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New UW study looks at how technology can connect kids with nature

A new study from the University of Waterloo is suggesting technology can help to nurture the relationship between kids and the outdoors.

According to the release, the idea comes after researchers noticed a growing divide between children and their interest in nature following the increasing use of digital media.

Rachel Evans, a PhD candidate in the School of Planning, says this is a concerning trend, as positive connections between our well-being and desire to protect the environment,  are developed after spending time outside.

However, she adds that it’s a losing battle to try and stop kids from using technology.

“It’s naive to think that extensive screen time is going anywhere,” said Evans in the release, “Instead of seeing digital media and nature-based play in competition, we’ve examined how environmental organizations can work with this widespread interest in digital media to engage a wider audience.”

The study compared literature and nature-based programs from the past that were used by environmental organizations to engage kids. Researchers say these items romanticize a time prior to the rapid development of technology, when children had to use their imaginations more to entertain themselves.

Professor Brendan Larson from the Faculty of Environment and co-lead researcher, says these traditional strategies don’t work in the modern age.

“Past generations tended to have more freedom to use their imaginations when outdoors and technology did not compete in the same way for their attention as today,” said Larson in the release, “Nature organizations that continue to employ romanticized ideals of children in nature will likely fail to engage a large proportion of young people and continue to primarily ‘preach to the converted’.”

Instead of these tactics, researchers recommend integrating gamification techniques and technology-enhanced learning that incorporates the whole family, which can encourage kids to connect with nature.

These activities include geocaching, species identification apps and spending time in familiar outdoor environments, like school playgrounds.

“Failing to account for children’s level of comfort in natural environments and the dominant role that technology plays in their lives could make children resent being outdoors. For children to understand the natural world and help protect it, we need to adapt how we introduce them to nature based on their previous experiences and other interests, including technology,” said Larson.

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