It is no secret that American children are zealous technology users. Whether it’s iPads, cell phones, computers, video games or TV, much of our children’s time is devoted to staring at screens. In fact, these screens dominate children’s time upwards of 7.5 hours a day (1). Even 11% of 0-to-8-year olds use a smartphone, iPad, or similar device to play games, watch videos, or use apps -- and they spend an average of 43 minutes a day on these devices (2). This isn’t news to parents or teachers who see first-hand the level of engagement technology wields. But with technology being so all consuming, how can nature compete?
As a conservation educator at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, I am committed to connecting children to the environment. Studies show that the more time spent in nature as a child, the better that child develops an environmental ethic as an adult. Learning and caring for the environment at a young age is crucial for spreading awareness about human-caused threats to our planet in the future.
Technology is overtly exciting, full of sounds and sights that provide sensory overload and hours of stimulating entertainment. With technology, the child is in control and makes things happen or can get immediate responses from friends through the wonder of texting. Nature on the other hand is quiet. Children are not in control and often have to wait a long time for activity or just accidentally happen upon it. Nature is serene and demands time and keen observation to reveal itself.
The real issue is not about “nature vs. technology.” It’s about finding a way to connect nature to technology. Recently, we’ve started using iPads at the Conservation Station at Animal Kingdom. At real animal exhibits, educators talk one-on-one with children to point out the animals and discuss their amazing adaptations. Then, they take out an iPad to show the children a short video of a behavior of that animal that is not readily seen. The educators also create quick stories about the animals by combining a sequence of five pictures on the iPad. The children can interact with these stories and learn more about the capabilities of the animals they see in these exhibits. Each story ends with a call-to-action that children can take to help wildlife. This level of engagement encourages children’s natural curiosity about animals, takes advantage of the thrill of using technology and increases the time spent learning.
We have also discovered that children love taking pictures of the animals with their cell phones. Using an app called SciSpy, they can upload their animal photos and describe what they saw the animal doing for their friends and followers. They can even pose questions about the animal to get more information and add tags for documentation.
There are lots of websites out there designed to bring teachers, parents and children together with nature. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom our educators partnered with the extremely creative team at Disneynature to develop “Educators Guides” that accompany their major nature films. For example, African Cats, Chimpanzee , Finding Nemo 3D, Wings of Life and, coming soon, Bears, are the latest Educators Guide for teachers of children in grades K-3. These guides include specific activities that get children outdoors and into nature after watching the film.
Another favorite website of mine for parents is Nature Rocks. It offers outdoor, nature activities for parents. The National Wildlife Foundation offers a section called the Green Hour that provides nature activities for parents to encourage children to spend an hour a day outdoors.
We can look for ways to balance the time spent on technology with time spent connecting to nature. When we can combine the two, our children and our world benefit the most.
1. Kaiser Family Foundation Report: http://www.kff.org.entmedia/mh012010pkg.cfm, January 20th, 2010
2. Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America A Common Sense Media Research Study, October 25, 2011
The opinions expressed in Reimagining K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.