The Climate for Environmental Education in the Digital Age

The call for inclusion of environmental education into our formal curriculum requirements has gained little ground for decades. However, with the advent of the web and digital technology, the parameters of possibilities have changed and children now have the world at their fingertips and environmental education delivered through digital media has the tremendous potential to transform their worldview.

Appreciation of the natural world was a high priority in my family and environmental education was a natural part of my upbringing. I had the fortunate opportunity of experiencing the best of city and country living, depending upon the time of year. The wide-open natural spaces that surrounded me as a child not only made for a fabulous playground, but also made me realize that I was part of something far greater than myself.

I lived on the shores of Lake Erie during the school year and Huntington Beach was my preferred place to play. Many times, I would sit on my favorite rock on a pier that jutted out into the lake and gaze out over the water and wonder what Canada looked like on the other side. Or I watched, awestruck, while a sudden storm appeared on the horizon and swept toward the shore; its dark clouds illuminated with bolts of lightning. I knew exactly how long it took to dash from the beach to my back door and waited until the first raindrops hit my face before making a speedy retreat.

In the summer, I spent hours exploring the forest and fields just outside the backdoor of our family farm in Pennsylvania. I knew every twist and turn of the bubbling stream that ran though our pasture behind the big barn. I discovered hidden springs that fed the stream and captured tiny minnows and crayfish that lived among the rocks. I loved to ride my Shetland pony to the overlook at the highest point of our property and imagine that I was the first person to explore the wilderness that I saw before me.

I have many fond memories of my adventures in nature, but sadly, times have changed. Backyards and neighborhoods that once echoed with the sounds of children playing hide and seek or kick-the-can are now strangely silent. Pick-up games of soccer or baseball have now been replaced with complex, organized after school schedules that keep kids busy from the time they step off the bus until it’s time to go to sleep. In between, they are kept entertained with a wide variety of digital devices that deliver content that is sure to have a significant impact on shaping their young personalities.

Today, children in the United States are surrounded by a culture of media, with a significant amount of time spent on watching television and using digital devices. Therefore, media has a major impact on their physical, cognitive and social development. Most recent studies have primarily focused on the negative effects of children’s entertainment programs and link excessive exposure to deficits in achievement, sedentary habits and antisocial behaviors. However, it is also widely admitted that monitored exposure to positive media, such as educational television, has been positively linked to increased school readiness and enhanced social competence.

While nothing can take the place of learning basic skills like reading, writing, math, geography and science, utilizing multimedia and web-based resources can transform rote exercises into real life learning experiences and actually improve proficiency and interest in these areas while expanding classroom time for budget strapped school systems. Engaging children in diverse and dynamic learning environments can fuel the imagination and spark a love of learning that will last a lifetime.

Let’s face it. Digital technology is here to stay. The web has completely revolutionized human communication. Digital networks are where we share information and ideas. So, if we can’t get kids to nature, why not bring environmental messages to them to them using their preferred means of communication?

Ok. I hear the thunder of dissent in the distance. One might say that delivering environmental education to kids via digital media is a paradoxical notion. How will this get our nature-deprived kids out the door and into the fresh air any faster if we are delivering information through the very devices that keep them inside in the first place? Fair point. I have wrestled with the same question as a parent myself. Surprisingly, there’s a silver lining here. First, experience proves that kids are inherently curious about nature and generally adopt eco-friendly behaviors quite willingly. But further, providing them with links to other kids and organizations that are engaged in environmentally friendly activities, not only expands their eco-literacy, but also proves to be a powerful motivator in getting kids involved in eco-friendly behaviors and activities themselves. And… it improves their communication skills as well. They become better readers, writers, and listeners. The interconnectivity of the web also allows children to discover remote places they might not experience otherwise and learn about the people who live there.

It may not be the dawn until dusk outdoor experiences some us remember from our youth. It may be even better. We need to adapt our thinking to make it so. Technology is the tool and it’s the message that matters.

John Muir, an eminent conservationist, writer and founder of the Sierra Club once said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” His words still ring true over 100 years later.

We must teach our children to celebrate the natural world by protecting the environment. Using the latest innovations in digital technology to deliver environmental education to students in the classroom, not only has the potential to improve achievement and engagement, but it will also instill an appreciation for nature that will ensure future leaders will place a high priority on environmental stewardship. Because every child deserves to play on the beach, and splash in a stream or stand on a mountaintop and feel the powerful connection to nature in their own personal way.

I look forward to your comments and contributions.


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