Connecting With Nature? There's an App for That

How would you feel if you were asked to turn in your mobile phone while entering a national park? Would it help you connect more deeply with nature?
12/04/2014 03:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How would you feel if you were asked to turn in your mobile phone while entering a national park? Would it help you connect more deeply with nature? That's exactly what New Forest National Park in Great Britain has done, as they've jumped on the anti-technology bandwagon. The park has installed a "Tech Creche" locker system to gather and safely lock away the mobile phones of its visitors.

Outdoors enthusiasts profess that we must ditch our smartphones to fully appreciate nature. A nationwide public service campaign created by the Ad Council encourages us to "unplug" so that we can discover the outdoors. The campaign has billboards of a child playing a video game involving a cartoon frog, placed alongside another child who is holding an actual frog. I think it's amusing that these billboards point drivers-by to a website to learn more.

In a recent documentary entitled Project Wild Thing, David Bond proclaims himself to be the Marketing Director for Nature. He is featured grabbing a megaphone and shouting at shoppers outside an Apple store: "Stop buying iPads. Take your children outdoors. You've bought enough iPads." Later in the film Bond undermines his own case, by suggesting that there needs to be better apps to get kids outside.

Can you blame him? Mobile technology is a powerful tool - so mesmerizing that kids are averaging over seven hours a day using electronic devices, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study. Our children have almost limitless access to online gaming, social networking, and media right in their pockets. Apparently, even the late Steve Jobs shared some concern about this, refusing to let his own kids use iPhones and iPads.

So why wouldn't we use this incredible resource to get kids outside moving, learning, and exploring all that nature has to offer?

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Other than outdoors organizations, practically all nonprofit institutions and social movements are embracing technology to accomplish their work. Public schools use tablets and computers to facilitate learning. Health professionals use apps to diagnose and treat patients. The Arab Spring employed digital media to fight for equality and free speech. Homeless people receive free cell phones to connect with family members and support services. And some of the most popular apps have been created by religious organizations.

Designating the outdoors as a "technology-free zone" detracts from the movement to get our kids outside. I believe this so strongly that the organization I direct, IslandWood, is working with international partners to launch a Nature Passport app that will motivate kids and families to spend time outdoors.

Smartphones can get our children excited about nature. Apps can cultivate curiosity about the natural world, allowing kids to identify and study trees, constellations, mountains and birds. The cameras on our phones can draw us closer to nature, and help us relive our outdoor experiences when we return home - encouraging us to venture out again in the future. GPS-enabled devices help families track the topography of a landscape and keep from getting lost. And phones provide access to the critical 911 lifeline when rare emergencies arise in the outdoors.

I'm not a proponent of talking on cell phones, texting friends, or checking email while seeking solace in nature. But used wisely, smartphones have great potential to help us be more present in the outdoors. Older forms of "technology" have helped us connect with nature throughout history. Telescopes enable us to explore the stars at night. Microscopes let us investigate fascinating microcosms under our feet. Binoculars can spell the difference between spotting a herd of elk, and never knowing they were there.

As Richard Louv, the author who coined the phrase "nature deficit disorder" has said: "The best preparation for the twenty-first century may be a combination of natural and virtual experience." In order to tackle large-scale environmental challenges, future generations need to develop a strong relationship with nature, and also need to be equipped with cutting edge skills to devise innovative solutions. Wonder and curiosity are required to become a professional astronomer, and it's also necessary to know how to use high-tech instruments. The next time you take a hike, bring along your smartphone, and use it to explore and connect more deeply with all the magic that nature provides.