Kids aren’t getting out into nature as much as they used to. There are many reasons for this, from increased traffic and concerns about strangers through to the growing range of indoor activities that today’s digital media provides.
This reduced exposure to nature is almost certainly a bad thing, as Richard Louv documents in his thought-provoking book, Last Child in the Woods. Playing in and exploring the natural world is essential to a child’s development. Furthermore, kids need to understand and appreciate nature in order to care for it when they become adults.
Fortunately, nature and technology don’t have to be an either/or proposition for kids these days. There is now a wide range of nature apps and websites that can help children explore, learn about, and have fun in the natural world.
Even a game like Minecraft can jump-start an interest in nature. A friend of mine was once asked by her nine-year old Minecrafter, “How do you shear a sheep? Not in Minecraft, but in real life?” This led to a discussion and exploration of sheep-shearing and how to farm and raise real (non-rectangular) sheep!
Here are some fantastic nature apps and nature websites that your child can use to discover the world around them.
Learning about nature
Even sitting at home with an iPad, there is so much that your kid can learn about the natural world. Here are some fantastic ways to learn about plants, animals and nature in general:
- MarcoPolo Ocean is a gorgeous little app that helps younger kids learn about the ocean. You’re given a patch of ocean filled with animals and plants to play with. You can also build a coral reef, a fish, an orca, a boat and a submersible. A voiceover teaches lots of ocean facts as you go. There is no text to read so it’s great for younger learners.
- Plants for iPad, from popular nonfiction publisher Kids Discover, is an informative, fun-to-use book app that lets kids explore the fascinating world of plants. Topics covered include photosynthesis, biomes, extreme plants, the uses of plants, plants as art, and lots more. The app contains plenty of easy-to-read text, exciting animations, interactive elements and activities to keep your kid busy for hours. Kids Discover also have apps covering geography, ecology and more.
- Learning about birds. There are tons of fantastic websites and apps to help kids learn about birds, from bird anatomy and behaviour through to field guides that you can carry on your phone when you’re out and about.
- Plants by Tinybop is a playful, detailed sandbox app that lets kids explore and play with wildlife in different biomes. Choose from temperate forest, desert and grassland, then touch and drag things to interact with the world. Tap clouds to make rain, or rub two clouds together to create lightning and start a forest fire. Plant seeds, interact with plants and animals, explore the layers of the soil, or speed up time to see the seasons. There are lots of hidden features to discover in this app, which your kid can spend hours exploring. There’s also a handbook to help parents and teachers get the most from the app.
- Sprout Labs make a range of informative apps covering life sciences, including Plants HD and Butterfly HD. Each app includes lots of information in different formats, such as text (with optional narration), images and videos. They also include pop quizzes to help kids remember and understand facts.
- Toca Nature is a beautiful new sandbox game from popular toy app maker Toca Boca. It’s a great way to inspire younger kids to discover more about nature and understand how living things are connected. You sculpt a landscape with mountains, lakes, and trees. Cute animals appear in the different biomes that you’ve created: foxes, hares, beavers, woodpeckers, deer, wolves and bears. You can gather food and feed it to the animals; feed an animal its favourite food, and it may start to grow!
Citizen science and documenting nature
These days, almost everyone carries a powerful camera inside the smartphone in their pocket. This creates fantastic opportunities for kids to record the plants and animals in their environment.
What’s more, a large number of citizen science apps and websites are springing up, allowing kids to make a contribution to the scientific community as they explore the world around them.
Here are some great ways that kids can document nature and help advance our understanding of biology:
- Project Noah is a fantastic worldwide database of wildlife spottings. There’s a companion app that you can use to take photos and report sightings. You can also sign up for one or more missions to help document a specific region or type of wildlife. As you use Project Noah you can earn patches for various achievements. There’s also an option for teachers to register their whole class, making it a great tool for schools too.
- iNaturalist is an excellent online community that records and shares sightings of species around the globe. You can help identify plants and critters by using the ID Please! feature, as well as browse observations by species and region. There’s an iNaturalist app for recording your own sightings, and you can also start or join a project to help track specific ecosystems.
Technology can be a great help when it comes to identifying plants and animals in the wild. Rather than lugging around a couple of heavy field guide books, you can now load as many electronic field guides as you like onto your phone!
There are tons of great field guide apps available, covering every corner of the planet — far too many to list here. However, here are a few great examples:
- The Collins Bird Guide app is fantastic resource for British and European birdwatchers. It’s based on the classic book of the same name, and is a joy to use.
- Audubon Guides publish a range of field guide apps covering birds, mammals, wildflowers, trees, insects and lots more. The apps currently cover North America, Africa and Haiti.
- Australians have an excellent selection of free field guides to Australian fauna, organised by state. There are apps for Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Tasmania.
Want more field guides? Just search your country’s app store for field guides, and you’re sure to find a few for your area. You can also find some more bird field guides and databases in Let’s Learn About Birds.
Exploring national parks
National parks and forests are awesome for connecting with and exploring nature. There are tons of websites to help you find these fantastic locations all over the world:
- US: Discover the Forest not only lets you search for US forests and parks; it also contains tips on preparing for trips, lots of great activities for families to do in the forest, and information about forests and ecosystems.
- Canada: Parks Canada lists all Canada’s national parks and historic sites. There’s also information on planning your visit, local ecosystems and learning activities.
- UK: National Parks UK serves as a jumping off point for all 15 national park websites. Each site is packed with information on things to see and do in the park.
- Australia: Australian national parks are generally run by their individual state governments. There are national park websites for New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory, and Tasmania. Each website has a list of parks, as well as activity ideas and tips.
- New Zealand: The Department of Conservation manages the country’s national parks. Their website contains detailed information on each park, as well as activities, preparation tips, maps and lots more.
Geocaching can be a great way to get the whole family out of the house and into nature. In case you haven’t heard of it, geocaching is an outdoor treasure hunt where you use your GPS receiver or mobile phone to locate a hidden box. Usually the box contains some fun “treasures” that previous players have left. Caches are often found in national parks and forests, although there are many in urban areas too.
There are several websites and apps that you can use to learn about caches in your area. Here are a couple of well-known ones:
- Geocaching.com is the biggest and most well-known geocaching site, with over two million worldwide caches listed. The basic service is free; alternatively, you can pay a monthly or yearly membership fee to access premium caches and get extra features. Geocaching.com has its own apps, both free and paid, but you can also get third-party apps like Geosphere that work with Geocaching.com’s database.
- OpenCaching is a completely free and open geocaching database originally built by Garmin, the GPS receiver maker. Caches are reviewed by the community for quality and suitability. You can access the database via an iPhone or Android app, although at the time of writing these are US-only apps.
Few things help a kid understand and appreciate nature as much as gardening. They learn about the life cycle of plants; they discover where food comes from; and they get to play with bugs, worms and dirt!
Here are some great websites and apps that can help your kid get into gardening:
- Organic Gardening has a great in-depth article on gardening with kids. It covers the benefits that kids can get from gardening. It also includes lots of great beginner tips and suggestions for easy-to-grow veggies.
- Gro Garden is a lovely app for younger kids that teaches the principles of organic gardening. You plant seeds in the vegetable patch, then help the plants grow with sun and rain. After harvesting the lovely veggies, you can feed them to your animal friends, then recycle the food scraps in the compost heap. Add the compost to your garden to help your plants grow better!
- TheKidsGarden is a UK website dedicated to helping your kids get the most out of gardening. The articles on this site are packed with lots of useful tips, from planting seeds and making a worm farm through to encouraging different types of wildlife into your garden.
- Gardening with Children is another UK site with lots of great gardening suggestions for kids, schools and families. You’ll find seasonal suggestions for gardening and outdoor activities, as well as useful fact sheets on growing and composting. There are also gardening games and fascinating facts for kids.
Time to get exploring!
With all these amazing nature apps and websites, your child can have fun discovering some of the many wonders of the natural world. Now it’s time to put down that tablet, pick up that phone — loaded with a few field guide apps — and head off into the great outdoors. Happy exploring!