Can Digital Kids Click With Nature, Wildlife?

ecokids bronwyn cumbo researchAug. 25, 2016 Update Celebrate 100 Years of our National Parks with FREE admission today!

In honor of this centennial milestone, a quick roundup of children’s media designed specifically to get kids OUTSIDE to play outdoors in nature and learn eco-literacy lessons for life.

Which media would you add that boosts kids knowledge and curiosity about the environment, wildlife and our natural world? In addition to amazing outdoor projection displays and documentaries like Racing Extinction which we’ll be screening repeatedly this fall, who are some of your favorite media producers using subtle eco-entertainment to embed core messages to kids for stewardship? Here are a few starters:

Shoutout of thanks to Amazon Prime’s Emmy winning TumbleLeaf kids’ show, citizen science apps and online to offline bridges that encourage stewardship of the planet, like the new Kickstarter Jr. Explorers, which is trying to reach its stretch goal right now, apps that evoke emotion and impart knowledge like TiltWorld, critter cams at and bring the wild into classrooms, virtual worlds and games like Animal Jam, and nature apps that springboard kids away from the screen and into the richness of the planet.

Back to school picks? Here are a few “Wildlife and Nature Lesson Plans” for educators to help jump start a strong love of nature, and as always, multimedia integration of shows like PBS Wild Kratts. I’d love to see more “hybrid experiences” since nature can be kids’ greatest teacher, integrating STEM, storytelling, scavenger hunts, and Skype visits from scientists, like the pilot program of immersion MIT’s Vanished edu-game engaging kids with the ‘what ifs’ on a multitude of subjects, using imagination, cause and effect.

Can Technology Get Kids to Play Outside?

Obviously, games like Pokemon Go are selling that concept, but that’s a highly mediated and augmented environment that doesn’t tap into the raw, real, hands-on experience of sharing nature with children.

Personally, I think there’s a massive prosocial “market opportunity” to use global reach to instill urgency with climate change, school the world on our interdependence, and put forth the immediate need to preserve nature. The recent Rio 2016 Olympics is a great example, despite mixed eco-messages and sustainability goals …How can we best reduce, reuse, recycle those important messages to make change in our own behaviors, stewardship, and support of our National Parks right here and now? I’m headed outside to take a hike and think on it more…

Happy Centennial National Parks…let’s keep them ad-free, wide open, and supported with TLC by a new generation of kids using media to help reverse course and turn this tanker around for stewardship of healthier parks, planet, and people!

Oct. 26, 2014 In yet another unabashed blight on nature, with social media narcissism in a clueless fame game  defacing National Parks with graffiti  in ‘catch me if you can’ mode, I’m thankful social media can start being used as a ‘connect the dots’  reminder/deterrent for arrest, but saddened by the need to do so, as the moral compass goes ‘sproing’ on the need to protect and preserve. Mobile developers and media moguls…HELP. We need stewardship, STAT.

Original Post Oct. 21, 2014 I’m a huge fan of all creatures great and small…but HUMANS have NOT been on my happy list lately.

Between our homeowner’s association waging war on wildlife that was here long before us (rescuing a skunk from one of the association’s oxymoronic  “humane traps” where he had burrowed through the clay soil frantically trying to escape for several days without water while baking in a heat wave) to helping the SPCA catch a dumped domestic pet bunny left in the wild marshland near the freeway to fend for itself, it appears imbecilic two-legged bipeds are losing empathy, humanity, and any modicum of common sense.

What gives?

Recent SF Bay area news stories range from the cougar that prompted panic in Silicon Valley earlier this year and recently was killed by a car trying to cross the 280 freeway, to the poor squirrel who got caught in a bike spoke darting across the path of racing cyclists, and both instances felt like media reporting gave a shoulder shrug of an oopsie moment tempered by furrowed, thankful brows that ‘no one else was hurt.’

Really? Tell that to the cougar and the squirrel. Sigh.

dont feed the fears warren whitlock twitterAnd gawd help you if you’re a shark (cue the overused Jaw soundtrack) with media amped fear factors and ratings sensationalism with barely a shred of scientific efficacy. I spent most of the much hyped “Shark Week” on Twitter debunking the frenzy with shark facts.

Right now the odds are in my favor that wings, fins, hooves and paws are more to my liking than certain upright species of my own kind. I can’t tell you how much it sickens me that the treatment of deer, bear and mountain lions are being diminished to “encroachment issues” raccoons and wildlife are categorized as “nuisances and pests,” and the media coverage pendulum swings between ‘awwww’ TV news happy chat and frenetic clucking of sightings with fear and loathing warning alerts on an endless loop during a slow news day.

Beyond the ludicrous human entitlement standards, my visceral disgust at the vapid idiocy of egomaniacal ‘selfies’ being taken at the expense of a living being has sent me into overdrive looking for solutions to such callous indifference.

So…First and foremost…How do we seed empathy among ‘digital kids’

who need to get in touch with nature in order to have any reason to want to save it?

Study: Digital kids-New language/lens of nature?

When I saw this study asking “How Technology Could Motivate Children to Explore Nature”  I immediately started tweeting to game developers and industry pros with a plea to put wildlife and nature on the “do not fall” list…to give rise to a high priority builder/maker fun fest in an all stops out push toward creativity.

wildlife gatorsPile on, families!


After all, this is the start of the Digital Kids Summit in SF today where industry leaders across the globe share their work…and I have confidence if there’s “market demand” with youth particularly, there’s definitely unstoppable brainpower to turn this tanker around.

nature principleThis premise of blending tech and springboarding from online to offline worlds is one I’ve repeatedly championed, from Discover the and types of sites to nature apps, citizen science and live “critter cams” that focus on baby animals and their precious habitats to instill caring and triggering emotional bonds…”they won’t protect what they don’t know” is the forest ranger credo.

Even urban zoo sleepovers and aquarium visits in ‘scouts meets glamping’ style can persuade and motivate kids to venture deeper into discovery. We’ve ALL got to ‘pile on’ with forward thinking momentum about the future and embrace digital tech’s potential to spark free form play outdoors in fun, fresh natural ways. (Related: A great site called The Quiet Place for a mini-digital detox from distractions)

The fabulous article in my Children and Nature Network stream lit me up with possibilities, as it echoes what leaders like Rich Louv have said for years, “The more high tech we become, the more we need nature.”  Cumbo’s research involved six months in Denmark with a collaboratory of children being asked to design the ultimate outdoor play experience for these characters; now it’s bridging to Australia for the next phase…Exciting!

Here are a few excerpts:

“Digital technology is often considered a barrier to independent outdoor play,” says PhD candidate in the Institute for Sustainable Futures Bronwyn Cumbo…

“But it could also be an important tool for change…

“I’m working with children and parents to see how interactive technology may enable and motivate children to play more regularly in their local natural places.”

“This research is about taking a positive and creative approach to tackling an environmental issue,” explains Cumbo.

“Many kids love digital technology and games. I’m interested in how the engaging aspects of digital games – the narrative, characters and creativity – can be used to entice children outdoors for a fun and tangible experience.

“I held creative workshops in Denmark with children aged eight to 12 to understand what inspired them to play outdoors in nature. To explain the task, I created a fictional narrative about two virtual characters, Anna and Jesper, who had escaped their virtual world to experience the physical natural environment.”

“Interestingly, there were no adults in any of their designs and they gave the characters exciting challenges and games that incorporated role-play or risk-taking.”

make-the-connectionThis is consistent with the research that Amazon Kids was using for the new Tumble Leaf digital web show, with outdoor adventures for PreK to seed nature as an exploratory playground of fun vs fear, debunking years of ‘ewww gross’ tween TV positioning the outdoors conversely or the staple ‘wacky camp chaos’ episodes of sitcom sendups.

Give kids adventure quests without hemming in boundaries…make nature and wildlife the friend to be aligned with instead of the foe to be triumphed, and start seeding change…

Whether it’s school environments, outdoor play experiences, creating habitats and gardens or getting up close and personal with animals and wildlife in natural environments or even live critter cams using noninvasive media like the excellent, play in nature creates a firsthand eco-stewardship dynamic that is hard to replicate elsewhere.

As far as tech creation, it doesn’t have to be the next colossal Angry Birds Eco Edition…or Survivor: The Species… or even “Desperate Wildlives” game but it IS fun to play around with formula spinoffs to see what’s plausible from an ‘innovate to educate’ mode for hands-on eco-literacy.

tiltworld screen shotTech media could take the form of geocaching and mobile apps, mystery STEM, virtual eco worlds, interactive storytelling, prosocial learning games like TiltWorld, National Geographic Kids’ Animal Jam, or popular shows like PBS’ Wild Kratts, Amazon’s Tumble Leaf, or Netflix’ Magic School Bus reboot…the options are limitless…

Just think, if we shift the media focus from reality TV spewing “human wild life” to connect and inspire digital kids with REAL wildlife; we’d not only ditch the cruddy cues, we’d have a new generation of eco-stewardship, eager to turnback the clock ticking toward extinction if World Wildlife Fund’s report is accurate that the earth has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years. 

If we seize upon “marketing hope” and engaging with tactile, real life show-n-tell moments that convey why wildlife and nature truly MATTERS I can’t help but think we’ll start to speak the language of interconnection.

At the very least, as a default, we can appeal to the selfish human benefits and upside of experiencing nature, from improved cognitive function, mental health de-stressors, and eco-literacy education to the studies showing that even PHOTOS of nature can inhibit impulsiveness and impact behavior change. Integrating nature with the language of 21st Century digital kids could mean a better opportunity to not only yield long term benefits but make them stick in the short term with R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Sing it, Aretha. I’ll be watching the Digital Kids Conference very closely today to see where priorities are and what’s in store for the meshing of tech and nature…

As the newly launched “Nature is Speaking” series of celebrity voiceover videos from Conservation International reminds with poignant, powerful precision:

Mother Nature doesn’t need us…we need her.

It’s high time adults AND digital kids figure this one out. And fast.


Visual Credits: Lead Photo/ Child’s artwork created in one of Cumbo’s research workshops. Credit: Bronwyn Cumbo, 2013 Gators: Award Winner Udayan Rao Pawar, India Don’t Feed the Fears screenshot via Warren Whitlock, Bret Blevins illustration, Nature Principle via


Related Nature and Digital Eco-Kids Resources by Amy Jussel, Shaping Youth

Experience The Earth Beyond Instagram

National Wildlife Ubooly Toy Partnership and Digital Kids

Media Netiquette + Nature Apps in a Totally Wired World

Toys R Us Throws Mother Nature Under the School Bus

Will Kids Reconnect With Nature…At School?

How To Turn People Green

Inspiring Kids As Stewards of the Planet

Inspiring Kids With Green Media

Get ‘Em Outside!

Nature Rocks: Reconnecting Families with Planet Earth!

Shaping Youth Joins Eco-Literacy Coalition: NCLI

The Great Turtle Race

When Art Meets Earth: Wyland’s Murals Inspire Kids to Care Edu & Eco Activism for Int’l Climate Change

Kids Bring Home the Message to Cool the Earth

Spring Break Sanctuary-Media Unplugged on Catalina

Hope Is On The Horizon When Movements Go Mainstream

Green Teen Videos On Climate Change: Global Challenge

Climate Change Chocolate, TerraPass E-Cause Animation…

Teen Scene: Eco-Concerts

Coen Brothers Ad For Clean Coal Air Freshener (kids faves!)

Disney Nature’s EARTH movie: Our Teen Team’s Take

International Day of Peace to Reach and Teach

Green Grades Report Cards: Forest Ethics

One Teen’s View: Use Eco As An Equalizer

Project Green Dorm: Engaging Youth Via Teens Turning Green

S.F. Oil Spill Prompts Altruism & Activism in Kids

Planting Earthseeds Via The Magic School Bus

New Media Worldometers Help Data Click With Kids

Media Savvy Kids and Nature Deficit Disorder

Tons more archived on sidebar (Shaping Youth’s Eco-Kids & Environment Category)

A few FREE nature apps via  and

WildObs Observer

Project NOAH



What’s Invasive

What’s nearby? Trailhead by The North Face Oh, Ranger! Parkfinder  NatureFind
Identifying:  TreeBook  Leafsnap   iBird Lite  WildLab Recording/Observing: CreekWatch  Nature’s Notebook


Speak Your Mind