The Best Apps to Use to Get Your Kids Interested in Nature

Integrate digital technologies into your family's outdoor experiences to encourage a deeper understanding of the natural world.

Little kids love to explore the outdoors, take them outside.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Growing up, I was a nature-loving wild child, free to explore the woods, trek down the railroad tracks, and row the boat around the creek. My parents insisted that we engage in outdoor activities with or without them and learn as much as we could about the natural world. With four kids, my mother tells people, "hiking was cheap entertainment." My family and I would go on hikes most weekends. The kids would stop and play in streambeds, build forts, swing from vines, and climb trees while my parents studied the plants, taking pictures and writing notes. In the creeks, we would discover frogs and tadpoles, dragonfly nymphs, and other strange creatures. Under rocks, we would find salamanders, beetles, roly-polies and ants. We would imagine how the animal and insect world worked, and we would shrink ourselves down in our imagination to see ourselves in their world. I appreciate my upbringing, and the parental tutoring and lessons gave us empathy for nature and all of the living things we encountered.

Times were different then. When I was in the third grade, our antenna was struck by lightning. It blew up the TV and my parents decided not to replace it. So we had no TV, but we did have lots of good guidebooks and encyclopedias, and we went to the library often. Our favorite books were those that reflected our love of nature and sense of adventure, and those books encouraged a deeper understanding of the natural world.

Many nature centers use this style of sign for nature sightings in their preserves. Displayed where visitors may interact, it is a good way to help people feel empowered and at ease in identifying flora and fauna. Nature apps are a modern way of doing the same thing but on a much larger scale.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Many nature centers use this style of sign for nature sightings in their preserves. Displayed where visitors may interact, it is a good way to help people feel empowered and at ease in identifying flora and fauna. Nature apps are a modern way of doing the same thing but on a much larger scale.

We were inquisitive and adventurous. Treks in the woods were marvelous adventures filled with lessons in geology, history, the natural world, danger and Southern culture. Those adventures helped direct the trajectory of my life’s interests. I believe my experiences in nature then and now help me solve problems, create and conjure up the courage it takes to experiment, tackle new things and live life to its fullest. The music of the woods – the wind through the trees, babbling brooks, chorus of frogs, crickets, cicadas and katydids – is my soundtrack. I can’t help imagine now if we had a TV, computers, and smartphones back then, would I be the naturalist I am today?

It may seem that the growing use of technology is keeping kids indoors and resulting in the loss of outdoor connections and direct experiences in nature. But I don't believe that it is only the digital world holding our kids hostage indoors. I think the indoor generation is caused by other factors as well. Families are over-worked, over-scheduled, and children are over-homeworked. It is hard to find time sometimes to rest, go outside and just spend time being together outdoors. A love of nature has to come from actually being outdoors in woods, fields, streams, parks, green spaces, botanical gardens or community gardens. But to further understand the things that we find interesting, having information at our fingertips through technology can be a good thing. By integrating digital technologies into our outdoor experiences and environmental education curriculums, we could strive to find a balance between direct experiences with the natural world and technology. We could work towards reconnecting children with nature through hands-on, place-based learning, and build pathways that lead children to activities of exploration, adventure play, creativity and imagination.

I want to encourage families, schools and communities to help build interest and to empower enthusiasm for the outdoors, and reinforce a sense of place and foster a love and connection. I don’t mean give a six-year-old a smartphone and say have at it. You wouldn’t want to send them out into the woods with no supervision at all. It is our job as adults to expose our kids to the larger world and help them navigate through it.

Life cycles and the process of metamorphosis are fascinating, and it is fun to discover the discarded exoskeletons of dragonflies and damselflies attached piers or plants. These creatures live most of their lives in their aquatic larvae form. When ready to transform into an adult, the nymph climbs out of the water, crawls out of its exoskeleton, pumps the wings full of hemolymph (insect blood), and then flies away.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

Life cycles and the process of metamorphosis are fascinating, and it is fun to discover the discarded exoskeletons of dragonflies and damselflies attached piers or plants. These creatures live most of their lives in their aquatic larvae form. When ready to transform into an adult, the nymph climbs out of the water, crawls out of its exoskeleton, pumps the wings full of hemolymph (insect blood), and then flies away.

When you can identify the plants and creatures in the world around you, observe and understand their interactions and relationships with other living things, you better understand your place in the world. We are all connected. We need now more than ever to recruit young people, who are much more adept in using technology anyway, to scan, look and listen, to gain an understanding of their world, and to document and monitor biological diversity. Citizen scientists are important boots-on-the-ground data collectors for real scientists. These days, I think we have to think about the whole spectrum of conservation and nature literacy and in terms of natural and social systems, natural and built environments, and the economy too.

Nature apps can help integrate technology as a tool for learning alongside the physical experience of being outside. Children are naturally curious and inquisitive. Take a kid on a hike, and they are going to find things and ask questions. The recognition technology in nature apps can help answer those questions and encourage further exploration and interaction. By integrating the game of flora and fauna identification and observation during unstructured outdoor play and exploration, and making this a habit, chances are they will continue and extend this practice into their teens and young adulthood.

A ringneck snake is a small and harmless snake that is easy to identify and docile enough for a child to get a closer look and a gentle touch.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

A ringneck snake is a small and harmless snake that is easy to identify and docile enough for a child to get a closer look and a gentle touch.

Depending on the age of the child, pick the appropriate apps, download them, choose an activity and have some fun.

A few simple activities to get you started:

  • Go on a hike.
  • Take a walk through an urban green space.
  • Visit a park.
  • Have a scavenger hunt in the backyard.
  • Attend a bioblitz.

A child's silhouette is inadvertently projected onto a white sheet during a mothing event. To attract moths and record the number of species, scientists and moth enthusiasts hang white sheets and bright lights. The general public is invited to these events across the country during National Moth Week and encouraged to participate in identifying and observing all creatures that show up on the sheets.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

A child's silhouette is inadvertently projected onto a white sheet during a mothing event. To attract moths and record the number of species, scientists and moth enthusiasts hang white sheets and bright lights. The general public is invited to these events across the country during National Moth Week and encouraged to participate in identifying and observing all creatures that show up on the sheets.

Nature Apps:

  • iNaturalist: This app helps the user to identify plants and animals and record observations. By connecting ordinary citizens to a larger community of scientists and experts, it is a type of crowdsourcing tool for helping scientists and resource managers understand where species may occur. The app can be used by individuals as well as groups, and the observations can be added to a variety of projects. Nature preserves and centers, schools, natural history museums, and nature camps are using iNaturalist to integrate the practice of data collecting in addition to their programming. It is used to identify species on campuses and as a tool in hosting bioblitz events. A bioblitz is an intense survey of living species in a designated place during a short period of time. By combining the expertise of scientists, students, instructors, and the public, a bioblitz event also sparks awareness and interest of the biodiversity a place may host.
  • Seek by iNaturalist: With image recognition technology based on the observations of the parent app, iNaturalist, this app encourages the user to get outside, identify plants and animals, add observations, learn fun facts, and earn badges. It works a lot like iNaturalist, but registration is not required, and the app does not collect data or store locations, easing the mind of parents who consider these things a safety concern for minors. It is great for families to use during outdoor activities and for exploring nature together.
  • Kids Discover Apps: For supplemental reading at home, these apps help upper elementary and middle school children learn a variety of subjects like plants, ecology, and geology, using photographs and graphics, writing, video and audio, and includes interactive models, quizzes and games for fun learning.
  • Bird apps: Check out this DIY Network article that includes a list of apps.
  • SciStarter: For more nature apps, visit the SciStarter website. Find a citizen science project near you.

Get your kids off the electronics, take them for a walk in the woods instead.

Photo by: Bob Farley

Bob Farley

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