Although it might seem counter-intuitive, there are actually many ways in which digital technology can inspire all of us to get moving, exploring and enjoying nature. For instance, the act of sharing your experiences through social media, together with the feedback from others that often follows, can keep the outdoor experience alive for days. At the same time, however, it is important to sometimes unplug our devices and savor the natural world unfiltered – simply through our senses. As someone once remarked, “There may not be Wi-Fi in the forest, but I promise you’ll find a better connection.”
Finding the right balance
If you are a parent, consider having a system in which your children receive screen-time in exchange for time spent playing outdoors. When the weather is warm, you might even want to set up an outdoor reading or homework station with Wi-Fi access. Use digital resources, too, before heading out on a nature walk. For example, children can research a new nature activity by visiting a website such as “Activity Finder” from the National Wildlife Federation. Technology is also wonderful for outdoor nature games such as a scavenger hunt in which you have to find and photograph items on a list. Finally, adults should try to model healthy media habits. Have a designated time each day for checking Facebook, email, and texting.
The “computer in your pocket” is a wonderful device for both enhancing and simplifying the experience of nature. For example, thousands of nature apps are now available for smartphones, and an app is much lighter than lugging field guides around! Use your phone, too, as a camera for both photographs and video. You can even buy a digiscoping adapter to take pictures with your phone directly through your binoculars or spotting scope. Use the video function and/or voice recorder to record nature sounds (e.g., a frog chorus) and to take field notes. I usually use voice recognition to dictate notes, using the “Notes” app on my iPhone. Don’t forget that most phones also have a built-in flashlight, which you can use to illuminate small or darkened objects. Have fun, and be sure to take lots of selfies beside a favorite tree or in a favorite habitat!
Like websites, nature apps are constantly changing and improving. Two of the very best are iNaturalist and Project Noah. iNaturalist helps you keep track of your own observations with everything from journals to life lists. It also allows you to get help from the naturalist community in identifying what you have observed. Project Noah, too, is an online community of naturalists. You can, for example, post pictures of species for identification by others. As for field guide apps, I would recommend the Audubon series. You can find Audubon apps for just about everything.
1. Birds – Merlin Bird ID (walks you through identification process and free); Sibley eGuide for Birds
2. Trees & plants – Leaf Snap, TreeBook (beginner), FloraFolio
3. Astronomy – Star Walk, Skyview, Google Sky Map
4. For kids – Nature Tap, Hippo Season, Parts of Plants, Parts of Animals, Backyard Scat and Tracks
Using social media
There are countless ways to share your nature experiences through social media. Below, you will find a brief description of some of the more popular platforms and how they can be used. When posting to social media, remember to keep your comments short and to the point. If you are posting to Facebook, for example, don’t go beyond five or six sentences. Remember to use one or two hashtags (a word or phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign and used to identify messages on a specific topic) each time you post and to include interesting visuals. Finally, make a point of sharing other people’s content. This is a great way to post on days when you don’t have any of your own content ready. Maybe just add a few comments of your own.
1. Instagram – This is a photo and video sharing site. Kids love taking pictures and will love posting them online. Use that love to help them pay attention to nature. Upload the pictures to Instagram, add a hashtag, and share them with friends. Some common hashtags include #Nature, #Wildlife and #Wildlifephotogrpahy. Use filters, too, for searching for the thousands of photos other people have submitted.
2. Flickr – This well-known site is for photo-sharing, commenting, and photography-related networking. There is a very active and passionate wildlife photography community on Flickr.
3. Facebook – This is a general social media site for sharing pictures, videos, blogs, apps and the like. Be sure to create Facebook Interest Lists, which are a collection of pages or profiles on Facebook. They are wonderful for managing your Facebook content. For example, they could include pages of people with special expertise in “gardening for wildlife
4. Twitter- This is a “micro-blogging” site that is great for sharing sightings, photos, videos, opinions, news stories, etc. It is also an excellent place to find like-minded individuals. If you are interested in finding wildlife watchers on Twitter, use hashtags such as #wildlife, #birding, #enviroed.
5. YouTube – Upload your videos to YouTube and share them with the world.
6. Pinterest – Pinterest is a “virtual pinboard”, which allows you to organize and share most anything you find on the web. You can browse pinboards created by other people to discover new things or make your own board on any nature-related topic you wish.
A fun way to share your adventures in nature is through a family nature blog. WordPress, Tumblr and Blogger are all excellent, easy-to-use platforms. You can find information on setting up blogs for your children by Googling “How Help Your Child Set up a Blog”. Deciding what to blog about should not be a problem. Nature is all around us, including right in your own backyard. Be sure to include photographs. If you don’t have a photo for a given topic, go to the Wikimedia Commons website. This is a database of freely usable media files, including video, audio, and photos. A great way to involve younger children in blogging is by using a speech-to-text program. Not only does this save time, but it will also give the blog a conversational feel. Each family member can describe a different part or aspect of an experience. Even if your “public diary” doesn’t attract a lot of readers, it will still serve as a family record of memorable experiences with the natural world. In fact, a blog doesn’t even have to be shared publically. It can still be a great place to post pictures and stories – almost like a modern and much improved photo album!
Videos and slideshows
Young people today love sharing experiences through video. Why not help your children create videos and slideshows of the nature images they have taken? A good place to start is Stupeflix, a slick and easy-to-use video creation website. It is also free. Stupefix allows kids to create professional-looking audio-slideshows from their pictures. Ready-made themes, transitions, and music are all provided. ShadowPuppetEdu, a free iPad app, is also excellent.
As you can well imagine, the number of nature websites is staggering. However, here’s a few of my favourites.
1. Google Images – a great site for seeing and comparing pictures of the same plant or animal species but taken by different people. This is often helpful for identification purposes.
2. YouTube – great nature videos, both amateur and professional. If you are uncertain about what a given species sounds like, simply do a YouTube search (e.g., American robin singing).
3. eNature – the web’s premier destination for information on plants, animals and the night sky
4. Understanding Evolution (Berkeley) – a one-stop source for easy-to-understand information on evolution. It includes teaching materials.
4. All About Birds – the premier site for on-line bird identification, including songs. There are also pages such as bird cams, a beginner’s guide to the bird identification process, bird photography and much more.
5. eBird – make checklists of the birds you see, share your sightings, contribute to Citizen Science and check the seasonal abundance of birds. eBird will also notify you each day of interesting bird species in the area.
7. BugGuide – an online community of naturalists who enjoy sharing photographs and other observations of insects, spiders, and other invertebrates. The community will help you with identification.
8. Step Outside Nature Guides – a three-time monthly compilation of events in nature (e.g., migrants arriving, flowers blooming) in central Ontario and beyond. There are also lots of learning activities.
You will find more information on connecting with nature in the digital age in “The Big Book of Nature Activities”, which I am co-authoring with Jacob Rodenburg. It is due out in the spring of 2016.