It is true that the advancement in iPhones, video games, and other handheld technologies are at the root of worry for many parents, educators, and naturalists around the world. After all, more time behind a screen means less time that kids are spending outdoors, exploring, learning, and getting their hands dirty. It can also contribute to mental health issues, obesity, attention problems, decreased social interactions, and more.
But it doesn’t have to.
New technology can also mean new ways for children to interact with nature, while also incorporating their love for these digital screens. Instead of making technology the enemy, many states are choosing to work with it. In 2019, Michigan celebrated the 100th anniversary of their state parks. Along with this came the State Park Centennial Geotour, a way to encourage Michiganders to get outside and enjoy the beautiful parks that they have access to. “Geocaching is a real-world, outdoor adventure that is happening all the time, all around the world” (geocaching.com). To participate all you need is your smartphone and the Geocaching app. With this app, participants are led to Michigan parks all over the state and can explore the outdoors while also finding hidden geocache containers and receiving commemorative souvenirs. This centennial milestone was also celebrated using other forms of technology, such as podcasts, videos, and a “nature sounds” soundtrack, which was recorded within Michigan state parks and is available for free download and stream for anyone interested.
Similarly, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has created an app called “Agents of Discovery”. This educational, place-based app was designed to engage kids in the outdoors and send them on adventures. In this app, you become a secret agent, dedicated to solving science and nature questions such as, “Why do beavers build dams?”, and “Why are bumblebees fuzzy?”. This app is free to use and does not require phone data or Wi-Fi once installed onto a device. This is especially important because many of your adventures will be outside in the woods where service could be limited.
Some other apps that are useful not only to kids, but also to adults, educators, and naturalists alike are the Merlin Bird ID, iNaturalist, and Animated Knots. Merlin Bird ID was created by Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology and can identify up to 3,000 bird species across four continents. Through sight and sound, users can identify and even track their bird sightings, which then contribute to real-world research and conservation of birds worldwide. Much like the Merlin Bird ID, iNaturalist allows you to record your observations in nature and share with fellow naturalists. You can even take photos of surrounding flora or fauna, and iNaturalist will help you ID them using an automated species identification vision tool. While all of the apps listed so far are free to download, some are not. Animated Knots is a fun teaching guide to tying every kind of adventure knot. From fishing knots, to horse and farm knots, Animated Knots provides the step-by-step imaging and instructions for you to use on your next camping trip! It’s available for download for $4.99.
These apps and many more, can teach kids to use technology in a way that benefits learning and encourages being outdoors. Being purposeful about which apps you allow your kids to use can turn technology into a powerful outdoor education tool. While screens can be beneficial to getting kids outdoors and interested in nature, they shouldn’t substitute completely for the good old-fashioned enjoyment of star gazing far away from city lights or sitting around a campfire with loved ones. As with anything, moderate use of technology integrated with nature is going to give the best experience.
Do you know of any other apps that encourage kids to get outdoors?
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