I’m the mother of two teenaged boys. There’s rarely a day that goes by that you don’t hear me saying, “enough with the phone!” That’s especially true when we’re on a camping trip. But then it dawned on me: why not use the phone to encourage my kids’ exploration. These six apps will not only get your kids motivated for your next family hike, they may even teach them something. Shhhh… they don’t need to know that part!
When I was in seventh grade, my biology teacher, Mrs. Oakes, assigned a leaf collection project. To this day, I can correctly identify various species of maple trees - Red, Sugar, Silver, Norway, and Japanese - plus a heck of a lot more. My kids? Not so much. Enter Leafsnap (iPhone only), an app that uses visual recognition software to help identify species from leaf photographs. The app doesn’t work on the fly; you need to collect the leaf and then take a photo of it later against a white background. And while the current collection only includes trees found in the northeastern United States and Canada, it continues to grow; plus there’s enough overlap to make it useful in other regions. My kids’ favorite feature is the games which challenge you to correctly identify leaves, flowers, and fruits against a ticking clock. They may be the only games where I can beat my boys, at least for the moment. Thanks, Mrs. Oakes!
Developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin Bird ID (iPhone, Android) answers the question, “what kind of bird is that?” You start by downloading a bird pack for your region. Then your child answers five simple questions about the bird that he saw. Like magic, Merlin reveals a list of birds that best match the description. Your kid can then delve deeper by reading facts and even listening to the bird’s call. If your child really gets into birding, try the free Audubon Bird Guide: North America app (iPhone, Android) which allows him to track his sightings and add photos.
My boys and I wish that we would have found these apps sooner, as we can hardly find the North Star on our own! SkyView (iPhone, Android) and Star Walk (iPhone, Android, Kindle) help identify stars, planets, constellations, and even satellites. You simply point your cell phone toward the sky. You’re then able to access more information about what you see.
KidTripster Tip: Start with the Moon as your first target.
Project Noah (iPhone, Android) is the most interactive all of these apps, deputizing your child as a true citizen scientist. She can identify different species in the wild - either by using the field guide or by sharing a photo with Project Noah’s community of users. Or she can actually take part in field missions, sponsored by various labs and environmental groups, and earn patches. Missions range from photographing mushrooms to tracking migrating birds. Ultimately, Project Noah wants to document the planet’s biodiversity using smartphones! Younger kids are most likely to be excited by these app; teens see it as homework.
Think of geocaching as a treasure hunt. I've done it several times with my cub scout den, but it also can be a fun family outing.
Here's how it works: you download the Geocaching app (iPhone, Android)and create an account. Next search for a geocache - a specific location where a small container holding small trinkets is hidden. There are two million geocaches worldwide, so you likely can find one nearby. Then start navigating toward that site. When you find the cache, sign the log and exchange trinkets, if you'd like. Younger kids, especially, will delight in their accomplishment!
KidTripster Tip: Make sure to bring small items to trade. Fast food kids' meal prizes work well.
KidTripster Tip: If you're geocaching with a group where it's important to actually find the cache, it's best to find it yourself first.
Sometimes your kids just need a little motivation to get moving. Both Map My Hike (iPhone, Android) and Trail Tracker (iPhone, Android) are apps that track just how far they go on foot or by bike. If your kids are like mine, they'll likely make a competition out of it.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah lives in Portland, Oregon, surrounded by miles and miles of trails through what looks like J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. While she enjoys hiking with her sons, her most loyal trail companion is her black Lab, Java.
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