Outdoor Learning & Tech with a Toddler

dad and son

For anyone during the Covid-19 crisis who has a little-one, being at home and not being able to have your child go out and just play has had its ups and downs. During the work week, it is easy for most parents to rely on a digital device in these times to help with a toddler’s education as well as entertainment. Of course, pretty much every parent hates seeing their child’s day dominated by the dreaded term “screen-time.” But with the right mindset, what if we could use these digital devices with a more analog learning flair.

AJ on a mountain with a mountain behind him holding his black hiking had and his camera bag in front of him
The mountains are calling…

For many of us in the PNW, the outdoors are integral part in our way of life. To offset the work-week of what can feel like the inevitable overuse of digital screen usage for a tot, each weekend is dedicate time for adventuring with my toddler in the outdoors. Granted, this was not a hard ask for me or my tot as pre-Covid this was a regular thing in our family.

Learning in and about the outdoors, aside from imparting the obvious appreciation to our ecology and environment, also educates children (and adults) on often overlooked knowledge of the natural world, safety, and common sense. And even out in the wilderness, a screen can be tool. After all, even the away-team in Star Trek they had to use Tricorders on new worlds to help deduce the new world around them…and now, so do we. So, that Tricorder, er..I mean smartphone, how can we use it for science here in the PNW?

Here have been a few teaching technologies I’ve used while adventuring with my toddler that have helped me hack screen-time, in becoming learning time. Perhaps helping strike a bit of balance between screen time work-weeks; and analog exploring weekends.


Combine that hike or nature walk; with the ability to produce a video of your trek with photos and the route your traveled. Relive uses the GPS on your smartphone to follow you as you explore. What I’ve found useful is if you own a tracker, smartwatch, or another GPS app that supports GPX data, you can also import that tracking data into Relive to produce your map as well. For instance, if you are an active Strava user, you can export your Strava tracking data as GPX and import it to Relive. There can be a few glitches with it, as I have found in a few cases where distance or elevation might not be entirely accurate (maybe just GPS connection issues?). On the free account you are able to have 10 photos (or live photos on iOS) on your route to produce a virtual tour on a 3D rendered topographic map. Add pins and icons as your own way-points or things that happened while on the route. All more than enough something you and your tot can work on after the weekend. This can help your toddler start to understand distance, how far they physically went, and where in the real world they just were.

lil compass wide bleed
Chart a course little one!

Now, along with this, arm your tot with a compass. As you trek, have them keep an eye on the cardinal directions. This helps the fundamentals of, say orienteering, but also can help link the area they live in their minds eye. For instance, my tot as equated that “West is where the water lives,” and “East is where the snow mountain is.” Which at 3years old is pretty solid understanding.

Link: https://www.relive.cc/?hl=en


A part of iNataurlist, Seek allows users to snap a picture of floral and fauna and will search it against their database and help better identify it. This is a pretty good entry level Tricorder if you ask me. It also keeps a log of the photos that were identified in their database and even offers badges or achievements as they collect species. Instead of Pokemon-Go and catching fake AR pocket monster, parents can encourage their little-one to capture real ‘monsters’ …or bugs and plants and collect them for identification digitally.

Link: https://www.inaturalist.org/pages/seek_app


The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is just rad! From their great YouTube channel for anyone who loves birds (who doesn’t like birds) to their Merlin is their bird identification app. Merlin, like Seek, uses user submitted photos to compare against a database to help you identify that bird …that, say, keeps pecking at your gutter waking your wife up at 4:30am each morning. It can identify it against 7500+ species in their database which is especially helpful here in the pacific northwest, as there are plenty of fowl that we all could get better knowing…especially they one pecking on the gutter every morning!

Link: https://merlin.allaboutbirds.org/

Get an actual camera in the hands of your toddler…not a smartphone

Have an old camera? Even if it an old point-and-shoot your forgot about, a GoPro, or even just a toy camera; give it to your toddler. Let them roam and send them on a photo assignment, bonus points if you have a camera where it doesn’t have a screen and they have to think on how a photo might look. Let them show you what they see and let and even offer to “publish” the best of the week. Print it out, and publish it to the front page…of your refrigerator door.

toddler baywatch scaled
Baywatch…toddler edition
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