In preparation for Summer in this series, Leslie Layman, coordinator of the Truman College Child Development Program, will discuss her favorite ideas for taking Math and and other STEAM ideas outside.
When I teach Truman College’s Science and Math for Young Children course, I have the students break into groups, do research about, and then debate the benefits and risks of children’s interactions with nature and technology. Typically both the students on the nature side and on the tech side begin the debate arguing that theirs is the more important subject to teach young children. Through the process of research and debate, we almost always come to the conclusion that young children need both. I want to share some of my ideas about ways to meaningfully integrate the use of technology into outdoor and nature experiences for young children.
It is also my experience that many parents and early childhood professionals are often afraid of using technology with young children. We are in the midst of a wave of media accusations that technology both delays children’s development; is as addictive as heroin and a panic that our children are not graduating from high school with technological skills that they need for future success. My approach is to think critically about why and with whom the technology is being used and what it might be replacing. Is it being used to support the child or distract them, is it being used to support a relationship, and is it taking the place of something they need for development? I also like to remind people that any object made by humans to make their lives easier is a technology. I love the anecdote that Socrates was against writing because he believed it would prevent people from learning by memorization. See the Erikson TEC Center for reports on the use of media and technology with young children along with other excellent resources.
I love bringing technology and nature together because that is often how technology is used in the real world by engineers, scientists, naturalists, and other professionals. It also allows adults to relax a little about the technology as it is not being used passively or preventing kids from going outside. One of my favorite ideas is to disable the internet and apps on an old, donated phone so that children may use it only for photos and videos. Empower children to document what is interesting to them when they are in nature and to share it with their friends and families. They can make a photo journal or video essay of their experiences outside.
There are also amazing apps that allow you to use the camera on your phone to identify and classify plants and animals. Your phone or tablet becomes a real world research tool that children can use instantly. This is especially enjoyable for children who have a special interest in a particular type of plant, animal, or insect. You can also use technology outside to have your classroom engage in citizen science projects. You can count birds, monitor the stars, and show your children natural images from climates that are both similar to and different than their own. Monkey Bar Collective modifies the idea of GeoCaching to keep children engaged in scavenger hunt activities in zoos, museums, outdoors, and other locations. You can use voice recorder apps to record animal noises, children’s musings, and other outdoor sounds.
It’s also important to remember all of the “low tech” options you have for interacting in nature. Try keeping writing materials outside so that children can keep a nature journal or press their favorite flowers and leaves. Take maps and compasses with you on walks and use them to find your location and get to your destination. Bring clay outside and try to recreate a play structure or sculpt and animal that you see.
I often hear that parents and professionals are worried that if technology is around, children will not interact with each other or play. I believe this is a very valid concern. I think it is important that devices are available only when they are enhancing an experience, and that they are always to be shared, so that using the technology requires a social interaction. I also believe it is important not to use technology as a reward or a punishment, giving it more emotional value than it deserves. The other gentle reminder that I have for adults is to model the behavior that you would like children to use. If you do not want children to use a phone or tablet on the playground as a distraction, than you also may not use them in that way.
Technology can be a powerful tool for increasing interactions with and appreciation of nature when used socially, purposefully, and with moderation.