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How to use technology to encourage kids to enjoy the outdoors

Posted July 31

Have you given up on trying to limit screen time this summer? There are ways to use that technology instead to nudge your children outside. (Deseret Photo)

I know you tried. I believe you had every good intention of limiting your kids’ screen time this summer. But sometimes it seems it would take a ninja with the willpower of a triathlete to pry the gadgets out of your kids’ hands.

Maybe we can compromise. There are apps that entertain, educate, and actually get your children to venture outside. Instead of bemoaning the fact that your kids are spending too much time on their screens, use tech to help them appreciate the great outdoors.

Here are a few apps to get you jump-started:

For ages 6+

Plum’s Creaturizer (free for iOS and Android) from PBS encourages creativity and getting out in nature. Parents and kids can build their own creature using more than 100 different body parts like wings, horns and eyes. Then it encourages users to think about how that creature might live and take pictures outside to showcase its life. The app superimposes the creature onto the nature shots, creating a slide show of a day in the life of your creature. It tells children to always ask an adult before heading outside and gives easy, detailed instructions.

For ages 8+

Leafsnap (free for iPhone and iPad) will take your leaf collecting adventures to a high-tech level. Use the app to snap a photo of a leaf, and it uses special software to identify the originating tree species. Researchers from Columbia University, the University of Maryland and the Smithsonian Institution developed this electronic field guide that uses visual recognition software. This research team has also launched similar apps that identify dogs and birds called Birdsnap and Dogsnap.

For ages 13+

Outdoor retailer REI put a team together to build this app, REI Co-op Guide to the National Parks (free for iOS and Android), in celebration of the centennial of the National Park Service. It is a truly comprehensive guide to major parks like the Grand Canyon, and lesser-known ones like Pinnacles in California. Most recently, the app added web cams to check out what park conditions are like in real time.

Users can see their blue dot position at all times to know exactly where they are inside the park. It uses the phone’s internal GPS, so no service means no problem. You don’t need a cell signal at all with this app because the data is available offline — plus there are no ads. It has a great expert-selected list of family-friendly hikes, or you can also search hikes by difficulty.

As Business Insider points out, there are many, many benefits to getting outside. For kids, one of the most important is improved concentration. In one study published in the Journal of Attention Disorders, kids diagnosed with ADHD took guided walks either in a park or an urban setting. After walking in the park for just 20 minutes, the children in that group measured an increase in attention.

That was not so for the downtown walkers. The researchers concluded that “doses of nature” could be a safe, inexpensive, widely accessible tool for managing ADHD symptoms. Even if our children aren’t diagnosed with ADHD, the physical and psychological benefits from being outdoors are well-studied and published.

In the words of President Calvin Coolidge from his 1924 address to a group of Boy Scouts, “There is new life in the soil for every man. There is healing in the trees for tired minds and for our overburdened spirits, there is strength in the hills, if only we will lift up our eyes. Remember that nature is your great restorer.”

Amy Iverson is a graduate of the University of Utah. She has worked as a broadcast journalist in Dallas, Seattle, Italy, and Salt Lake City. Amy, her husband, and three kids live in Summit County, Utah. Contact Amy on Facebook.com/theamyiverson

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