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“Shoot” down nature-deficit disorder!

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Originally appears in the Spring 2015 issue

Every Monday and Friday, my fifth grade students gather for a morning meeting to share what they have planned for the weekend ahead and follow up with how the activities went. This weekend, Mathew has two hockey games, Katie has a swim meet, Billy has six basketball games, Alex has a couple of band performances, Shea and Drew plan on catching up on their favorite TV shows, and Zack can’t wait to play Minecraft with an online friend. As a paraprofessional at a suburban Chicago elementary school, I have listened to students talk about their free time activities for the last two years. I have noticed that from week to week, each student’s routine changes very little. Decades ago when I was a child, our free time was spent playing outside or exploring the nearby woods. Now, it is obvious that kids’ leisure time is controlled by heavy scheduling of sports or music-related commitments, along with a habituation to technology-oriented activities. Children are tethered to technology; it surrounds their daily existence, in and outside of school. At the elementary school where I teach, students use computers regularly for schoolwork, many complete their daily reading on Kindles, iPads or other tablets, and Promethean boards (large scale, touch screen smart boards linked to a computer) are used in every classroom.

In the Chicago area, there is ample opportunity for experience with nature. We are surrounded by the largest forest preserve system in the nation. Where our school is located, green neighborhood parks and lush landscaped yards are commonplace. For my students, proximity to nature is not a barrier for nature connection. Still, as kids spend more time with gadgets, while also adhering to highly scheduled and micro-managed lives, it’s clear that their experience with the natural world outside shrinks precipitously. Exacerbating this situation is the rigorous scheduling of the hours spent at school each day, limiting time spent investigating hands-on or connecting with nature. This is not an isolated occurrence, but rather the increasingly usual way of life for kids across North America.  The steady, widespread disassociation of kids from their natural surroundings has become disturbingly obvious.  Author Richard Louv named the resulting disconnect syndrome nature-deficit disorder[i], which has been linked with many negative emotional, physical, and cognitive effects. Although technology is largely to blame for this phenomenon, it can also be part of the solution to stop it.

Since kids value gadgets so much, using them as an educational tool could motivate students and encourage involvement in their learning activities. Thus, children’s affinity with technology can be exploited as a device for nature reconnection, by integrating it into outdoor educational learning experiences within the school day. The use of technology to engage students with the outdoors does not require anything hi-tech or complicated. One of the easiest to use and most widely available technologies is the digital camera.

There are multiple examples of schools, including my own, that have incorporated nature-oriented programs or activities that fight fire with fire through the use of digital cameras. These programs have spanned the educational spectrum: from art, to science, to language arts, to technology training. They have been successfully implemented with kids of all ages and abilities, and have ranged from simple projects to those that were incredibly complex activities incorporating or affecting the outside communities or audiences. The purpose of this article is to describe a number of these projects, explain their importance, and provide ideas for engaging photographic endeavors you can explore with your own students.

Digital photography is so commonplace because of the ubiquity of smartphones with built-in cameras, carried by many students these days. For those students that don’t have their own camera or smartphone to bring in, basic compact digital cameras can be bought relatively cheaply and shared amongst a group. Many possibilities exist to immerse children of different ages and abilities into nature through educational activities aided by the use of these devices. In this way, an ordinary technology can become a cutting edge component of contemporary environmental involvement and connection.

Adoption of a curriculum that includes nature studies could also have an enormous positive impact on children. Research has found that exposure to learning experiences involving direct interaction with nature leads to healthier students with increased critical thinking, decision making, and problem solving abilities; higher levels of creativity, cooperation, and self-discipline; and who do better in school and are overall smarter and happier[ii].  Additionally, experiential environmental education can encourage positive attitudes towards the environment, a desire to protect nature, and pro-environmental practices, all of which foster a connection to nature[iii]. Schools that incorporate access to nature create healthy environments for children, as well as provide them a chance to bond with nature.

One benefit to nature photography is that it is an activity that easily crosses language and ability barriers. Blake[iv] provided an interesting example of camera use for nature interaction from The Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, NC. In this project, middle and high school students with varying levels of sight, some completely blind, engaged in schoolyard photography aided by all of their other senses. Some students used the scent of flowers or their brightly colored blur to guide them, while others were drawn to insects buzzing or the sound of rain dripping in a puddle. This exercise was both popular and successful, improving the students’ orientation, mobility skills and visual efficiency. It also added to their recreation and leisure experience, and boosted their connection with nature.

Nature activities incorporating photography work well in cross-curricular applications. For instance, McGinnis[v], gifted seminar instructor and science specialist at Pennsylvania’s Arcola Intermediate School, explained a project her students completed which involved multiple aspects of science, language arts, and technology. The students participated actively in environmental inquiries into their schoolyard ecosystem, decided on points of ecological interest, created multimedia web pages (video, podcast, text, or photographic) about these points, and then incorporated this information into an interpretive trail via quick response coded trail markers. The result was an experience that gave the community information on local ecology, while engaging the students directly with nature.

Recently at the school where I teach, I led an extracurricular class on winter nature journaling. Although my small group of students was already enthusiastic about nature exploration and discovery, I was able to take this to another level through outdoor nature photography. After a short lesson and discussion of the different ways to use photography in nature study (as an art form, as a scientific record, as a way to tell or illustrate a story, or to preserve a memory), I took the kids outside to experience nature in a different way. We walked around looking for interesting subjects to photograph. Third grader Charlotte was enamored with both the smallest and the tallest evergreen trees on the property. First grader Karenna spotted a pine cone on a branch that needed a close up. Her classmate Gen focused on the tree’s bristling green needles. Fifth grader Beau decided a shelf fungus high up in a tree was too far away to take a good photo, but then zeroed in on the moon, which was making a daytime appearance just above Charlotte’s tallest evergreen. The photos taken that day ended up glued into the kids’ journals as a permanent, tactile connection to the cold, snowy late February class.

Another hour-long after-school class I taught focused on field guides. Since the class took place in winter, I provided Internet photos of plant species and matching plant materials previously preserved in a flower-press. We used these to create a field guide of backyard plant life. During warmer seasons of the year, or in regions with more hospitable climates, students could use the schoolyard to photograph plant species for themselves, collect their own samples to press, and then research the findings to create their own schoolyard field guide.

In a separate activity, I set up a private Facebook group page devoted to children’s backyard nature photography. I then enlisted my friends’ kids, who lived in many different states, to take a look in their yards or in nearby parks for intriguing nature scenes to photograph. The results were amazing, as kids from preschool to high school really studied their surroundings and discovered all kinds of wonders through the lens of a camera. Birds’ nests, rocks, seed pods, and tree bark all made for lovely photos to add to the collection. It was fascinating to compare photos from different regions and note differences in the types of natural environments the kids were able to experience. This activity could easily be adapted to a school setting by using a more appropriate photo-sharing forum.

It is clear that the idea of nature engagement through digital cameras is extremely flexible with numerous applications. Even with a busy class schedule, if you think creatively and have an open mind to alternative methods of teaching and learning, you will find that there are many ways to incorporate nature photography into the school day. Here are a few ideas in which simple schoolyard photography can be transformed to suit other purposes while also serving to mitigate Nature-Deficit Disorder.

Language Arts

Children can use photos to illustrate the fiction or nonfiction stories or poems that they write. To take the technology further, students can create an entirely digital photo story, complete with music or narration, using software such as iMovie. Alternatively, the photos can be transformed into a comic book using software such as Comic Life or kids could create digital scrapbooks to document their nature activities with PowerPoint, Photoshop, or an e-scrapbooking website.

Visual Arts

Studying the artistic value of the natural world through a camera’s lens reveals interesting colors, patterns, textures, shapes, and compositions our naked eye doesn’t normally pick up as we pass by. To continue the creativity back in the classroom, nature photos can be taken in black and white then hand colored, or they can be used to create collages or mixed media artwork.

Science

Students can make digital collections of natural objects, such as animal footprints, flowers, or insects by taking their photograph. They can snap photos to document the steps in outdoor inquiries into pollinators, decomposers, or the water cycle. They can record evidence of animal or insect presence after seeking out signs of prints, scat, leaf damage, chewed bark, or nests.

Citizen Science

There are several online citizen science projects that students could participate in while at school.

  • Children could investigate the plight of dwindling North American bumblebee populations and assist with research on these important insects by submitting photos to Bumble Bee Watch (http://bumblebeewatch.org).
  • A lesson on plant phenology could include close study and photographic recording of the different stages of tree or shrub development in the spring or fall. The data students collect could then be submitted to the phenology site Project BudBurst (http://budburst.org/home), and the photos could be shared through the linked Project Noah mission site Fall Into Phenology (http://www.projectnoah.org/missions/7209494)
  • A schoolyard bird feeder could be a source to study bird behavior, allowing students to make a photographic diary and checklist of visiting species. This information could be submitted to the bird observation site eBird (http://ebird.org/content/ebird).
  • Studies of the trees found on school grounds can be enhanced through the use of Leafsnap, an app for iPhone or iPad, in which a photo taken of a leaf is submitted to a database for comparison. Image recognition software connects the photo to the correct species, GPS data from the phone marks the location, and the photo and data are automatically uploaded to the database for scientific study and use (http://leafsnap.com).
  • Students could research interesting insect discoveries with Bug Guide, an online guide to North America’s arthropods and insects, which features information about insect taxonomy and photos provided by contributors (http://bugguide.net/node/view/15740). Photos of mystery bugs can also be submitted for identification by a team of scientific volunteers. Once the species is identified, the photos are then automatically added to the appropriate taxon information page.

Global Communities

Studies of different regions of the country or the world can become even more fascinating when comparisons of the natural elements within them are made. One way to do this is to join global projects involving the active documentation of nature.

  • Project Noah offers many different photographic “missions” kids can join which suit different ages and abilities, such as The Color Red, Signs of Wildlife, Butterflies and Moths of the World, Flowers of North America, Beetles, and Critters of the Midwest (http://www.projectnoah.org/). Project Noah’s Global Schoolyard Bioblitz mission for example encourages students of all ages worldwide to contribute schoolyard nature photos to their database (http://www.projectnoah.org/missions/10164691). Teachers and students can also create their own mission and add it to the database. To further aid educators, this website offers ideas for other classroom missions and specific lesson plans for photography based activities.
  • National Geographic’s Great Nature Project has a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest online photo album of animals, and encourages participation in the creation of a global database of biodiversity (http://greatnatureproject.org). Kids upload their photos of living organisms directly to the website or via a linked photo sharing website such as Flickr. They can also participate in citizen science efforts with their photos by joining linked communities, as described earlier, then sharing their photos through the Great Nature Project The website also includes links to information and ideas for educators.

Nature-Deficit Disorder has become a serious issue for children, threatening their physical, emotional, and psychological health, and casting doubt on the viability of the pool of potential future naturalists. Despite the fact that technology has negatively impacted kids’ relationships with nature, reuniting them with the natural world does not have to mean divorcing them from the use of technology. Instead, walking the fine line down the middle, where technology is used as a device for education, enlightenment, and inducement is optimal for bringing the elements of environmental education together. Digital cameras combine effortlessly with other technologies to become a formidable weapon in the ongoing war against Nature-Deficit Disorder.

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Aimee Keillor is a suburban Chicago paraprofessional and also a graduate student in Miami University’s/Brookfield Zoo’s Advanced Inquiry Program. Formerly a journalist, humor, and animation writer, she is working towards a Master of Arts in zoology and hopes to transition into the field of environmental education.

 

Notes  

[i] Louv, R. (2006). The nature-child reunion. National Wildlife (World Edition), 44(4), 22. Retrieved from http://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/2006/The-Nature-Child-Reunion.aspx

[ii] Charles, C. (2009). The ecology of hope: Natural guides to building a children and nature movement. Journal of Science Education & Technology,18(6), 467-475. doi:10.1007/s10956-0099193z

[iii] Cheng, J., & Monroe, M. C. (2012). Connection to nature: Children’s affective attitude toward nature. Environment and Behavior, 44(1), 31-49. doi:10.1177/0013916510385082

[iv] Blake, L. (2011). Using photography as a means of engaging students with nature. Insight: Research & Practice in Visual Impairment & Blindness, 4(4), 180-181. Retrieved from http://www.aerbvi.org/modules.php?name=AvantGo&file=print&sid=2212

[v] McGinnis, P. (2014). Get your students outside with technology! Science Scope, 37(7), 58-64. Retrieved from http://www.nsta.org/publications/browse_journals.aspx?action=issue&id=94272