Tech & Media

‘Technology Is Like A Pair Of Binoculars’: Use Apps And Digital Tools To Explore Nature & Geography

Oct 2, 2015

Rob Ridley has six kids and works as an outdoor educator. He and his family use a variety of digital apps and games explore nature, biology and geography.

“My girls love to use The Lost Ladybug Project App,” he says. It’s a program that allows kids to submit photos of ladybug sightings and help field biologists track changing beetle populations in North America.

“They feel they are making a difference and helping scientists by sending data,” says Ridley.

“They also love using Leafsnap to identify trees," he says. Leafsnap is an electronic field guide app for tree and plant species — kids can snap photos of leaves and the app helps identify which tree they're from.   

Apps like The Lost Ladybug Project and Leafsnap help teach kids about nature, but they can also encourage kids to get excited about it — and help them independently explore the things they’re interested in.

There are hundreds of apps and digital tools that help kids dig deeper into nature and geography. Some are specifically designed for children to use on their own, while others are great to use together as a family.

Some people are surprised that Ridley is an outdoor educator who promotes the use of digital devices with his kids.

“My favourite apps promote family [time],” says Ridley.

Some people are surprised that Ridley is an outdoor educator who promotes the use of digital devices like smartphones and tablets with his kids. He says it all comes down to balance.

“I feel technology is very much like a pair of binoculars — it has the potential to help one zoom in and focus, but if used too much, you’ll miss the big picture,” he explains. But the right tool —  used at the right time and with the right kids — can help kids understand the world around them in new and exciting ways.

Apps Can Help Kids Observe, Explore And Learn

Sometimes, the right tool can foster a love of nature and science while teaching kids practical stuff they can use in their everyday lives.

The app Kid Weather was created by a six-year-old boy and his meteorologist father, Justin Berk. The premise is simple — use fun avatars to teach kids about local weather conditions so they know what to wear. At the same time, kids can read 400 trivia items and learn to plot changing weather patterns, understand basic climatology and even get a better sense of metric conversions.

“We have an interactive thermometer with Celsius and Fahrenheit side by side,” Berk explains. Plus, “the introduction to graphing daily weather fits with STEM — science technology, engineering and mathematics — education [by] expanding on and organizing real-life data.”

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Tech That Takes Kids Beyond Classroom Walls

More and more programs and apps are finding their way into science and geography classrooms because they complement what kids are learning in school.

Vickie Morgado, an elementary school teacher in the Greater Toronto Area, uses Skype to reinforce geography lessons — even though it isn’t a geography program.

Mystery Skype is a classroom program that connects two classrooms from different parts of the world together and has students guess the location of the other class by asking questions.

Last year, my class Skyped with a shark diver in the Bahamas and a scientist in Antarctica who is studying penguins.

“It’s fabulous because it is inquiry-based learning and students have to work in collaborative groups and use high-level thinking questions,” says Morgado. “It helps kids become respectful global citizens, because we get to share and ask questions about each other’s schools and countries.”

“I also use Skype in the classroom for virtual field trips. Last year, my class Skyped with a shark diver in the Bahamas and a scientist in Antarctica who is studying penguins.”

Explore The World, Near And Far

Inside or outside the classroom, mapping programs like Google Maps and Google Earth can do far more than just provide directions from one place to another. 

Digital maps help younger ones understand how to get to Grandma’s house or where a nearby creek flows. Kids can get a bird’s eye view of rivers and roadways to see how they shape where they live.

Maps can also be a cool way to discover local playgrounds and green spaces, or investigate traffic patterns by watching rush-hour circulation flow. Google Maps even offers online tutorials and videos for teachers and parents. 

On a bigger scale, maps can help kids find places they’ve heard of (“Pandas are from China! But where’s that?”), preview places they’ll soon visit or explore cities or wildernesses still unfamiliar.

This is what good nature and geography apps and programs do — foster understanding, excitement and curiosity about the world around us.

3 Nature And Geography Apps For Kids

Here are some of my favourite nature and geography apps: 

  • Star Walk: Kids: lets children see the constellations and planets above (using the tablet or phone’s built-in gyroscope)
  • iBird: a bird identification app for grown-ups that can be shared with kids to reinforce an appreciation for being out in nature, explore patterns in biology and strengthen observation and listening skills
  • Gazziliscience: ideal for younger kids, this is a fun way to discover topics like how plants grow and the rainwater cycle

Do you ever use programs like Google Maps to show your kids places near and far? Have you used your smartphone or tablet on nature walks or outdoor adventures? What nature and geography apps do you enjoy with your kids?

Article Author Erik Missio
Erik Missio

Read more from Erik here.

Erik Missio used to live in Toronto, have longish hair and write about rock ‘n’ roll. He now lives in the suburbs, has no hair and works in communications. He and his wife are the proud parents of a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy, both of whom are pretty great. He received his MA in journalism from the University of Western Ontario.

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