As a child of the 1980s and now raising two small children of my own in this new millennium, I have mixed feelings regarding the presence digital devices should have within the home and beyond. “Put down that Gameboy and look out the window!” my father would often hound at me during our family road trips. It’s not that I was disinterested in the beauty and promise of adventure from the passing scenery; I just simply saw it as a way to pass the time until we arrived at the trailhead. Once out of the car, my focus automatically shifted to skipping stones, catching salamanders, or building boats out of sticks, pine cones or anything else that found its way to my grasp.

Today, electronic screens and devices follow children everywhere, or rather, children follow the screens. In Richard Louv’s landmark book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, a fourth grader reports,

I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

This philosophy permeates through the culture of our youth today. Often dubbed as “digital natives,” they have spent the entirety of their lives with the ability to hold thousands of songs within their hand, search for an answer to nearly anything within seconds, and converse in real time withecoEXPLORE_digitalnative_creditJoëlvanBodegraven any number of peers. Digital devices such as smartphones or tablets have become in many ways security blankets for young people; tell them they can’t bring them along, and you may as well be ripping the blanket out of poor Linus’ hands.

Let me say very directly, I am a big proponent of time spent without screens (see our Discovery Camp policies for an example.) Children need an opportunity to harness and practice the use of all their senses in a natural environment, which has been shown in many well-documented studies. Time spent outdoors can benefit one’s physical, mental and emotional health and foster greater academic achievement. But are there ways for parents to combine outdoor learning with technology? Is “putting down that Gameboy” always the perfect solution? What if a device could actually encourage exploration and awareness of the outdoors?

There’s an App for That!

With the advancement of technology comes new ways of introducing the wonders of the natural world while enjoying the utility of smartphones and other devices. One such application bridging nature and technology is the iNaturalist online ecoEXPLORE_inaturalistnetwork. This free resource, available as a website as well as a mobile application, enables users to submit observations of organisms online. These observations are then used in scientific pursuits and shared with fellow nature enthusiasts. Essentially, a smartphone transforms into a data-collection tool; the user simply snaps a photo of a butterfly, wildflower or whatever natural species they encounter, and uploads it to the iNaturalist network, where the observation is automatically geotagged with the exact coordinates where the plant or animal was found, along with a time and date stamp. Once the data is uploaded, other users of the network will weigh in on the identification of the organism, creating a learning experience for all. A young child utilizing this network along with a parent (the app is for ages 13 and up) becomes an active part of the scientific method, while harnessing their affinity for technology.

Rewarding Discovery

So, how do you persuade a child to opt for outdoor adventure instead of mastering Minecraft? This spring, with funding provided by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, The North Carolina Arboretum will kick off a new incentive-based initiative to increase interest in ecoEXPLORE_logoSTEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) careers, while cultivating a new generation of naturalists and outdoor enthusiasts. The program ecoEXPLORE (Experiences Promoting Learning Outdoors for Research and Education) leverages multiple program partners and offers a variety of incentives, such as hands-on field experiences, “lunch with a scientist,” and free admission to science events to serve as rewards after certain levels of activity are recorded. Children under age 13 can use the BioKIDS mobile application to upload their observations of plants and animals and email them to Arboretum education staff. Educators will then use the iNaturalist’s Explore The N.C. Arboretum and Natural North Carolina projects to post the children’s ecoEXPLORE_tabletpictureobservations online and contribute to conservation sciences. Children will earn patches and field equipment such as binoculars and insect magnifying boxes to aid them in their continuing explorations. Citizen Science Hotspots, places officially designated for observation of plants and animals, will be implemented at the Arboretum and at all 11 branches of the Buncombe County Library system. In March, an ecoEXPLORE guide and map as well as an ecoEXPLORE website, will feature all hot spot locations, as well as ways for youth to become ecoEXPLORERs and earn more prizes.

The battle of screens vs. outdoor time does not have to be a battle. As children recognize the value and pleasure of spending time in the natural world – while aided by technology – they can become more aware of the world around them. With this connection comes a greater personal interest and value in our natural resources and riches. Western North Carolina is a treasure trove of biodiversity; now let’s get kids outside to explore it!

Digital Native Photo Credit: Joël van Bodegraven