quality pictures, in-depth descriptions, calls and sightings for more than 800+ species of birds. This is one of many apps designed specifically for birding.
  • MyNature Animals Tracks includes a searchable database of track and scat, along with photos, range maps, and sound files of vocalizations for each animal. 
  • Yonder is a social media app that allows outdoor enthusiasts to share digital images and video of their adventures. Use it for ideas for your next local or far-flung outdoor adventure.
  • NatureFind helps you "find nature nearby" by sharing places and events where you can experience nature.
  • AllTrails helps you find trails nearby, and then allows you to track and navigate offline.
  • MapMyHike enables you to use the built-in GPS of your mobile device to record the duration, distance, pace and elevation of your hike and track your route on an interactive map, then share the details of your hike with family and friends through social media. 
  • Nature Passport "contains missions that encourage children to learn, play, and explore in natural spaces where they live and learn. The missions can be done at school, in after-school programs, or with friends and families in backyards and parks. The passport missions are designed to be simple and engaging, to be suitable for urban, suburban, and rural areas, and to give participants practice with science, art, and math skills."
  • Star Walk is an interactive astronomy guide that offers "augmented skygazing." It shows celestial objects in the exact positions on the sky above you and provides detailed information about them. 

Participate in Citizen Science

An especially meaningful way to engage kids in the natural world is to make them "citizen scientists." Citizen Science is a way for anyone of any age or ability level to participate in data collection for real science about the natural world. Most of these projects have related apps you can download for free. Here are four examples to get you going (read about 10 more citizen science projects in this post):
  • iNaturalist: Use this app to record, share, and learn more about plants and animals you encounter in nature. Scientists and land managers use the data to monitor changes in biodiversity. Browse or search projects for something that interests you.
  • Project NoahThis app is a "tool to explore and document wildlife" by helping people identify plants and animals and then collecting data from them about where certain species are located. The project has interesting specific missions and is supported by National Geographic.
  • eBird: Birders simply enter when, where, and how they went birding; then fill out a checklist of all the birds seen and heard during the outing. 
  • Budburst: This national network of citizen scientists monitors plants as the seasons change. All you need to do to participate is register, learn how to observe, select a plant, go outside and observe, then submit your observation.

Try Geocaching

I first heard about geocaching from a mom with tweens. Her kids are completely obsessed! If you are new to geocaching, here is how it works: use your GPS-enabled device (like a smartphone) to participate in an outdoor treasure hunt. Use coordinates to locate a container (geocache) and the treasure inside (often little toys or trinkets). You can keep your treasure, as long as you replace it with something else of equal or greater value. Geocaching is one of fellow blogger Lori Alper's favorite ways to get her teenagers excited about hiking.

Study Biomimicry

Biomimicry is "an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies." Probably the most widely-known example is Velcro, created by Swiss engineer, George de Mestral who was intrigued by the burrs that kept sticking to his socks and his dog on a hunting trip. A more recent example is how the shape of bumpy flippers of humpback whales has inspired aerodynamic blades in wind turbines and computers. Biomimcry demonstrates how nature can inspire creative solutions and provides a powerful lens through which to view science education.

Nature Gaming

This is a relatively new phenomenon with real potential, according to Scott Sampson, an expert in getting kids engaged in nature in a tech-centered world. A few nature-related digital games highlighted by Sampson include: Name That SharkBird BrainsBe Bear-Aware. See also the nature-themed games offered by PBS Kids, such as Curious George's Bug Catcher, Dinosaur Train's River Run, or EekoWorld's EekoCreature. These simple games, mostly directed at a younger audience, could provide a bridge between a gaming enthusiast and the natural world. Keep your eye out for newly developed games related to nature that are geared towards your child's age group.

Model the Hybrid Mind

Part of our challenge as parents is to encourage the diffuse "lantern consciousness" that the natural world fosters in a world that increasingly emphasizes a "spotlight consciousness" that blocks out external stimuli: the type of narrow and directed attention required by screens and digital media. This is particularly important since diffuse attention -- in which we are wide open to the full spectrum of sensations around us -- relieves stress, restores energy, and fosters clear thinking (according to How to Raise a Wild Child). We want our kids to be experienced in both types of consciousness, and ideally to be able to switch easily between the the digital and physical worlds, or to have a "hybrid mind" (a term coined by Richard Louv)

When using technology while in nature, the digital technologies you use should allow an easy transition from a digital focus back to the multi-sensory world. As the adult, make sure you model switching back and forth between the two states of consciousness, using technology to draw you back into nature and to enhance rather than block your human senses.

For more ideas on how to help your kids fall in love with nature, check out Scott Sampson's new book How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. It's full of fabulous tips and activities for kids of all different ages.

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What are your favorite ways to use technology in nature?

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  1. This is awesome. I am totally saving this list. I have tweens who like "nature" but not hiking, walking in nature or many other things. I actually just bought the Wild Child book but have not had a chance to read it yet. Glad to hear that it is worthwhile!

    1. Loved the book. Will be posting more about his ideas soon : )

  2. The irony of some of these nature-tech combos is that in many places where you might still hike or bike out in the wilds these days, you can easily lose all cell phone or wifi service. So, it helps us unplug as I think we all need to...

    1. Anne, most of the nature apps work offline! Of course it's nice to be completely unplugged from all tech from time to time too : )

  3. That sounds like such a good book! I'm hoping to try Geocashing with my boys this summer.

  4. Geocaching is my fave nature technology hack!

  5. I need to read this book! We geocache our way through the US and abroad. Such a fabulous way to help the kids enjoy travel.

  6. Such a great list! I didn't know about most of these, and love ways we can connect kids while also appealing to their interests in tech. Isn't it neat how these apps allow us to engage in different ways?!

  7. Thank you for sharing information. it is new and useful to me..

  8. I'm normally in favour of keeping kids away from screens, but you raise an absolutely valid point about harnessing their obsession for good.
    Although I use a birding app, there are many apps on your list that are new to me. (And I've even discovered that there is geocaching on my little island, which is great!).
    Thanks for a great resource which I'll share.

    1. Thank you, Clare! I'm pleased you found the information useful.

  9. We found that as soon as we locked our devices our kids went back to being "normal" and doing the activities we were pushing for. By not enabling the couch potato behavior, our kids went back outside and were playing more. They got back on their bikes and went back to exploring. We now endeavor to use the electronic devices as tools to answer questions. Questions like how many Saturn's fit inside the sun, what kind of wasp is that, etc...

    A Green Leaf Home.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. I enjoyed the information lot. Thanks for sharing this information.guided duck hunts


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