Outdoor Classrooms: Grounding Children in Reality

by Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Program Writer and Consultant

8752810-hand-holding-the-earthSoon, a new form of Augmented Reality (AR) technology will be available for educational, business, and home use. Through the senses of sight and sound, AR vividly blends the real and virtual worlds. We believe that children who have frequent, meaningful contact with nature will be better able than their peers to balance attractive technologies with other educational and recreational interests. Also, they will be better able to differentiate AR’s strengths from its limitations. These are yet more reasons why we believe that ALL children could benefit profoundly from daily contacts with nature.

In past blog posts, we met a child who preferred outdoor play to watching videos before dinner—only after his exposure to a Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom. We met two sisters who asked for binoculars and clipboards for Christmas, so they could deepen their outdoor explorations. And we met the device-dependent students on a multi-day nature field trip to an area where their smartphones wouldn’t work. After exploring the terrain, swimming, and watching buffalo for three days, they didn’t miss their phones. I think we would agree that all these children have the possibility of finding a healthy role for technology in their lives; a balance that is often difficult for many other children to develop.

Now, fast-forward to the (near) future! Windows 10, a free operating system upgrade for PC platform computers, will be arriving soon. It will support AR functionality via the use of the “HoloLens” visor. You’ll be able to see and adjust translucent holograms (three-dimensional images made of light) projected into the real world.

With this technology, you’ll be able to walk around the room, interacting with both the real and virtual worlds at the same time. You’ll be able to manipulate a hologram’s size, position, and more. An example of AR’s usage is in toy design. A holographic representation of the toy is projected against an environment in which it will be used. Its dimensions, colors, etc. are adjusted by the designer’s hand movements, which result in the actual design modifications sent to the manufacturer. Many of us will soon be watching films on a screen size we customize with a few hand movements. Rumor says that the HoloLens goggles will be released as soon as the technology has matured to where the average user can control its functions consistently.

Yet more basic AR is already used in educational products. Some of these products are designed for very young children. If you can hold a smartphone or tablet computer, you’re old enough for Augmented Reality. For example, by holding a smartphone or tablet computer over a specially encoded book page, a three-dimensional image will appear. I’ve seen a cartoon-like dinosaur, which can be rotated and viewed at all angles, hovering over an encoded page. I can’t imagine this experience not being enormously engaging for a small child.

AR technology holds fascinating potentials for education. iPads and other tablet-style devices have long been used in preschools and elementary schools. Increasingly sophisticated AR, in some form, will probably soon find its way to very young children in homes and schools.

But what does Augmented Reality really have to do with Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms? A lot; IMHO (in my humble opinion). In fact, I believe that early experiences in an outdoor classroom can actually augment augmented reality—by keeping it honest.

The hologram of a flower, seen from all sides against the background of a real room, is still not a real flower. The hologram-flower would be engaging and fun to play with, but it will lack the visual complexity, aroma, and texture of a real flower.

Why should the extra qualities of a real flower matter when we can conjure fun flowers seemingly at will? After all, we often substitute texting for real conversation, despite the fact that texts carry only a fraction of the rich information of face-to-face dialog.

Today, we can easily find three- and four-year-olds whose first close-up experience with a flower is in an outdoor classroom. Like a hologram-flower, a real flower (in the ground) can be experienced from all angles. Unlike with the real flower, you’ll be able to change the shape and color of a hologram-flower. If you are designing a toy flower, these capabilities could be useful. But they are of limited usefulness for the ever-churning intellect of a small child.

If I were a normally inquisitive four-year-old who was closely experiencing a flowerbed for the first time, here are some of the questions I’d be asking myself:

“Why are they stuck in the ground? Why are some one color and some another? Why do they have different shapes? Why do the red ones smell different than the yellow ones? Are these like the ones I see at home? These flowers aren’t in water like at home—how do they drink? Why are there bugs on these flowers? Why does the teacher say to be careful with them? Do I have crayons these colors? Why does this leaf feel fuzzy, while the other doesn’t? Why are flowers colorful, when the trees and bushes aren’t? What will happen if I pick one?” Etc., etc…

To see, touch, and smell a variety of flowers in an outdoor classroom is to unlock a treasure chest of inquiry, to raise questions and theories, and to invite stories and drawings. Isn’t this exciting engagement with the beauty and complexity of nature an excellent grounding that will help place Augmented Reality into a proper context?

When the boundaries between AR and RR (real reality) are clear, the true benefits of each can be appreciated. And this is exactly why outdoor classrooms become even more critical to a child’s development as our societal engagement with virtual worlds deepens. With the scaffolding of experience that a wise adult can add to a child’s explorations in nature, the ideal foundation for further learning results. Children with rich grounding in nature will differentiate between the virtual and the real. They’ll know the limits of what can be learned about the real through the virtual. They’ll also, I suspect, be better prepared to reap the true benefits of Augmented Reality.