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Nature and digital connection, an unlikely pairing?

Our choices, actions, and behaviors are greatly influenced by local knowledge. Timing your drive to work to avoid rush hour traffic or recognizing the salmonberry as an edible are based on place-based learning. Our understanding of the natural world is called ecological knowledge and we all have it to a degree. Our connection to the world is influenced by our families and experiences. “For Indigenous peoples around the world, whose survival depended and still depends on their relationship with the land, Ecological Knowledge is everything. Without a great depth of knowledge about the land and all its resources, survival would not be possible.” (FNESC, 2016, p. 27) Colonial settlement worldwide disconnected many indigenous peoples from their lands and ancestral knowledge. The process of global indigenous assimilation and other factors such industrialization have led to a significant decline in nature connection worldwide. The subsequent ripple effect has given rise to issues such as climate change, deforestation, and mass animal extinctions. Therefore, developing a personal relationship with the natural environment is critical for not only one’s health and character development, but also for that of the planet. Recognizing that we no longer live off the land in a traditional sense, signifies that the means for (re)connection has changed. We therefore need to find ways to create meaningful relationships with our environment that also respect our current societal and cultural parameters. For example, we live in an era where digital technology usage is increasing exponentially and playing an integral part in the modern classroom. So how does one incorporate this digital presence into nature connection programming? There are many digital technological resources that can facilitate meaningful outdoor learning such as Merlin and Pl@ntNet. These identification apps encourage both environmental and technological literacy. As these apps are introduced the students will learn not only more about local birds and plants but also how to navigate digital technology in a safe way.

Nature connection is an experiential and engaging means for character development. As students move through the forest (or other green spaces) they develop inquisitive minds as they encounter diverse problems to solve. How can I cross the stream without getting my feet wet or why is the crow making so much noise? This process of inquiry empowers the child to push themselves intellectually and experience the subsequent results. “The natural world is a giant, open-ended learning laboratory. Children are innate scientists and love to experience the sights, scents, sounds, and textures of the outdoors. Nature provides countless opportunities for discovery, creativity, problem-solving, and STEM education.” (Bright Horizons Education Team, 2019)

Offering natural spaces for kids to explore, move, make noise, and play is also extremely important for mental health. According to Adams (2019), “[o]ne leading theory is that nature can restore our attention and counter the mental fatigue that today’s urban and sensory-filled environments cause.” Dedicated quiet time in a beautiful space allows for the brain and body to reboot. Personally, whenever I visit my sit spot it feels like my whole being grounds back into the earth, allowing for needed contemplation and rest.

Social development is continuously occurring in nature. This week, while supervising preschool aged children playing in our Forest Saplings program, I observed the children navigating their new social situation. Deciding with whom to play and how to collectively build a bridge involved collaboration, problem-solving, gentleness, and empathy. “In nature, children can play alone or connect with one another, learn to share, and problem solve. In the natural world, children often collaborate to make up games and rules because there are no prescribed sets of instructions.” (Bright Horizons Education Team, 2019) Providing opportunities to experiment socially is critical to character development and helps to create a sense of belonging. Playing on a tree swing, walking across single log bridges, and running barefoot through mud all support physical health and development. The first time 5-year-old Leif crossed the bridge he held my hand. The second time, he walked very cautiously alone and on the third, he moved with confidence. He was smiling from ear to ear, empowered to the core. Outdoor play allows for both fine and gross motor skill development as well as immune system strengthening. It is a space to test the body’s limitations and boost the endorphins.

Environmental stewardships surfaces as children become increasingly familiar with their natural environment. As they internalize nature it becomes part of their identity and that which they hold dear. Love is the greatest fuel for action, especially when the object of that love desperately needs human support.

Facilitating regular nature connection opportunities is extremely important and there are many enhancement tools. One of these tools is digital technology. Although for many this seems initially counter intuitive, it can be very beneficial when used mindfully. Secondly, in an era where digital technology is practically ubiquitous it is also our responsibility as parents and educators to teach children technological literacy by providing experiential opportunities for meaningful integration. Willis (2019) states that “[u]sing age-appropriate, interactive technology tools to foster student engagement in activities that support appreciation of the environment and natural resources promotes understanding of environmental issues.” Willis (2019) continues to say that as long as the approved and relevant technology integrates authentic experiences, relates to the whole child and, is child-directed and inquiry-based the technology can be used to enhance experiences in wilderness settings.

To ascertain whether a digital resource is appropriate, using trusted on-line guides such as Common Sense Media can help parents make educated technology choices for their children. It provides ratings, descriptions, reviews, considerations, and app details. It also suggests follow up questions and activities to further engage children afterwards. Common Sense Education is specifically created for educators, offering digital citizenship resources and lesson plans for all grade levels. Their goal is to empower students to understand the diverse concerns regarding digital use and how to mitigate their digital behavior. It addresses topics such as media balance and well-being; privacy and security; and cyberbullying, digital drama and hate speech. With these tools both parents and educators can work collaboratively to ensure student safety. Consequently, the integration of two seemingly opposed areas of nature and technology, can help students to expand their critical thinking, self-control, kindness, and respectful communication skills.

The Merlin app, created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a bird identification tool for beginner to intermediate birders. It asks the user the same questions used by expert birders: Where was the bird seen geographically? When? What color(s) and size was it? What was its behavior? Using a database of over 6,000 bird species based on over 750 million observations worldwide, it offers a short-list of possibilities which includes audio recordings and bird identification information. There is also the option to submit a bird photo for identification purposes. Once the user identifies the bird, that information is added to the collective database. This citizen science project helps to advance science and conservation. It contributes “to hundreds of conservation decisions and peer-reviewed papers, thousands of student projects, and help[s] inform bird research worldwide.” (Cornell Lab of Ornithology, n.d.)

The value of birding for deepening nature connection is extensive. The act of being still in a state of heightened awareness allows for the quieting of the mind, inner calm and peace, awakened curiosity, and an increased enjoyment of the out-of-doors experience. (Young, 2013) Engaging actively with the surrounding environment instills a sense of belonging. Listening skills are honed. One begins to notice their direct impact on the surrounding birds and experiences respect, empathy, and a sense of personal connection. A greater understanding of ecology emerges as the interconnectedness between birds, other wildlife, and their habitats evolves. With an awakened sense of gratitude and love for self, others, and the community, the need to be helpful, act conscientiously and take on sustainable practices arises.

Pl@nt Net is a user-friendly plant identification system that helps to identify plants through images. It “compares visual patterns transmitted by users via photos of plant organs (flowers, fruits, leaves ...) The images are analyzed and compared to an image bank produced collaboratively and enriched daily. The system then offers a possible list of species with its illustrations.” (Pl@nt Net, 2020) This app is also a citizen science project contributing to ongoing research on global plant biodiversity. Like birding, plant identification allows for the expansion of awareness. As observation skills develop one begins to understand the sequencing of emerging plant life and its connection to wildlife behaviors. It can also offer an experiential context for teaching scientific concepts such as the water cycle, photosynthesis, and the oxygen/carbon-dioxide exchange. “Children learn huge amounts of information by observing the natural world, so it makes sense to give them the tools to answer some of their "What's that?" questions themselves. Learning about how plants work, how they acquire their names and what they do for humans and animals gives children a sense of safety outdoors and respect for the natural world.” (Beal, 2017)

A dedicated nature connection routine is key to not only developing ecological literacy but also moral, performance, and civic character. Digital tools such as Merlin and Pl@nt Net can serve to enhance the nature connection experience in a meaningful way allowing for environmental and technological literacy enhancement. Merging our current day-to-day realities with the wisdom of land-based indigenous cultures offers our children a future of possibilities that is in alignment with love for all beings on earth.

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