Most parents like to bring their kids out into nature to get them away from screens. And, rightly so. There has been study after study about the negative effects of screen time and growing brains. But what would you say if I told you that not only should you bring your phone on an outdoor adventure with your kids but that it’s essential?
Hear me out…
First off, having a phone handy is a safety net. You can call for help easily if you are in an area with cell reception or simply shoot a text to your partner that you’ve made it back to the trailhead safe and sound. However, there’s a lot of other great uses for phones while recreating outdoors.
It can help gets kids more interested in being outside and going on adventures with you. Just because you might have a great love for the outdoors or you know the benefits of getting your kids outside, doesn’t mean your children are always going to want to tag along. But if you add the recommended apps below to your phone, it will make even the most hesitant of kids willing to go on a quick jaunt into the woods with you.
1. Seek by iNaturalist
What it does: gets the pressure off the parent to identify every plant, animal, and fungus out there.
Do you have a child like mine who is constantly asking “what’s this, mom?” or “can I touch this?” as he points to some random twig or creepy crawlie creature? The answer is almost always “I don’t know, bud” and “most definitely not, you cannot touch that.” But this app can help ease your mind in case your kiddo likes to touch first and ask permission later.
The app is so easy to use that even my four-year-old has quickly figured it out. The steps are simple. When you download the app and sign in, you’ll be asked for your location so that it can narrow down its databases according to where you are adventuring. It’s important update your location when you’ve moved to a different region or simply enable location services. When you come across a plant or animal that you don’t know on the trail, simply open the app and snap a photo. The app will search through its database to determine the identification. Sometimes it’s not always accurate but it can, at the very least, narrow down your search. The best part is that this app even works offline!
2. Native Land
What it does: allows you to know whose native land you are recreating on.
Cost: Free although you can donate to their cause here
When European settlers came to North America, they stole the land from Indigenous Peoples who were already here. This app allows recreation enthusiasts (or really anybody) to see whose land it was originally. Make sure to keep your location services enabled so the app can accurately tell where you are. If you happen to be located in the southern coast of Maine like Kit Supply + Co, you’ll notice that you are recreating on Pennacook, Wabanaki, and Abenaki lands.
My son and I like to figure out whose lands we are recreating on prior to any adventure. We then do a little bit of research ourselves about the individual tribal nations and some history about them. My kiddo is especially interested in learning about the creation stories.
What it does: gives the ability to know where you are on a trail at any given time.
Cost: Free or $29.99/year for Pro version (believe me, it’s worth it)
I don’t usually recommend paying for a “pro” or higher-level version for any app, but that’s not the case with this one. The free version of this app is fine if you don’t plan to adventure all that often or recreate in areas that have consistent cell service. But if you’re like me, then most of your adventures are away from cellular range.
This is the major reason I enjoy the Pro vesion of this app since you can download maps for offline use. The Pro version also has what’s called a “Lifeline” feature. This is great for parents who adventure solo with their kids. The feature allows friends and family (whoever you choose to share the Lifeline with) to track your movements as you hike and make sure that you get back to your car safely.
Even my kid enjoys this fairly “boring” app since he can see our progress throughout the hike. Every now and then he’ll ask “where’s the blue dot now?” which refers to the blue dot on the app which represents us. It’s an easy way to teach him about topography and directions!
What it does: turns you and your kids into the Indiana Jones.
OK, this app doesn’t actually turn you into Indiana Jones but slap on an adventure hat, carry a whip (ok, maybe keep the whip at home), and download the Geocaching app to feel like a real treasure hunter. The Geocaching app is a literal treasure map to over three million geocaches WORLDWIDE. That’s right – take this hunt international baby!
If you don’t know what geocaching is, it’s a worldwide phenomenon where you’re given GPS coordinates of boxes of treasure (aka geocaches) and you can go and find them! Once you find them, there is usually a log book and items for you to take. Don’t forget to leave something if you take something (sometimes it’s just fun to find them). I suggest leaving a fun item like a kaleidoscope or a stuffie in a matchbox or, perhaps, a useful item like a lantern keychain or compass.
What it does: tells the curious adventurer what mountains you see on the horizon.
The PeakFinder app is, by far, the best mountain finder app out there. If you’ve ever wondered what the names of the mountains are that surround you when you reach a summit, this is the app for you. There are other free versions, like PeakVisor, but they aren’t always that accurate and it can be a bit frustrating. PeakFinder is especially great for kids to get them motivated to reach the top of a summit to check out all the surrounding peaks!
6. Star Walk 2 Ads
What it does: showcases all the constellations in the night sky.
The Star Walk 2 (with ads) app is perfect for your small astronauts-in-training. If you frequently camp or spend time outdoors in the nighttime, this is a great way to keep your kiddos entertained and learning. There is an ad-free version of this app, but I would not recommend buying it since it doesn’t provide any additional features other than being ad-free. It’s also one of the easiest apps to use since all you have to do is lift your phone up to the sky and simply watch and learn. Not only does it show you the current constellations in your area at the time but also lets you know about upcoming astronomical events like eclipses and meteor showers.
7. Merlin Bird ID
What it does: keeps your nerves at bay by identifying all the creepy sounds in the forest.
As I stated before, if you have one of those kids who is always asking “what’s that, mom” or “did you hear that sound, dad?” then this is another app for you. The Merlin Bird ID app helps you identify the sounds that you hear while you’re out on your adventure. Simply record the bird (you can record it and then identify it later) and the app will let you know what the possible birds are that make that same sound.