Using technology to lure your children to the great outdoors

By Carolyn Ross on May, 18 2011
Fourteen-year-old Emily is paddling in a kayak off the coast of Georgian Bay. She is spending eight full days outside, sleeping under the stars and learning how to navigate using a GPS unit, a compass and a map. Emily is part of a group of 16 teenagers who are on a wilderness kayaking trip with the YMCA of Oakville in Ontario. What is important is that the adventure is out of doors.

A growing body of research shows that regular exposure to the outdoors may be just as important as exercise, especially for children. The result is increased attention span, physical fitness and mental well-being.

Don’t all children spend some time, every day, playing outside? Not according to statistics. They are indoors, in front of a screen, or being driven to an indoor activity by their parents. And often their parents are afraid to just let them go outside to play without adult supervision.

A child’s screen time should be limited to one or two hours a day or about 10 to 14 hours a week according to the Canadian Pediatric Society. However, actual screen time averages 52 hours a week for young people between the ages of eight and 18 according to the U.S.-based Kaiser Family Foundation.

Our kids are raised in a digital world where having a computer and a cell phone is as ubiquitous as electricity. And one of the fallouts is lack of outdoor play.

But what if we could use digital media to our advantage? Could some forms of technology actually draw children outdoors? Yes, they can. And a number of technological tools already exist that can help do the job. Hand-held GPS units, field guide applications for the iPod and digital cameras can be used to get our children active in the outdoors.

High-tech treasure hunt

Geocaching is a great way to combine technology and nature. If you have a hand-held GPS unit, a visit to geocaching.com offers thousands of waypoints that, when inserted into your unit, lead to “caches” – special places in your community where hidden tokens or prizes can be found.

At the Nature Interpretive Centre at Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ont., school classes and families participate in programs where they learn to use a GPS unit and then embark on a geocaching treasure hunt that gets them exploring the forest. Nature Centre manager Ian Hendry says, “There is very little trouble getting kids excited about a GPS adventure.”

How to geocache:
  • involve your kids in each phase of the adventure
  • choose the coordinates of a cache online
  • plug the numbers into the GPS unit
  • allow the unit to take you on a guided hike
  • discover new places in your own community or at a vacation site

There are almost 1.2 million caches hidden around the world and the number increases daily.

There’s an app for that

Get students excited about nature through technologies that are revolutionizing outdoor education. Michael Quinn, educational consultant for the Arundel Nature and Science Centre in Arundel, Que., promotes the use of various forms of technology to get school children outside and interacting with nature. He says,“Technology has traditionally been seen as the enemy, because it meant teenagers were sitting inside, playing video games and becoming obese.” He gets his students involved and suggests:
  • downloading field guide applications onto kids iPods
  • learning about animal tracking, plant identification and birdcalls
  • making use of applications that contain an encyclopedia of identification tools, including flow charts and classification keys. These are easy to carry and help make sense of the many plants and animals in the forest. 

Start snapping

In Guelph, Ont., a new program called Focus on Nature inspires students to explore local green spaces with cameras in hand. “We live in an image-filled world and by using photography as a tool for observing and discovering nature, students gain a new perspective and a new sense of purpose while out on the trail,” says Shirley Hunt, the program coordinator. Here are the basics for setting up a program:
  • learn the creative elements of photography
  • participate in nature and sensory awareness activities if available
  • photograph natural settings within walking distance of home or school
  • share images with friends and family through slideshows or community displays

The effect of Shirley’s program has been to encourage kids to slow down and pay attention to their surroundings, and at the same time add an element of excitement to the outdoors. One boy in Grade 6 said, “I don’t know why, but the camera just makes nature more exciting!”

Shirley offers a caveat to parents interested in using digital technology to get kids outside. If the technology, such as the GPS unit, iPod or camera, becomes the sole focus of the outdoor experience, it can get in the way of having a connection with nature. Technology can be a fantastic tool to lure young people into the outdoors and add focus to their explorations, but, once there, they also need time for direct contact with nature, unmediated by a screen.

Outdoor classroom

There are lessons to be learned from being outside:
  • the heightened awareness that comes from developing a sense of direction or looking deeply at a plant or animal;
  • the stress-relief and calm that come from appreciating the outdoors on its own terms.

The key time for developing a connection with nature and setting the groundwork for a lifelong relationship with the natural world is between six and 12 years of age. Parents get to decide at what age it is appropriate to introduce digital devices into our children’s lives, but chances are these ages will intersect.

We can’t expect kids to value the outdoors unless they have had fun opportunities to get to know nature.

Whether you use digital gadgets or do something as traditional as learning to make a bow drill to start a fire, it is more important than ever to remind children, and ourselves, to get outside and play on a regular basis.

10 ways that digital technology can get kids outside

  1. Hand-held GPS unit
  2. Geocaching
  3. Interactive field guide applications for the iPod or Blackberry
  4. Digital cameras
  5. Digital microscopes
  6. Google searches toidentify animals or plants
  7. Night vision goggles
  8. Computer programs that help kids identify birds and bird calls, such as Dendroica, created by Environment Canada. natureinstinct.org/dendroica
  9. ‘Spark’ Pasco Science    Learning Systems, a mini SMART board that enables outdoor science labs. Students enter data directly into the computer while out in the field. pasco.com
  10. Videoconferencing with outdoor education centres

Online resources that take your kids outside:

Active Kids Club for all the information you need to get outside and start your very own outdoor playgroup for kids. activekidsclub.com

Child and Nature Alliance provides an interactive map of a community of people in Canada committed to getting kids outside. childnature.ca

Child and Nature Network  includes research, ideas and resources to connect children and nature. childrenandnature.org

Carolyn Ross is a teacher, an outdoor educator and an aspiring naturalist. In 2010 she worked as the Back to Nature intern at Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ont. She is currently working at the Guelph Lake Nature Centre in Guelph.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, June/July 2011.

By Carolyn Ross| May, 18 2011

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