Are Cute Animals on YouTube the Answer?
November 4, 2012

Do YouTube videos of baby pandas help kids care more about the environment, or keep them feeling disconnected? What’s the happy mix between watching Jacques Cousteau and exploring nature firsthand? And can digital tools help inspire kids to get outside and learn more about their world?

Since I write this blog, I certainly hope that digital tools can help parents and teachers get kids outside. But how does digital technology in the hands of the kids themselves help, or hurt, the effort?

Here are a few points in the ongoing debate. Let me know what you think.

  • Today’s post was inspired by Andrew Revkin, who recently wrote in The New York Times blog Dot Earth about his preference for “a hybrid of digital and direct experience,” in which young people explore nature first-hand and use digital tools to share what they’ve seen. The post includes a lovely short video clip by his son, who discovers a baby heron while paddling with his father in a mangrove-lined creek.
  • Revkin was responding to an essay in The New York Times, “[Nature Follows a Path of Pixels into Children's Hearts.” In that essay, the author wryly explains that despite her own nostalgia for a childhood spent playing in the woods, she’s seen the silly video clips her teenagers watch and concluded, “YouTube and its ilk … [are] more than likely, the inspiration for the next generation of natural historians, conservation leaders and biologists.”
  • Citizen science efforts give kids and families the chance to help scientists with their research, often while harnessing digital technology. Some, like Project Noah, focus on wildlife and the natural world. Previously, I've written about AMC’s Flower Watch program, which offers another great project to do while out on a hike with kids.
  • Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age, argues in a recent opinion piece that “Kids need nature, not Facebook” and that electronic immersion must be balanced with experiences in nature that reduce stress, improve health, and strengthen the ability to learn and create.
  • Poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, in “Nature: Now Showing on TV,” describes birding by webcam, and ponders how such virtual experiences of nature—while appealing—will radically change us.
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