A Closer Look

Does technology merely distract us from the natural world—or can it help us gaze more intently at its varied forms? Richard Louv, author of the new book The Nature Principle, discussed this and more during Orion’s live web event in June, “Reimagining Nature Literacy.” Listen to a recording of the conversation here.

Taking technology into nature isn’t new. A fishing rod is technology; so is a compass. But electronic gadgetry can definitely be more intrusive.

I’m not keen on the kind of electronic technology that makes us more aware of the gadget than of nature (iPod-guided tours of natural areas, for example). The worth of any nature-oriented getaway gadget should be measured by how long it takes us to look away from the screen, to put down the gadget—at which point, hopefully, we’ll want to use our unaided eyes and other senses to feel and be fully alive.

In The Nature Principle I quote Janis Dickinson, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which conducts the Celebrate Urban Birds project and uses Internet participation of citizen naturalists to keep track of bird populations and migrations. Dickinson asks, “How do we create experiences for people, particularly in cities, that foster awareness of the natural world? It is possible, even likely, that a new generation of technonaturalists will document their outdoor experiences not with paper and pen but with electronic data, digital images, and video, creating new communities of action and meaning.” She adds this caution: “It is our overriding belief that spending real time in real nature, with its rhythms, sights, smells, and sounds, may be facilitated with technology but cannot be fabricated!”

So, can we come up with new uses for technology that get kids and adults outside in a way that stimulates rather than simulates the senses?

When I asked some of my colleagues and friends for suggestions for other imaginary or existing products and services that could connect people of all ages to nature, they offered dozens of ideas. Among them: wildscape kits with native plant seeds to naturalize the backyard (with coupons to local native-plant nurseries and web-based resources); and iPhone apps specific to the flora and fauna and topology of your own bioregion. A prominent conservationist suggested night cameras and video traps to “catch” seldom-seen animals in nearby nature. “Prices are falling and quality is improving,” he said. “Purchase one, mount it to a tree in your local canyon, and see what’s going on. Upload the video to your Facebook page.” Once the entrepreneurial gene kicks in, it’s easy to start thinking of such products and services.

Some of these ideas may not be your cup of organic tea—and yes, there’s a certain contradiction between preserving nature and consumer products. But let’s give ourselves a break. Would we rather the commercial world focus on everything but a connection to the natural world?

As a technonaturalist myself, I’ve become increasingly likely to take a digital camera with me on hikes. While some people find that photography detracts from the experience, I find that the camera makes me slow down and look more intently than I normally would. After one hike, I was sitting at my computer, reviewing photos of rock patterns and tree bark. I was suddenly startled by something I had not seen when I took the picture.

Hidden in the bark was an eye, looking back at me.

Richard Louv is author of The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder, from which this is adapted, and Last Child in the Woods. He is also chairman emeritus of The Children & Nature Network. For more information on his writing, see www.richardlouv.com.


  1. I believe so strongly that digital photography can help kids reconnect with nature, that I’ve changed the direction of my photography business. I’ve gone from concentrating on portraiture to teaching kids beginning digital photography. With the lure of learning to use a new piece of electronic gadgetry, all lessons take place outside. All shooting assignments are designed to get the kids searching for their subject matter in nature, getting them to really examine their environment. I’m in the process of putting licensing agreements in place, and hope Wild Child Outdoor Photo Camps will become a national movement!

  2. I volunteer on the board of a group called the Family Nature Summits that works to get families outside each summer. Like Rita, we have found that digital photography is both a popular and fun activity for people to do outside. Likewise, we love using GPS devices for geo-caching. I love how people use the “Earth Cache” feature to highlight some of the most beautiful places and to teach about those places. The National Wildlife Federation also has just started the Ranger Rick’s Geocache Trails (www.rangerricktrails.com) that combines the use of technology with getting kids outside. I think all of these examples show that technology can enhance the experience, and get people outside who might not go otherwise.

  3. I’m currently working for a program, Parks in Focus, whose mission is “connecting youth to nature through photography.” We take underserved middle-school youth out to state and national parks, teaching environmental education and giving each child a digital camera (that they get to earn through good behavior to take home at the end of the trip!). Check out our blog (www.parksinfocus.wordpress.com) for photos by these 10-13 year old kids–they are really impressive!

    I’ve been involved in outdoor and environmental education for eight years now, and I’ve been amazed at what a powerful tool photography can be. For kids whose first time hiking is at the Grand Canyon, it can be incredibly overwhelming–but for all the kids we work with (though they usually don’t own a camera), technology is familiar. It provides a safe bridge to the outdoors, a way for them to comfortably connect. And, taking photos makes the kids stop and look, or get closer to a bug they would usually scream at!

    It’s important to get kids unplugged, but it’s also very interesting to see how technology can be used to connect or reconnect them with nature. Photography is definitely a tool I’m going to keep in my teaching repertoire!

  4. You know the expression “They can have my gun when they pry it from my cold dead hands?” Well that is how the youth of today feel about technology. One of the ways to get kids outside is to integrate the tech with something nature related, such as geocaching (agree with Carla Brown). As a career changed environmental scientists to high school science teacher, I have found many ways to integrate technology into the outside world. My students must “blog” about their volunteer work, camping experience, and research. One small piece of the tech is the blog itself. It gives the kids a place for common ground such as discussions, ideas, and reflections. I even bring iBirdpro on my cell phone camping in order to call in owls at night. The blog link is here http://southwestenvironmental.blogspot.com/ if you want to see youth enjoying nature and what they say about not having their cell phones during a camping trip. It is amazing…they survived without it.

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