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TECHNOLOGY, APPS AND BUTTERFLIES: The Children & Nature Network Conference

About the Author

Zachary Shell, 11, is a blogger for Austin Families in Nature, one of the most successful family nature clubs in North America. Zachary started his blog as a way to track his progress raising funds for a marine biology trip to Florida this summer. To support the fundraiser, he picks up trash from creeks and streams. His blog is called "Nature Nurtured: Portrait of a Naturalist as a Young Man." Zachary attended the 2015 Children & Nature Conference, and served as a panelist. Here is his report on the conference.

Last Tuesday I went to a Children & Nature Network conference with a few of the selected staff and members of Austin Families in Nature. The conference was held at the Lost Pines Resort in Bastrop, TX. The place is enormous, to say the least. The weather was beautiful with all the flowers blooming and trees budding. It seemed strange that we would be having the conference inside on such a nice day!

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Me and my sister in the bluebonnets that were EVERYWHERE at Lost Pines!

The conference revolved around a central mission of getting children to embrace nature. It started with a kickoff speech by a few ecologists and naturalists, including Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods. Louv’s book discusses how children are more detached from nature than ever and the negative impact that is having on social and emotional wellness in youth. He calls it Nature-Deficit Disorder. Richard Louv is also the Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network. I was incredibly honored to meet him!

Tuesday’s presentations focused on the role of technology and how it can be used for education and conservation. The first presentation I chose to attend was about a new digital product known as Nature Passport Beta. Nature Passport is an app designed to gradually wean kids off their portable electronics. Nature Passport was created by two organizations, IslandWood in Washington, and Nature Play WA in Western Australia.

IslandWood is an organization dedicated to get people to spend more time outside. Based in Bainbridge Island, they run programs and hold events designed to get the community to enjoy being outdoors. This is very important, because in the United States, over the course of a single generation, kids’ time outside has been halved.

Nature Play WA is a very similar non-profit organization working towards getting their community to love being in nature. Australian children get an average of 2 hours a day outside but Nature Play WA wants to increase that amount.

The two groups collaborated to make Nature Passport which is an app for any small portable device. The app encourages kids to get outside by providing missions such as identifying birds or finding native plants.

When a mission is completed, the user is rewarded with a virtual prize. Eventually, Nature Passport hopes to add real prizes from some of their sponsors such as the North Face. The idea and the missions were creative and I think they would definitely appeal to kids who like a game-based challenge.

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Meeting Richard Louv – He’s really nice!

The next presentation I attended was given by several different groups. These groups all shared a mission of providing kids, often coming from low-income neighborhoods, with nature-oriented after school programs. One takes the kids to natural spaces and just lets them explore and be kids. This group also regulates the use of electronics so people are not interacting with  their phones all the time. Two of the groups, including Austin Youth River Watch, monitor water quality, letting the kids test water areas to see if they are clean or unhealthy.

One of these groups uses something called “Invisible Nature.” Invisible Nature uses infrared cameras or computerized maps to make a rough design of something like an aquifer, or things that can’t be seen at all, like heat patterns in water. They then take the design and transfer it to their 3-D printer. The printer creates a plastic model of the image, and voila!, they  have a hands-on model to work with instead of a flat photo!  I thought that the ideas the presenters showed  were very creative and took large steps toward protecting the environment in a citizen-based way. I know my little sister would really love using the 3-D printer!

After lunch, PBSKids previewed their new show, Nature Cat. It is an animated story in which the characters spend time in nature, enticing viewers to do the same. The show also has an interactive app that gives users things to do outside, whether in an urban, suburban, or rural environment. It’s geared for a younger audience but I know how much I loved the Kratt brothers, so more shows about nature (especially anything with a cat because I love cats) can only be better!

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Finally, it was time for Kid Talk, in which kids gave speeches about how they brought together technology and nature.  My friend, Andy Kuhlken, talked about how to use the viral game Minecraft in a biophilic, or life-loving, way. The worlds he built were really cool and complex. He demonstrated how to create landscapes that mimicked real ecosystems and could be seen as educational. It was definitely a progressive way to use a game I once viewed as keeping my friends AWAY from nature.

Then Sahil, a student from Laurel Mountain Elementary, presented how he did a study on nature using a website called iNaturalist. Originally, he was just interested in the technology, but as he continued he began to truly love nature itself. He decided to do an experiment  in which he identified things incorrectly on iNaturalist to see how long it took people to correct them. He found it never took more than three days. Pretty impressive oversight for an app!

Third, came  Commander Ben (Benjamin Shrader), a 16-year-old who goes to public schools to teach younger kids about invasive plant species and how to fight them. Ben also makes short movies in which he fights invasive plants. I thought this was an informative but humorous way to teach kids about the threat invasives pose to our ecosystem. Some were super funny!

Surprisingly, at the end of Kid Talk, I was asked up on stage to showcase my blog! It was really cool, but I was a bit nervous. I think everybody liked it though, and maybe a few new people are reading this thanks to the conference!

At the end of the day, I eagerly went outside to tag butterflies — two of them! How you tag a butterfly is you affix a small sticker to a blunt toothpick. You then roll the toothpick around on the butterfly’s wing until the sticker is properly attached to the butterfly. Both butterflies I tagged were monarchs from Monarch Watch. It was really fun! I liked watching them fly away to the Lost Pines pollinator garden.

Overall, it was a great day filled with new ideas and I love how many groups are committed to education and conservation. Now let’s get back outside while it’s still Spring!

More Resources and Reading:

Nature, Nurtured: A portrait of the naturalist as a young man. Zachary Shell’s blog, where this post first appeared, for Austin Families in Nature

Kid Talk Panel Video at the 2015 Children and Nature Conference, by 16 year-old Commander Ben, Invasive Hunter

Commander Ben’s YouTube Video Channel

Austin Families in Nature

How to Start a Family Nature Club like Austin’s. A free toolkit from the Children & Nature Network.

Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center

Texas Children in Nature

The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, the More Nature Kids Need

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