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Citizen Science Can Renew A Child's Love of Nature

By — Nature Deficit Disorder Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

We all know that humans are making a negative impact on the environment. In fact, worldwide, we lose plant and insect species at an alarming rate-something on the order of 10,000 species annually.  The U.S. ranks high among nations in the loss of biodiversity; the per capita 'ecological footprint' (a measure of how much land is needed for a population's lifestyle) is almost five times the world's average-far beyond sustainable. Richard Louv, author of No Child Left in the Woods, attributes our disregard for the Earth to a decreasing number of children who play outside, build forts, or explore nature.

In 2006, the Kaiser Family Foundation concluded that "the multitasking generation" spends their time juggling TV/DVD, videogames, music, and computers. When considered separately, these activities add up to more than a 24-hour day.  Childhood experiences with nature frame how we think about the natural world and how we treat people, the Earth's other species, and physical environments.

My eldest son knows that I enjoy the outdoors, yet he also knows that I am a busy adult. Working hard also equates to personal sacrifices, which means my son is exposed to a lot more television, movies, and video games than I'd prefer. How can we, as parents, help improve the environment and instill in our children a love for nature and conservation?

Teaching Children to Value Nature

My university life is centered on ways to collaborate with science teachers in order to promote responsibility for cultural diversity, biodiversity, habitats, and nature's harmony. I have recently learned how to incorporate these values into my relationship with my son by collecting data while hiking, playing outside, or bird watching. About a year ago we began doing citizen science by selecting different methods of investigating, collecting, and analyzing data on regional birds, insects, plants, and rocks.

What is Citizen Science?

Citizen scientists are predominately involved in monitoring environmental indicators and the biodiversity of species related to regional climate change, which range in scope from the micrometer to the cosmos. There are now over 200 citizen science projects available worldwide, allowing for ordinary adults and their children to collect data that supports scientific studies and local policymaking. In fact, the longest running citizen science project is more than 100 years old. 

What Are Some Citizen Science Projects I Can Do With My Child?

  • Monarch larva and butterfly migration monitoring
  • Ant surveys
  • Worm and weed watches
  • Lake ice and weather monitoring
  • Weather reports
  • Municipal air and water quality
  • Bird surveys  
  • Bird feeder watches

Global Reach of Projects 

Beyond developing an appreciation and understanding of what scientists themselves do, citizen science projects help adults and youth investigate the social and environmental impacts of scientific practices. These programs provide an opportunity for students to become pen pals and share data internationally. For example, "Our Shared Forests" gets youth in Georgia and Ecuador to collaboratively study the impacts of coffee trees on migratory birds and insects.  Through citizen science, youth begin to recognize how the choices we make in our kitchens can impact species biodiversity both locally and around the world.

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