An Hour of Nature Play Keeps the Doctor Away

National Wildlife Federation report offers guidelines for how digital technology can help increase outdoor time, improve kids' health, and form a lasting connection to nature

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 18, 2017) – In recent years it has become abundantly clear that our indoor kids are plugged in, stressed out, and out of shape because they’re missing something essential to their health and development: connection to the natural world.

When it comes to getting kids outside we tend to see digital technology, such as games and apps, as an enemy. This technology is often blamed for causing today’s indoor child trend, but it is quite likely that, with the right software design features, such technology – smart phones, tablets, laptops and cameras – could actually help in reconnecting young people and their families to the natural world. The National Wildlife Federation’s recently released report: Digital Technology’s Role in Connecting Children and Adults to Nature and the Outdoors, offers insight and provides guidelines for the role of digital technology in children’s daily lives and shows that the use of handheld devices isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to making a nature connection.

Spending time outside has numerous proven health benefits including reducing stress, improving sleep, and even reducing ADHD symptoms. These are all reasons why the National Wildlife Federation developed its Green Hour program, designed to encourage parents, grandparents, schools, childcare centers, park agencies, and camps to adopt a goal of an hour per day of time for children to play and learn outdoors in nature. The program offers resources that provide children with the means necessary to develop a connection to the natural world, including tips for parent and caregiver support, info on greener childcare centers including nature play space guidelines, and even fun tools like the guide to a great fishing experience.

“Raising the next generation of conservation champions is only possibly when children have opportunities to form lasting connections to nature at an early age,” explains Collin O’Mara, President and CEO of National Wildlife Federation. “Kids need to be able to learn and play while immersed in the great outdoors. This is why programs like Green Hour are so important, not only for the health of our children, but the future of our wildlife and wild places.”

Unfortunately, between busy schedules and increasing societal pressures to keep kids “safely indoors” at all times, people see it as a struggle to incorporate  outdoor time into daily life. Technology may be one way to encourage kids back outdoors.

Of the thousands of nature focused apps and e-products, most simply employ a visual story-telling tool that can be quite effective in teaching young people about natural science, animal behavior, and basic conservation activities, but they do not, according to principles of social science, create a deep-felt affinity for nature largely because the young person is not truly experiencing real nature.   

In contrast, observation-oriented apps use digital technology to help children and families make more informed sightings of nature and allow them to focus on reality much in the same way that a birder or wildflower enthusiast would use a paper field guide. Many of these apps and programs are linked to broader digital databases that are helpful to scientists who are studying species populations, ranges and biodiversity.

Research by the National Wildlife Federation has identified twelve key features of technology and app design that successfully connect children with nature:

  • A focus on animals in nature
  • Activate the senses and expose the child to natural beauty
  • Create perceptions of nature safety
  • Encourage physical activity
  • Foster nature adventure scenarios
  • Connect close-knit social groups
  • Provide caregiver roles
  • Protect equipment outdoors
  • Extend the experience
  • Make it wearable and hands-free
  • Use mobile sense and all the technology features

We see the findings in this report as important because children spend so many hours of their day looking at electronic screens that it could be very helpful to have the digital program itself encourage children to go play outdoors. The National Wildlife Federation’s Ranger Rick “get outdoors” apps not only encourage the indoor/outdoor transition, but are geared toward encouraging to children experience nature close to home in local parks, neighborhoods, or even their backyard.

The future of American conservation is underpinned by research that finds that a lifelong connection to nature actually comes from spending time outdoors in nature. The National Wildlife Federation’s report findings lead us to point to digital technology and apps as part of the solution for increasing the amount and quality of meaningful time that American children spend in nature. We need technology and apps developed in the context of established social science that deepen the relationship with nature. With programs like Green Hour and this report’s recommendations the National Wildlife Federation aims to develop a next generation that cares enough about wildlife to embrace our outdoor heritage and carry on our country’s conservation legacy.

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