Really? We Want Kids to Use Technology Now?

May 1, 2013, Department, by Richard J. Dolesh

It's counterintuitive to many, but technology can actually help kids connect with nature.Not so long ago, NRPA caught heat from some members for an ad we ran in the magazine. It showed a picture of a hiker who was obviously in a backcountry area of a park, typing on a smartphone. The caption said “You are here. So are we,” and the subtext encouraged people to connect with Parks & Recreation Magazine’s online editions. For some, this indicated that NRPA was turning to the dark side — a sign that we were succumbing too much to the temptations of technology — and this was a bad thing.

Funny what a difference a little time can make. Parks and recreation agencies are now embracing technology in all ways to connect with visitors and provide them information about programs and services. But for some, there is still a lingering suspicion that the use of technology is a distraction to kids, rather than an aid, in the effort to reconnect them with nature and the outdoors. Some old-school naturalists, program leaders and environmental educators would rather kids put their cell phones away and pay attention!  

Well, it’s not going to happen, and the sooner all of us adults get the picture, the sooner we can move on. We won’t be prying their smartphones from their clutching fingers. Kids would rather be locked in a windowless room for hours (with their smartphones) than walk in the woods for 15 minutes without them.  

No, the answer is not to try to take them away or somehow silence them. The answer is to embrace them. Yes, it’s a stretch, perhaps one of the bigger ones we will make as adults who are concerned about kids losing touch with nature and the outdoors as we look for ways to reconnect them, but we might as well get over it. Kids are now joined inseparably with their technology, and we will do far better to make lemonade out of lemons than go around with a sour face thinking it wasn’t like this when we were kids.

Just to illustrate, recent research shows that 78 percent of youth aged 12–17 have a cell phone, and of those, two in five have a smartphone. Seventy percent of households with a tablet say that kids under the age of 12 use it, and three in five parents in these homes say their kids use the tablet for educational applications. Tellingly, three in four teachers say that using technology in the classroom motivates kids to learn.

Parks and recreation have a vital role to play in connecting kids to nature and the outdoors, and while this historically has been part of the mission of many park and recreation agencies, there is a new sense of urgency. One indication of how strongly we believe in this is the level of support that has been shown by the nearly 600 NRPA member agencies that signed onto the 10 Million Kids Outdoors initiative launched last fall by the National Wildlife Federation in cooperation with NRPA.

In addition, parks and recreation have an important role in creating environmentally literate citizens and taxpayers as well. We provide the living classrooms and laboratories for youth to have field experiences and learn lessons about conservation, climate change, energy conservation and other challenges that we face in dealing with our natural environment. Clearly, the creative use of technology will help us achieve all of these objectives, and in fact, it will be essential to how youth will assimilate, share and benefit from knowledge.

The National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF) has been looking into the increasing use of technology for environmental education and has produced an outstanding short video as well as a number of other resources, including a summary of the Top Ten Apps for environmental education, a tool kit and a wealth of materials on their Environmental Education Week website. Other organizations are also providing excellent online resources, such as eNature’s FieldGuides and Project Noah, which provides an online information exchange and networking to promote understanding of wildlife and pathways to citizen science. The National Wildlife Federation promotes geocaching with a GPSdevice or smartphone. The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) is studying innovative ways that environmental education promotes STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning. Many new resources can enhance a nature experience for kids, while online tools allow leaders to employ the scientific method, find additional knowledge and enrich the outdoor experience.

This is a subject of keen interest to parks and recreation. Look for more on this subject in the coming months, including a webinar by the 10 Million Kids partnership on the use of technology in environmental education, Congress education sessions and an open discussion forum, and new information and resources on the NRPA website, NRPA social media and in Parks & Recreation Magazine.

So, fear not — pick up your smartphone or tablet, join some kids outdoors and see how much fun you can have using technology to connect kids to nature.

Richard J. Dolesh  is NRPA’s Vice President of Conservation.