How to Use GPS Technology to Get Your Kids Outdoors

By — Nature Deficit Disorder Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Oct 25, 2010

Many parents are concerned that busy, highly structured lives filled with work, homework, scheduled events, and lessons have left little time for unstructured play. When families do have time for recreation, they oftentimes do not feel comfortable with letting their children roam free.  Experts estimate that a child’s range for roaming and wandering is one-ninth of what it was just four decades ago (Spencer & Woolley, 2000). When given a choice, do our children even ask to go outside? No, instead they are easily entertained by video games, the Internet, computers, movies, and the television.

But what if there were some way to use these same technologies to entice children to go outside? Global Positioning Systems (GPS) provides us with just this opportunity. In fact, according to a new Harris Interactive technology research study (Business Services Industry, 2007), one in six adults in the United States currently owns or uses a GPS location device or service. Among GPS owners, the most widely used devices are small handheld systems (34%) and portable car-mounted GPS systems (33%). A GPS receiver can be a powerful ally in engaging our children in the out of doors through such activities as observation, problem solving, trekking, and geocaching. While becoming closer to the outdoors they can also become closer to each other as they share their experiences online.

Strategies for Using GPS with Your Children in the Outdoors

1.   Making Tracks in Your Backyard (Observation)

This is a great activity for the middle or high school student. Let him or her pick a place in the out of doors that he or she finds interesting. Use a GPS unit to mark this spot so that you can return to the same place at different times during the year.

Encourage your child to keep a journal and write a story about the special place.

  • He or she can draw pictures, take photographs during each season, and collect leaves, flowers, and seeds that can pressed and laminated in the journal to help tell the story of the spot.
  • Over time, a record of observations can be created to allow comparisons to previous years.
  • Consider adopting or planting a tree to mark the special place.
  • Record information about the tree, such as height, circumference of the trunk, animal and plant life in the vicinity, and changes observed over time.
  • Charts and graphs can show how the tree has changed over time.
  • You can also record air temperature, wind direction, estimated wind speed, type and amount of vegetation cover on ground, soil temperature, soil color, and soil moisture.

2.  Making Tracks in Your Community (Problem Solving)

A GPS receiver can be used to mark a waypoint or a location of a famous landmark in your child’s community.

  • Your child can record the number for this waypoint, its latitude and longitude, and a “clue” that will give the finder some interesting information about the landmark.
  • Keep the “clue” or record in a safe place. Over time your child can add multiple clues to your community collection.
  • The waypoint location information from the clue can be recorded into your GPS receiver and your child can give the following clue to his/her friends.
  • This can become a great scavenger hunt or game with multiple waypoints and clues!

You can also do the reverse and create a scavenger hunt in which objects are sought from a list and kids record the GPS location of each object. After the contestants have found all of the objects, the GPS locations can be checked against a key to see how well everyone did on finding all of the objects!  This is a type of virtual caching that is called “waymarking."

3.  Trekking

Everyone loves a good treasure hunt! Here is a great way to make walks with your kids more engaging by creating a series of clues or planned stops.

  • First, plan where your stops will take place.
  • If you are in a special place like a park or nature center you may want to pick scenic spots, lesser-known trails, or interesting natural mineral locations.
  • Use small containers such as film canisters and place the clues for the next stops.
  • There should be about 5 to 8 clues along the way which should be easy to find.
  • Each clue should provide a waypoint number in consecutive order and a latitude and longitude location.
  • The final stop on the hunt will be the treasure!

4.  Geocaching

Geocaching is a new way to go orienteering and something that can be done all around the world. It is fun, great exercise, and can even help improve the environment.

  • In geocaching, someone hides a box or a cache and notes its coordinates or position online at The website often lists other clues and grades caches by difficulty.
  • A GPS unit can be used to find the box or cache. While it sounds quite simple, the caches can be difficult to find because the GPS unit only gets one close to the cache location.
  • Inside the cache, which is usually a sealed rubber container or an army ammo box, there will be a logbook to sign and date and an assortment of “treasures.” The finder can take a treasure, but is to replace it with another small item.
  • People who have visited the location often post information on the cache. These narratives can be very helpful when choosing a cache to visit.
  • Many geocachers have a geocaching backpacks. Fill your backpack with the GPS unit, pens, a local map, bug spray, a variety of small items for the cache, a small first aide kit, binoculars, a garbage bag and gloves, and maybe a small notebook.
  • The “Cache In and Trash Out” effort encourages people to remove any litter they come across on their outing. Geocachers have carried out dozens of bags of trash from public places since this movement began.
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