10 activities that get your kids (and their technology) outdoors

I suppose it’s appropriate that I’m writing this outside.

Right now, it is late spring in Wisconsin. We’ve just come out of an unseasonably cold spring…even for Wisconsin. We were hoping that Spring would be a real thing this year, and here it is.

I’m sitting at a picnic table in a pavilion in one of those parks planted squarely in the middle of a subdivision. This is an area heavily populated with school-age children, and it is late afternoon. School is out, after-school activities are over, and it is a gorgeous 81 degrees.

And I am the only one here.

Activities that get your kids and their tech outdoors

I know I shouldn’t be too judgmental. There is homework to do, though the end of the school year is now days away, not weeks. And I know that even I can easily slip into the “indoor screen mode” on the nice days, too.

But I can’t help but be saddened by it. Yes, nostalgic, too. For if you could instantaneously transport me back in time to the 70s and 80s, I’m sure I would be suddenly unable to hear myself think or focus on my laptop screen from the noise and activity of the gathering of children and families.

(And I’d draw some funny glances because of said laptop screen. But, I digress.)

Which brings me to my point.

I often take my technology outside. As a lifetime outdoors fan and an avid tech geek, I actually think the two can live pretty nicely together.

A veritable outdoorsgeek, if you will.

As a matter of fact, maybe that blend is a way to turn kids on to the outside world. Not a “go sit on the back porch and play on your iPad” kind of cop-out, mind you. An honest-to-goodness tech-infused outdoor experience.

Want some ideas? Here are ten.

1. Stars

Find a star identification app for your phone or tablet and start hunting the night sky. Some apps will let you hold the phone up and rotate the star map as you move around, allowing you to identify what is right in front of your eyes.

Have a scavenger hunt or set up a challenge to see who can find the most stars or constellations on a clear night.

2. Bird-watching 2.0

A number of apps and websites have bird identification tools that let you ID the winged creatures flying through your backyard, campsite, or vacation spot. Print out a list of birds native to your area and see how many you can check off. Again, you could create a scavenger hunt for this, too. (Find a bird with yellow or orange on its belly, or one that migrates in or out of the area, or one that is one solid color, etc.)
Bonus challenge: Find an app or site with bird songs and try to identify them by sound instead!

3. Trees and Leaves

Similar to the apps, sites, activities, and challenges above, find a leaf or tree identification app (like LeafSnap) and catalog the trees and plants in your yard. Some trees are easier to identify by their leaves or needles, and others by their overall shape from afar. Make a game out of this identification.

Oh, and while you are at it…learn how to identify poison ivy. Trust me.

4. Geocaching

This is the classic outdoor tech activity, but it is so much easier to get started now. Using just your phone (though you can certainly use a dedicated, hand-held GPS, if you have one,) you find “caches” that others have left, exchanges trinkets, sign record logs, and–hopefully–start hiding your own caches for others to find.

You can do all this through geocaching.com, the definitive geocaching site. Get the iOS or Android app there as well.

5. Fitness apps and devices

Many fitness apps (and devices) have game and competition elements built-in. You could challenge family members on the other side of the country to a “walk-off” to see who can rack up more miles this summer. Track a hike or walk using the app, take a screenshot of the map, add it to a journal or blog, and have a member of the family add details about the day.

Fun challenge: Use a mapping tool on a fitness device to write out something in a field, beach, or entire town. People have even proposed using this method.

6. Read

Whether it’s an eBook or an audiobook, reading should be an outdoor activity whenever possible. Take a break on a hike or stop at a park on a long car trip and break out the Kindles. And share what you are reading with the rest of the family.

Even better, pick books that relate to the activity or the area. I just read The Storm of the Century, by Al Roker (about the 1900 Galveston Hurricane) immediately after we had visited Galveston, TX. Years ago, I picked up a specific John Grisham novel because we would be traveling through the Gulf Shores, the book’s setting.

7. Photography

Ask the kids to catalog a trip or outing with photos. They can create photo essays online or with any number of apps or sites. You can use this as an opportunity to teach them about being selective with their photo choices (“Do we really need twelve pictures of the spider that walked across Jimmy’s backpack?) and their caption-writing, but let them have fun with it, too. They may not create something quite up to your standards of photo quality, but you will learn what they valued most about the experience through their selections.
This is also a good opportunity to teach good digital citizenship skills, too. Remind them that not everyone likes having their photo taken, or that it’s rude to take a stranger’s picture without his or her permission. If you decide to upload and share the photo essays, discuss social sharing etiquette with them.

8. Video

Like photography, video lends itself to the same learning and practice, but with some extras. Children can narrate the activity or trip more easily with video, and it’s definitely more engaging. You can teach them about lighting and sound as well as holding the camera steady or panning slowly. Again, remember that fun is the primary goal here.

You can offer them a challenge, like creating a survival-type show, complete with a narrative about what they are discovering. Or borrow an existing challenge, like Vimeo’s outdoor-themed 5×5 Video Challenge they did a couple years ago (five video clips of five seconds each, to tell a story.)

9. Google Maps

Could this end the question that has plagued driving parents for decades?

Are we there yet?

No promises, but teach your younger kids how to use Google Maps on a 3G device (i.e. something that doesn’t need wi-fi to stay connected) and they can help map out the route, navigate you through the turns, and report on the ETA to the rest of the crew.

Google Maps is a great opportunity to teach all sorts of things, too. You could discuss history (the development of the interstate system), geography (the logic behind hairpin turns up and down mountains), or math (calculating the number of hours left based on the distance and the car’s speed…check your math against Google.)

10. YouTube and Google to the rescue

Thanks to the warehouse of how-to videos and tutorials online, there is an endless supply of ideas for getting out and building, creating, and experimenting. Find some great, kid-friendly channels or sites, and let your young explorers go. (This, of course, will require supervision on your part; both the online research and the execution!)

For older ones, decide on a family project and let them do the research. This is another opportunity to teach basic research and website evaluation skills, too. You could learn about building a swingset or picnic table from scratch, creating the perfect tree fort, creating a hydroponics or composting system, or any other outdoor project or activity. Involve them in the project from the beginning and honor their online “expertise.”

Your idea?

What have you or your family done that combines technology and the outdoors? How successful was it? Which of these would you like to try this summer? Add to the conversation in the comments below!

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