Does technology have a role in outdoor learning?

Sam Flatman

Sam Flatman is Sales & Marketing Director for Pentagon Sport. Pentagon have worked with over 5000 settings to create innovative playgrounds and learning environments for young students. Sam has been designing playgrounds for the past 10 years and has a passion for outdoor education. He believes that outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, which can be integrated into the school curriculum. Sam is currently based in Bristol with his two sons.

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We can all agree that when technology is used correctly in the classroom it can both support and enhance learning. However, when we consider outdoor learning, should we be utilising new technological innovations? Or is it vital that outdoor learning spaces continue to provide a tech-free zone for today’s digital children?

"Children being able to interact with the natural world, getting creative with photography and later being able to share their discoveries with their class are things that I think educators should be encouraging."

Edtech has come a long way since the interactive whiteboard was introduced to the classroom in 1991. New technologies are emerging all the time, from PECS programmes which are designed for non-verbal symbolic communication, to iPads and tablets which provide a wealth of educational and cross-curricular apps to support learning. Edtech has innovated our classrooms, making lessons more visually engaging and advancing the skills of today’s learners.

When I read Juliet Robinson’s excellent article on using iPads and the Photo Booth app in outdoor education, I have to admit, I thought the idea was exciting. Children being able to interact with the natural world, getting creative with photography and later being able to share their discoveries with their class and even their families at home are all things that I think educators should be encouraging. Not to mention the fact that it’s a great way to get children up and moving around outdoors!

Another great outdoor technology experience that has sparked my interest is geocaching. This trailblazing activity requires children to use GPS to track down treasure boxes. Teachers and parents alike are able to download coordinates for local geocaches from the Geocaching website. The National Trust explains and hosts geocaching events too. Not only is discovering hidden treasure an exciting prospect for children, but it also develops navigational and problem-solving skills.

Even though the benefits of outdoor edtech are apparent, the extent to which edtech is being properly utilised for learning and the degree to which it should be incorporated into schools is still up for debate. In a time when parents are contemplating digital detoxes for their children, I can’t help but question whether we really want to be bringing technology any further into our children’s outdoor world than it already is.

"Twenty years ago, who would have ever thought our children could be capturing virtual creatures in the real world through augmented-reality video games"

2008 saw the introduction of Britain’s first hi-tech playground, which uses magnetic swipe cards to set children tasks. Earlier this year, a playground which offers interactive mobile apps via QR codes was constructed. But is this technology really necessary to encourage kids to play outside? By removing the need for invention and imagination, does technology hinder the development of creativity in the playground? Or could it be argued that technology in the playground serves as a springboard for imaginative leaps?

Outdoor technological innovations are changing our children’s worlds more than any of us could ever have imagined. Twenty years ago, who would have ever thought our children could be capturing virtual creatures in the real world through augmented-reality video games like Invizimals, or learning about animal behaviour on the playground through mobile games such as Savannah?

I can’t argue that technologies like these aren’t highly engaging learning experiences that can work wonders to support children’s understanding of abstract concepts, when properly integrated into the curriculum or otherwise monitored by parents. However, research has shown that we still face challenges when using mobile technologies to augment learning, including information overload, children being too distracted by their mobile device, and designing an experience which emphasises teamwork and interaction with peers.

It is important for us to ask questions about the role of technology in outdoor learning to ensure that we reach a position where it enhances our children’s development, rather than stifles it. We want technology to compliment outside learning, but never replace it. As parents and teachers we have a responsibility to our children to find a balance which preserves natural outdoor play, but doesn’t completely shy away from edtech innovations that can help our children progress and extend their learning experience.

Where do you stand on technology in outdoor learning? Let us know in the comments.

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