Green Your Screen Time: Make digital technology your ally in getting kids outside

Guest post by Kimblerly Burger Capozzi

As kids spend more time with their electronic gadgets and less time playing outside, the gadgets themselves may seem like the problem. But did you know that those blinking screens can actually help get children excited about being outside? Just about any device offers capabilities that can be used to enjoy outside adventures in new and fun ways.

Plan an outing

Kids already know how to find fighting-bird game apps and silly photos online. But digital media can also bring them engaging learning tools–like map-making programs used by professional biologists, easy-to-use video editing, and digital field guides. “Children need adults to guide them toward those uses,” says Kara Dawson, professor of educational technology at the University of Florida.

“We have kids that are growing up with technology, but not growing up learning how to learn with technology,” Dawson says. “Just like you teach them to do anything else, you have to reach them how to learn with the technology.”

Why not combine this with teaching your family to appreciate the outdoors? Plan a camping trip using apps for campground listings, or go online to NWF’s NatureFind to reasearch parks and outdoor facilities. Interested in caving? Type it into a search engine and together pick out credible websites and blogs. Ahead of your trip, search out ideas for campsite activities and games at NWF’s Activity Finder and go “app shopping” for knot tying videos, a compass app, or digital field guides to help identify animal tracks.

Take along your screen

Parents have to decide how to limit their family’s screen time. But the outdoors doesn’t always have to be a “no electronics” place. At the Fern Hollow Nature Center in Sewickley, PA, a naturalist leading winter evening “owl prowl” takes along an iPad connected to small speakers. It plays recordings of owl calls from the Audobon Owls app (caution: avoid calling birds during nesting and mating. Learn more about responsible birding here).

Tech-savvy children are at first drawn to the iPad. But soon they are scanning the night woods and listening for the owls to reply. And once they hear a screech owl’s whinny, not even a screen can get kids to peel their eyes away from the sky.

April Claus, Director of Environmental Education at Fern Hollow, said tools like video clips and user friendly map-making applications can help children engage more deeply with nature. “You can talk about something like the Emerald Ash Borer,” (an invasive insect causing extensive ash tree damage in many states) “but you show them a quick 30-second video, and it makes nature come alive,” Clause says. “They see for themselves.”

Digital media offers plenty of opportunities to keep kids moving outdoors, too, like navigation apps and digital trail maps. Download a heart monitor app to a smart phone and measure how a game of tag gets the heart pumping.

Record your adventure

Among the best digital choices for children are applications that allow them to be creative and produce their own multi-media projects, says Dawson. She suggests children take pictures of what they find interesting in nature. The cameras on phones and hand-help games can be used in this way. With online programs or movie-making software, they can set their pictures to music as a slideshow or video.

Try documenting your family’s wildlife observations on WildObs. It’s an app that allows you to create your own database and also contribute data to NWF’s Wildlife Watch project. An ongoing nature journal project can help keep your family looking forward to the next day outside. One thing about mobile technology, you can use it to record nature wherever you find it.

Kimberly Burger Capozzi is a mom and freelance writer based outside Pittsburgh, PA. She has written about parenting issues, wind power and military spending programs, and chronicles her family’s efforts to cook wholesome meals at