THERE ISN'T AN APP FOR NATURE: Do You Know Where Your iPad is at All Times?

About the Author

Brian Gibbs is a Naturalist for Clayton County Conservation, where he annually gives 400 classroom programs on environmental education and directs over 40 nature field trips a year to natural areas in Northeast Iowa. He has also worked as an interpretive park ranger in Glacier National Park.

Today, many school districts in Clayton County, Iowa are instituting the use of iPads as an educational tool.  These machines are being used from kindergarten classes all the way up through high school.

Schools require the students to sign an iPad pledge containing a list of appropriate behaviors with the iPad.  A few statements from the pledge include: I will take good care of my iPad, I will never leave my iPad unattended, and I will know where my iPad is at all times.

According to the U.S. Center for Media Literacy, fewer than 5 percent of schools teach media education. Why not have a class dedicated to teaching the risks of media consumption rather than insisting all children need to have an iPad in their hands and know where it is at all times?

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In a 2011 New York Times article, Larry Cuban, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, suggested that millions of dollars in financial resources currently being invested in iPads would be better spent to recruit, train and retain teachers. Cuban wrote, “There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines…iPads are marvelous tools to engage kids, but then the novelty wears off and you get into hard-core issues of teaching and learning.”

Studies published by the Media Education Foundation in 2005 found that the average American child spends over 40 hours a week in front of a screen, equivalent to working a full-time job. This study was produced five years before iPads were being used as an educational tool in the classroom.

In the 2005 documentary film Remote Control: Children, Media Consumption & the Changing American Family,  Hillary Rodham Clinton  implied her concern with media consumption by saying, “With some additional research, the case will be conclusive that we are causing long-term public health damage to many, many children and therefore to society.”

The lack of outdoor play in today’s wired generation is linked to the increasingly disturbing trends of childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression. Furthermore, a 2010 survey done by the Iowa Department of Health indicated that 37 percent of Iowa children were either overweight or obese, leading Iowa to rank 8th nationally in the prevalence of childhood obesity.

Part of my job as a naturalist is to give classroom programs on the environment. Throughout the winter months, I give hundreds of programs to thousands of school children in the county. The following accounts are not happening in every school I visit; however, they are occurring on such a high rate that I feel compelled to share a few observations to go along with statistics mentioned above.

This past December, I walked into a classroom full of second graders scattered in different parts of the room. Headphones were covering their ears and eyes focused solely on the screen in front of them.  The students were so unaware of their surroundings that the teacher had to physically remove the headphones from their ears. I thought possibly these students were just using their iPads as a brief educational tool. Yet, I observed the daily iPad schedule included using the machines for Math, Science, History, and Reading.

Before holiday break, I observed twenty-two papers posted outside of a 2nd grade classroom. The students’ task was to color in a picture of a bear and answer the question “When little bear sleeps, I will be…”  Nine of the twenty-two responses said they would be “playing video games.”

Upon walking inside the entryway of another elementary school, I was greeted with a poster asking parents to donate money for the purchase of more iPad applications. The poster stated how critical it was for the students to become exposed to technology as it becomes more integrated into their daily life. A separate school in Clayton County displays iPad posters throughout their hallways, showing a child how to correctly hold his/her iPad using the stem-to-belly method.

The most sincere encounter I have had recently with the overconsumption of media in schools occurred when a veteran middle school teacher in Clayton County spoke to me of her frustrations over iPads in her classroom: “As teachers, we are made to feel we are doing a disservice to the kids if we don’t teach them how to use this technology right now…. I have to work so much harder to implement one hands-on activity in an hour of class, yet more and more, I go home sad because of this difficult transition.”

Interestingly, this was the same class where students repetitively asked me if I had some animal they could touch.With proper media education and limited media consumption, iPads and their educational applications can be an engaging educational tool. Age-appropriate instruction should embrace not only the Iowa Core Curriculum standards but also seek to promote a healthy, creative and stimulating lifestyle.

A great forewarning is already occurring in Idaho, where Virtual Academies are being offered to students in grades K-12, subsequently replacing the need for school-based learning. 

When we decide where and how our children will learn, consider that when a child born today turns 30 years old, they will have spent nearly 10 years of their life in front of a screen — a full decade of watching life instead of living one.

Postscript: One week after I wrote the article, a local school in my county became the first school in Iowa to announce they will be offering a virtual academy to their students next year.

A version of this piece appeared in the Des Moines Register, Feb. 7, 2012


  1. Thank you, Brian, for being a voice of concern for the over-consumption of media in kids’ lives. I’d much rather see kids with dirt under their fingernails and paint on their fingertips than kids who have to keep their hands clean for using their iPad.

  2. I think digital technology has a lot to offer. For instance, making vast amounts of information available to everyone. We can learn and share more. But the huge downfall is that it is so darn addictive. It’s just too easy to become absorbed in the online world while time flies by and you don’t even notice.

    I taught dance for 10 years. Over that time, I went from trying to focus children who were bouncing off the walls (literally), they were so full of energy, to ten years later having to entice them just to “move” – they didn’t want to leave their TVs to come to dance class. It is incredibly sad to see the same thing happening with nature & the outdoors. It’s so difficult to tear children away from their digital toys.

    I really like your statement “a full decade of watching life instead of living one”; I want to inspire the latter choice.

  3. There is a key player in this drama that often goes unrecognized or unmentioned: the technology industry. Device and application vendors actively promote the use of their products in schools – or instead of them. This pressure is applied to the schools directly or through legislative lobbying efforts under the guise of education reform. Contracts to provide technology to schools are a huge market and often a quite lucrative one, since govt contracts generally pay premium prices (I know of one distict that pays 3x under contract for the same device I can buy in a retail store). Add to that the cottage industry of consultants, etc. to help schools integrate these technologies.

    I’m a fan of technology to enhance learning – even in environmental ed, where, for example, an iPad with an astronomy app can open the skies. The key question is whether these technologies are producing better citizens and stewards, or just adding to the bottom line at the expense of our children’s future.

  4. thank you.

  5. I believe we are at a crossroads right now in the use of technology for education. Regardless of how any of us feel about it, technology is here to stay, kids love it, and we need to use it to enhance, encourage, facilitate and incentivize kids to go outside and connect to nature instead of trying to ban or restrict it.
    I’d like to see the discussion move from “technology or not,” to one of “creative uses of technology to achieve our goals.” That is what my company, Bloomers! Edutainment is trying to do. I published a recent article in the Connections Magazine (CAEYC), that explores this exact issue. Bloomers! incentivize kids to go outside by giving them points on our online world (that teaches kids how to grow plants and trees) if they go outside to botanical gardens or arboretums. With virtual worlds, the teachers can “meet” the kids in the Very Very Veggie Garden on Bloomers! Island and ask them to identify the vegetables growing there. We suggest combining that with a field trip to a real vegetable garden so they can see the real life counterpart. We also sell a hands-on gardening program for the schools so they can learn to grow their own vegetables. We give kids a free subscription to the online world that reinforces the lessons they learn outside at school. These are the things we are doing. More tech companies should be doing the same types of things and more!


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