The first episode of the latest David Attenborough series Seven Worlds, One Planet was watched by over seven million people on its debut. It’s hardly a surprise. Audiences know Attenborough’s films to be high-quality productions and expect he will educate—and delight us— by showing us the natural world we might not see or even be aware of that shares this planet with us.
Many of those viewers were undoubtedly children. And how could parents resist introducing children to the breathtakingly beautiful, moving tribute to the earth that Seven Worlds, One Planet, Blue Planet, Life on Earth or any Attenborough film for that matter?
But should we feel guilty when watching a nature documentary with our kids from the comfort of climate-controlled homes, sprawled out on comfortable couches with our kitchen pantry a few steps away? Just like there’s “vanity activism”, could this be “lazy nature”? Is it wrong of us to think that perhaps we might have spent the 59 minutes (or 400 minutes if you’re determined to watch the entire Blue Planet series) better if we took our kids outdoors in real nature, in the real world?
In Rich Louv’s latest book, Our Wild Calling, Louv poses the question: “Do we really need animals?” In a book that takes on the subject of human-animal relationships and, most impressively, just how much we need animals, the question is understandable. Story after personal story reminds us of the vital and often unacknowledged role of animals in our lives: to battle loneliness and isolation, draw us out as communicators, remind us of a primal connection with the wild that seems so far removed from our current technological and human-focused world but is embedded in our DNA. As we read on, it seems that Louv does not really mean do we need animals on our planet? More precisely, do we need a real-life relationship with them? Or is a virtual relationship enough? After all, we can see animals in video games, on websites, nature documentaries.
These are all fair questions. Technology has indeed made nature "accessible". It brings it straight to our devices any time we want it. It could be a nature documentary or a video game or a webcam at our local zoo. Parents today want our children to feel connected to nature. And we want to make sure we are doing what we can to help foster a connection. But is virtual nature a high quality nature experience? Does it even have benefits to us as the real natural world does?
As a true journalist would, Louv turns to the experts to discuss the role of virtual nature in our lives. Peter Kahn from the University of Washington’s Human Interaction with Nature and Technological Systems lab weighs in on the concept of technological nature, a “form” of nature that includes extreme examples such as telehunting actual animals from a computer thousands of miles away, but also includes nature documentaries or watching nature online.
To gain a deeper understanding of the role of technological nature, Kahn tells Louv about an experiment his team conducted. They created technological “nature windows” in a building without actual windows. The “nature windows” displayed real-time nature views on plasma screen windows. Then they checked in with some of the people working in the rooms with the “nature views” on the effects on their wellbeing. They found that the “nature windows” or technological nature offered some of the same benefits to psychological health as the real thing.
But what about comparing virtual and real nature in educational settings? Technology is used in environmental education in different ways: classrooms can connect to National Geographic scientists through skype, take a virtual tour of the rainforest online, ID a bird with apps like Cornell Lab of Ornithology, or take part in a citizen science project through apps like iNaturalist.
But which is better? Can technology-based educational experiences support learning in ways that are comparable to live-animal and place-based experiences?
Researchers in Germany recently took this question on. They divided a group of 354 students (ages 10 to 14) in Bavaria, Germany into two groups: half were assigned to a live-bee program, and the other half in a virtual-bee program. In the first program, students visited a local beehive and interacted 25 with live bees. In the second program, students could observe a beehive via live stream videos from cameras positioned at different angles inside and outside of the beehive. Both programs used student-centered learning approaches and covered similar content about bees.
After evaluation, the researchers found that there was virtually no difference in students’ knowledge about bees, regardless of whether they were in the live or virtual program. And for both groups, researchers found significant positive correlations between students’ perceptions of bee conservation and their bee knowledge at the pre-program as well as 6-to-9- weeks after the program. They found that both virtual and live-animal programs can be effective for supporting environmental knowledge gains among middle-school students.
So we shouldn’t feel guilty when we expose our children to virtual nature. They can learn from this form of nature and may even experience benefits to their wellbeing when experiencing it. While the real thing likely motivates kids more and creates more lasting memories, it turns out that neither parents nor educators should feel guilty about using virtual nature to engage kids. And sometimes, weather, time, cost, availability, or other barriers may keep programs from providing live-nature experiences. While there’s “nothing like the real thing,” technological nature can be better than no nature at all.
Nature documentaries such as the BBC’s Seven Worlds, One Planet, can take our children around the world, showing them nature they might never have the chance to see themselves. How else could our children “witness” the largest congregation of feeding whales ever filmed? Or hermaphroditic white frills fertilizing each other? They might even inspire our children to learn more, travel, perhaps take on a career in wildlife conservation, or nature filmmaking.