Nature: there’s an app for that

MIAMI COUNTY — There is no denying how much technology is influencing children today. According to Karen Zimmerman, Ph.D., in “Media and Technology in the Lives of Infants and Toddlers 2.0,” 80 percent of 2-to-4-year-olds currently use mobile devices.

However, when it comes to instilling a love for nature into children, it can be challenging. The term “nature-deficit disorder” — introduced by author Richard Louv in his book, “Last Child in the Woods” — is not a formal diagnosis, but a consequence of being alienated from nature physically and psychologically, especially for children during their developing years.

There is a growing number of nature preserves and educational communities, such as the Miami County Park District, that are using mobile devices to their advantage to help children to connect to the outdoors. Instead of using the devices as a form of entertainment, they are being used as learning tools.

“We are incorporating technology into lots of things that we are doing in the parks and that’s a hook to get (children) outside,” said Cinda Hanbuch-Pinkerton, executive director of environmental education at the Miami County Park District. “I think the use of technology … if it’s getting them outside, is great.”

Hanbuch-Pinkerton said currently in the educational programs in the parks, children are learning about mapping in GPS as well as learning how to use a compass and a map. The students take on “nature challenges” and have to answer a nature question correctly at a location before following their GPS maps to another area with a nature question.

“We put a tool in their hand and it gives them a challenge to find their way through the park,” Hanbuch-Pinkerton said. “They are discovering the trail.”

The parks also use bird apps on iPads or mobile devices to help identify species of birds that are seen at the parks. During evening activities, a constellation app is used to help identify stars and constellations as well.

Hanbuch-Pinkerton also acknowledges that too much technology can take away from the purpose of being outdoors.

“If you are using technology communicating back and forth (with someone), that can be distracting, that’s for sure,” she said. “If you want to use your phone for an app, that’s great, but can be distracting (from nature).

“One of the benefits of being outdoors is for peacefulness and to de-stress and the only way you can do that is by not being interrupted by a phone call.”

If possible, taking your laptop or phone with you outside to work is more beneficial than being inside.

Hanbuch-Pinkerton said it “brings opportunities to connect with nature.”

“Even if (people) need to focus on their equipment, it’s more beneficial being outside than inside,” she said.

As for the future of technology in nature, the two different worlds may continue to interlace.

“Advances in technology are not going to go backward, but forward,” Hanbuch-Pinkerton said. “It is our challenge at Miami County Parks to use technology creatively to get people out into the parks.”