Editor’s note: This article was updated on April 5, 2023.
At the playground this past fall, I called out the three words I generally try to avoid: “Be careful, please!” But, it wasn’t my confident and sure-footed nine-year-old who I was concerned about. Rather, I kept my eyes fixed firmly on my barely-out-of-the-box cell phone he was holding while ducking and climbing over the play equipment.
We were visiting a newly renovated park to try out Biba, a “smart playground system” that uses augmented reality technology to encourage kids to get moving. Using a phone and app, park visitors manipulate kid-friendly characters and play interactive games—categorized as light, moderate, or vigorous physical activity—throughout the play space.
To be honest, I’d have preferred stowing my phone in favour of our usual outdoor digital detox, but I was also curious what my little playground enthusiast would think of the introduction of technology into his play.
“See?” he said, handing back my phone after a few minutes of hunting down symbols hidden around the equipment. “No scratches! I want to try out the slides—can we keep playing?”
Initially leery of the tech intrusion into our screen-free time, seeing him immersed in the game and then happily continuing to play afterwards, I had to admit: perhaps there is space in our outdoor time where screens, technology, apps are okay.
A different way to explore
Despite nature and outside still being “open” after the onset of the pandemic, according to ParticipACTION’s report card on physical activity for children and youth, only 4.8 percent of children aged 5-11 and 0.8 percent of youth aged 12-17 were meeting Canada’s 24-hour movement guidelines. To combat this striking inactivity, cities, nature parks, and conservation areas across the country introduced or expanded activities that could be done outside.
Going even further than tech in playgrounds, one unique way of nudging kids and youth to put down the screens and ignite curiosity about the outdoors is through merging handheld digital technology and applications (apps) with nature, and creating playful and immersive ways of seeing and interacting with forests and parks.
It’s an interesting irony. Heading outside—whether that’s to a park or into the woods—is often termed “unplugging,” yet technology is increasingly incorporated as a way of enhancing the outdoor experience and encouraging children to play longer and more vigorously. If smart playgrounds and app-enabled hiking trails can help combat “nature-deficit disorder,” encourage further learning, and be a tool to help today’s digital learners strengthen their connection to the natural world and get active, then I’m all in.
Here are some places in Canada that have used technology to enhance the outdoor experience for users.
Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook in Quebec
A couple of hours south of Montreal, visitors to Parc de la Gorge de Coaticook can take part in an outdoor escape game in the wilds of the forest. Users play interactive riddles and use their smartphone to solve clues that are placed along three kilometres of trails. While there, why not enjoy hiking, fat biking, or snowshoeing the 20 km of trails that criss-cross the mountain, or discover the longest suspended footbridge in North America. There’s also skating, snow biking, ice climbing, and the illuminated night trail Foresta Lumina.
Agents of Discovery in Manitoba, Alberta, B.C., Ontario
Agents of Discovery is an educational mobile gaming platform that uses augmented reality to get youth active. Adventures are available in Manitoba, Alberta, British Columbia, and Ontario. At Capilano Suspension Bridge Park in B.C., young visitors can participate in the Kids’ Rainforest Explorers Program, a self-guided interactive program where kids of all ages can explore the rainforest, looking for signs and collecting research data, and earn a reward when they leave. And at Miquelon Lake Provincial Park and Cypress Hills Provincial Park in Alberta, Agents can use the platform while visiting Beaver Creek Loop Seek and Explore, where they can learn about the wildlife who make the creek their home.
Forest Escape in Ontario
Another outdoor adventure inspired by popular escape room games can be found in Bruce Peninsula National Park. The small-group activity here features a fun and exciting way to explore the trails around the park’s Cyprus Lake while deciphering riddles and clues to “outwit a ‘rogue naturalist’ and save park wildlife.“ Users also learn about the fauna of flora of the park and how to responsibly manage natural resources while supporting the conservation and stewardship of the Bruce Peninsula.
Parcours Ludiques in Quebec
Parcours Ludiques are one-of-a-kind GPS rallies that combine outdoor play with an online game and interactive challenges. It’s been used in municipal parks, hotel grounds, and nature parks to encourage whole families to get outside and get active.
GeoAdventures in eastern Ontario
Locals and visitors of Cornwall and SDG Counties in eastern Ontario are invited to walk or bike while searching for 20 caches concealed in environmentally significant sites throughout its watershed jurisdiction. The Raisin Region GeoAdventure geocaching treasure hunt is also a way of learning about natural features and environmental projects such as habitat restoration. All 20 GeoAdventure caches contain a unique QR code leading to hidden digital content about each cache site and the first 100 families who unlocked the final cache were rewarded with a special geocoin.
TRACK Trails in the U.S.
Visitors to the United States can search for TRACK Trails, a network of family-friendly outdoor adventures from Kids in Parks, a free program that promotes children’s health and aims to get families outdoors. TRACK Trails include hiking and bike trails, geocaching trails, and backyard adventures. Users can track their activities through an online nature journal and get prizes through the mail.
Connecting with trees
Time spent surrounded by trees and green spaces positively affects our mental health. Besides creating more usable outdoor places, cities and towns are also offering unique ways to experience their benefits:
Text-A-Tree in Nova Scotia
In 2019, a two-month-long Text-A-Tree project at the Halifax Public Gardens in Nova Scotia aimed to engage people with urban trees in an entirely new way. Over 10,000 private messages were sent to 15 different trees from 2,888 unique phone numbers. Writing about the experiment, participants noted how they valued the opportunity to develop a relationship with trees, while researchers were surprised by the powerful and profound moments and messages shared by text.
Talking Forest in Ontario
At Kawartha Conservation Areas in Ontario, you can deepen your connection with nature by using the downloadable Talking Forest app. The trees along the trails—that range from 1.5 to 2.2 km—allow visitors to hear stories of the forest from the trees themselves and learn fun facts and historical information or get tips on other spots to visit.
TreeCaching in Ontario
In Nort Johnston District Park and Veterans Park, also in Ontario, an app developed by the Association for Canadian Educational Resources and used by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority invites users to explore the diverse environment along the Humber River and learn about the trees that dot the landscape on a 1.5-kilometre route. Use your smartphone to open the TreeCaching trail app, where you can navigate to a tree and scan a QR code to learn more about it.
Try these apps worldwide:
iNaturalist and eBird
Kids can discover birds, flowers, and other aspects of the outdoors by using the iNaturalist Canada or eBird apps that encourage them to become citizen scientists. The data-gathering tools can help track the movement of wildlife and document the effects of climate change while strengthening our connection with the natural world. Try it out on a neighbourhood walk, in the backyard, or while exploring a nearby forest. Families are also encouraged to join the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s WILD Family Nature Club program where they can find more nature-based activities.
“iNaturalist can be a really fun way to engage with the natural world. You can challenge yourself to see how many species you can spot over a given time period or in a given area.”-Mhairi McFarlane, director of science and stewardship, Ontario region, Nature Conservancy of Canada
Use Project Noah’s companion app to take photos and report sightings of wildlife worldwide. For kids who like having a mission and earning patches, you can sign up to help document a specific region or type of wildlife—a great assignment to give young adventurers while on a camping trip or during summer vacation. Teachers and schools can also sign up whole classes and find nature programs that include hands-on experiences that can be used in the schoolyard or on outings and video-guided learning activities.
Have you tried out playground apps or used one while exploring the outdoors? Let us know about your experience!