Kids & Nature Connections: Using technology to get outside

Submitted on Sun, 03/25/2018 - 09:39

This article originally ran in The Wenatchee World in February 2018.

“Kids these days.”

In truth, though: kids these days spend more time on screens than ever before. Some kinds of screen time can be beneficial for kids older than 18 months, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). But too much of the wrong kind can cut into healthy activities like sleep, social interaction, and spending time in nature.

So, can time spent in nature coexist with screen time? I think so. While it’s important to completely unplug at times, we can harness some of the magnetism of the screen to promote engagement, creativity, and learning while outdoors.

Here are some tools and ideas that might help families use technology to connect with nature, rather than rule their lives. 

A tool to manage screen time.

The AAP recently came out with new screen time guidelines for people ages birth-18. At the same time, they released a tool that helps families create a “Family Media Plan.” I just ran through it, and it seems easy to set up and print. The conversations it could spark about why we use our devices could be invaluable, and setting limits could free up more time to be outside and unplugged. Find it in English or Spanish at  

Harnessing screen use to connect to nature.

When the screens are out, they can be used to enhance experiences, not distract from them. Below are a list of some suggested ways to do that – as well as suggestions for reducing screen time in nature even further.

Help your kids take photos and videos of what they’re seeing. It can be a form of art, a way to really notice the natural world in a new way, and an encouragement to notice the beauty of nature. If they take a photo of a plant, encourage them to identify it and learn its name. Want to do this without screens? Bring art supplies.

Create a rule that if kids want to connect to the internet while in nature, they must have a specific question about the natural world that they want to answer. Make sure they articulate their question and brainstorm two or three answers to their question first. If possible, see if they can answer the question on their own using their powers of observation and deduction.  

Have kids use the voice recorder to record birdsong and other sounds they hear in nature. Be sure to only play back birdsong at indoors, however – it can stress birds in the wild.

Free apps that make getting outdoors easier.

The following are a limited list of free apps as of September 2018.

Oh, Ranger! Parkfinder helps find nearby natural areas, and not just parks. This is great for using where you live to find new places to explore, or on family road trips to get out and stretch your legs. 

iNaturalist is an app that helps you identify living things in nature. It helps you record your findings to be used by other amateurs and even scientists. It would probably work better for older kids.

Seek (a sister app of iNaturalist) probably fits younger kids better. You just take a picture of the plant or animal you’re seeing and it uses image recognition software to help identify it based on iNaturalist data. Currently, it has a modest list of plants and animals in North Central Washington, but it is pretty fun to use!

Star Walk is a stargazing app that makes it easy to learn about and identify constellations. It’s especially helpful now that the sun is setting earlier – more time to look at stars!