While Wildwood Nature School is a nature-based program, we also make full use of 21st century technology. Young children are aware of and extremely excited by all of the amazing things technology can do. They see their parents on phones and computers all day long and are eager to explore the media themselves.
Rather than ignoring technology, we strive to use it as a tool to better understand the natural environment around us. Remembering that technology is a tool is the key to its responsible use and integration with a nature connection ideology. We don’t play games or watch shows (even educational ones) on our media, and we never use technology as a reward. Instead, we aim to teach children to use technology in the same way adults do at work, to better understand the world around them and to convey that understanding to others.
Taking Pictures for Deeper Observations
Children in our program have many opportunities to take pictures. They regularly take pictures to add to their journals. We use old iPhones to take pictures. As my fellow blogger Cassandra Johnson mentioned in her article, “A Look at Undervalued Classroom Materials,” parents are good sources for old phones. The phones needn’t be the latest and greatest. Once the phones no longer have service, they still take good (enough for kids) pictures.
Sometimes the children are asked to hunt for specific pictures that match our current object of study – Can you take a picture of a sign of winter? How many different colors can you find today? Where might birds have been? At other times, children choose to take a picture of something that catches their eye because it is an interesting shape or color or a new kind of animal.
The act of picture taking itself – composing the right shot, thinking about lights and shadows – is a form of observation. The finished product can also enhance our learning. Sometimes the children notice things in pictures that they may not have noticed in real time. For example, we noticed that a slug has what look like four antennae, one set for smelling and sensing light and another set for feeling and tasting.
Sometimes we use the printed pictures for further research, as when we photograph a new (to us) species of plant or animal so that we can find out more about it in our field guides, which are both printed and online.
The Audubon Society has an easy to follow webpage where children can simply find a bird’s picture that matches their photograph and click on it to hear its call or learn more about its habitat and diet. The Arbor Day Foundation also has an online field guide that is simple enough for children. On the “What tree is that site?” children answer a series of narrowing questions about the tree (e.g. leaf shape and size, whether or not it has cones) which eventually leads to an identification.
[Photos taken by students of Wildwood Nature School]
Using the Internet to Deepen Understanding
The Internet is another way to expose children to information they cannot get in real time. We sat in our sit spots one day and listened carefully to all of the birds chattering around us. The children were surprised to discover that we could hear many different bird sounds. While we did hear a stereotypical “tweet,” one call sounded like someone talking and laughing and another call like a short owl’s “who.”
I took detailed notes as they described the different sounds. After we cataloged our sounds, we found examples of bird calls online and matched them to probable birds that live in the area around our school. We were able to identify a woodpecker (the laughing), a dove (cooing often sounds like an owl) and a robin (the high-pitched tweeting).
Audio and Video Recording for Assessment and Reflection
In December, I wrote about Sit Spots and mentioned that I often ask children to “share a story” once we return from our sit spots and gather as a group. I want a record of their stories for a number of reasons, Often, children return to the same topic. This year, one boy found a mushroom in his sit spot. The next week, he remarked that it grew. The following week, it had actually changed color. Since we had an audio record of his time in his sit spot, it was easier for him and the others to remember and appreciate the changes. Secondly, I like to have a record of the children’s developing language. Since I teach children starting at age 3, their adoption of pronouns, embedded clauses and other grammatical markers show language growth for me and their parents.
At first, I tried transcribing the stories as the children talked, but I either ended up missing a chunk of each story because my pen failed to keep up or I was forced to ask children to stop every few words, disrupting their train of thought and causing the whole group to get restless while one person slowly and haltingly finished a story. Worse still, by focusing on the transcription, I was unable to focus in the moment on what each child was saying and to react and converse in real time, giving false value to assessment over the teachable moment.
One day, I realized that we had phones with us that could be used for audio recording as well as photographs! I still do sometimes transcribe the children’s stories from the audio recording and post them in the classroom with pictures related to their stories. The children like to read each other’s stories and return later in the year to ones they wrote earlier.
According to a 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics statement on children and media use, “higher-order thinking skills and executive functions essential for school success, such as task persistence, impulse control, emotion regulation, and creative, flexible thinking, are best taught through unstructured and social (not digital) play.” Everything we do with technology needs to be in service of these goals. As long as teachers keep in mind the developmental needs of preschoolers, technology and media are compatible with any play-based or nature-based class.
Audubon Society Field Guide https://www.audubon.org/bird-guide?field_bird_family_tid=All&field_bird_region_tid=113
Arbor Day Foundation What Tree is that Tree Identification Field Guide https://www.arborday.org/trees/whattree/
American Academy of Pediatrics Recommendations for Media Use