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Technology and the Great Outdoors

By Christy Crawford on May 12, 2011
  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8

This summer, rather than venture outside, many students will succumb to television-induced comas or play an endless series of video games. Research shows that today's students spend almost eight hours a day looking at some sort of digital media indoors. Author and naturalist Richard Louv says that kids today spend half as much time outdoors as they did twenty years ago!

This summer, rather than venture outside, many students will succumb to television-induced comas or play an endless series of video games. Research shows that today's students spend almost eight hours a day looking at some sort of digital media indoors. Author and naturalist Richard Louv says that kids today spend half as much time outdoors as they did twenty years ago! Louv calls the phenomenon "nature deficit disorder."

But contrary to what many critics are hollering, technology doesn’t have to be Mother Nature's enemy. In fact, technology may be her best PR person! Educators have used technology to make social studies exciting, to bring vocabulary to life, and to virtually eliminate school absenteeism. Now read about four fabulous ways technology can get your students outside and get them moving.


1. Explore With Tech Tools

Louv asserts that today's digital natives can name more Pokemon characters than trees in their neighborhood. Change that! Use the Audubon Guides app to help kids successfully search for and identify a tree by its leaves or shape.  Prove to Louv that technology is the perfect gimmick to get a housebound kid loving the outdoors. 

For young tree lovers!

No need to lug around cumbersome field guides.  Grab some binoculars and track the elusive yellow-bellied sapsucker or a red-tail hawk with the help of the Peterson Birds of North America app or iBird Explorer Pro. These apps will enable kids to quickly find birds on the move. Are your young birders wondering if they heard the "Caw! Chee-chee! Tweet!" of a chickadee or titmouse?  No problem, these extensive apps can even play the song of the bird they're studying.  


Scats and Tracks of North America will assist young nature sleuths hot on the trail of raccoons, deer, and lots of other critters. The app identifies the footprints and droppings of local wildlife.   

                                Get this app!                    Get this app!



2. Help a Scientist Out: Start NatureMapping!

Observe, record, collect, and analyze data on wildlife and their habitats. Then present your findings to local scientists. Diane Petersen's Washington elementary school challenged "decades-old assumptions about [the short-horned lizard's] habitat and diet." Petersen's 4th graders plotted horny toad sightings on a computer map, put the info on large spreadsheets, graphed and scrutinized their findings, and overlaid aerial photos of the land onto their maps of the habitat. To find lesson plans or contacts to get started on your own NatureMapping project, see edutopia.org or the Washington NatureMapping program


3. Raise and Release Insects

Not ready to get outside yet?  Take it slow with your own version of a Discovery Channel stop motion movie. Check out the site Insect Lore for everything from a Praying Mantis Pagoda and "Fish in a Jiff" hatching kits to painted lady butterfly school kits.  

Spark the interest of your students! Week 1: Grab a tripod and a digital camera, and, from the comfort of an air-conditioned classroom, snap pics of the caterpillars growing and molting.

Week 2: As the caterpillars change into chrysalids, snap more shots. Start loading student pictures into iPhoto to create a stop motion movie of the metamorphosis. 

Week 3: Student paparazzi reach a frenzy capturing images of hatching butterflies! Keep loading pics into iPhoto.

Week 4: Grab shots of your newly hatched beauties eating a gooey banana or a really ripe orange. Then invite your young scientists to a release party in a local park. Find the perfect spot and set up your tripod and camera to capture grand images of butterflies being released into the "wild."   

Once you drag yourself back inside, start a new project in iMovie. Select photos worthy of National Geographic and drag them into your iMovie project. Adjust the timing between frames and export your nature movie.


4. Go Geocaching!

Think of geocaching as "high-tech treasure hunting" using a GPS device. Your class will need an understanding of latitude and longitude and a GPS device or app for this project. View this short video on exploring the great outdoors with geocaching:

My Top Teaching colleague Angela Bunyi has a fabulous post on using GPS devices. Check it out to build your students' background knowledge and to find step-by-step treasure hunting instructions.      


Bronx New Schoolers in Central Park with Martin L. Birnbaum! My husband and I are working on the education section of Martin L. Birnbaum's documentary Central Park: The People's Park, which will be released in the fall of 2011. We'd love to learn about what you and your students are doing to joyfully discover the natural wonders of your neighborhood. Please comment how you're using technology in the outdoor classroom to bring out your students' best! 


Bronx New Schoolers explore Central Park with Martin L. Birnbaum.  


Comments (4)


Thanks for the Welikia tip. After exploring my neighborhood in 1609, I shared the Welikia Project (as well as http://oasisnyc.net .) with a student who is studying microclimates in NYC. It was just what she needed to move her project along.

Hey Christy,

Thanks for the plug-in for my GPS post.

I love the scat and tracks app. First, because it is funny. Secondly, because I am positive I have seen some coyotes recently while running-which is not normal (I could verify this with prints). Third of all because this is sometimes an event in Science Olympiad, which I head up each year.

Much love to you,



Thanks! The search function on the digital field guides is magnificent!

Have you checked out http://welikia.org/explore/mannahatta-map/ ? The Welikia Project is proof positive that technology can be Nature's best PR person.

Make sure you have flash player, click the link and see what "New York was like before it was a city." Your students' jaws will drop when they see the city's lush, green native landscape. This high tech site makes traveling back in time (to the year 1609) easy! Kids can research the flora and fauna on any city block. Welikia has great lesson plans too. I wish we had it when we were studying the Lenape!

Thanks for helping people to see that technology has a home not just in the classroom, but out in the rest of the world as well.

Electronic nature guides have search, and display capabilities that print versions cannot match. User-made media authoring options enable kids (and adults) to make their own e-guides, neighborhood nature trail guides, podcasts and video podcasts, etc., etc., etc.

Of course paper field guides provide a sensory experience that must not be abandoned--the feel and smell of the paper, etc. And, the type of things learned inadvertently while leafing through books also shouldn't be forgotten.

It is good to have all of the options availble to our students as we never know which one, or which combination of them will spark the imagination.

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