When I wrote about the idea of teaching ecology through virtual reality, I confess I was a touch skeptical. Having read a lot about nature deficit disorder, I couldn't help feeling a touch sad about the notion that we now need technology to help us see the world around us in a new light. But I say this as someone who uses an iPhone, blogs for a living, and is regularly immersed in the world of technology. Unless something happens to drastically change our civilization, it seems likely to assume that smartphones and other connected devices are here to stay.

So why not explore ways to use them to our advantage?

Below are some apps and tech tools that may help to teach kids about ecology, sustainability and the world around them.


litterati image
Photo: Litterati/screen capture

Less of an app than a movement, Litterati uses Instagram to document the spread of litter in our world and encourage users to clean it up. Users simply snap shots of trash — in the streets, on the beach, in the woods, wherever — tag it with #Litterati, along with any other pertinent info like the brand of packaging, or the location, and then upload it to Instagram. Litterati collates these photos into a virtual landfill, while users dispose of the trash by throwing it away or, preferably, recycling it. Not only does this turn litter cleanup into a collective, global endeavor, it can also encourage you to see litter where previously it went unnoticed. I've been on several Litterati hunts with my kids, and the only trouble I have now is making sure they ask me before picking up some garbage in the street. (There are some things you DO NOT want your children touching!)

MarcoPolo Ocean

It's no secret that our oceans are in trouble. But not every kid is going to sit through a full-length documentary about Sylvia Earle. MarcoPolo Ocean allows kids to explore the underwater world, taking part in interactive learning games that teach them about fish, coral reefs, marine mammals, as well as boats, submersibles and the work of a marine scientist. Aimed at children aged 3 to 6, the reviews on AppySmarts are overwhelmingly positive.

Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab of Ornithology

merlin bird id image
Photo: Appcrawlr/screen capture

Nature-focused apps aren't just about theoretical learning at home. They also offer opportunities to enhance real-time learning when we are out "in the field." Created for beginner and intermediate ornithologists, and rated in many online reviews as being extremely family friendly, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Merlin Bird ID app walks users through a step-by-step process for IDing birds. Results are even filtered according to date and location to make sure likely matches are relevant to when and where the app is being used.

Habitat the Game

Created as a partnership between the Rainforest Alliance, Elevator Entertainment and Wildlife Conservation Society, Habitat the Game asks users to help keep an endangered polar bear alive. Players do this by engaging in virtual and real-world activities that are designed to teach sustainability and actively encourage kids to lessen their impact on the planet. And for folks who worry about kids spending too much time indoors, the game also includes a mobile and social element, encouraging kids to get outside and swap news of where they've been with other kids around the world.


Part of using devices for learning about the world has got to be about learning when not to use devices. DinnerTime is an app that enables parental control of individual handheld devices, turning them off during specific times — e.g. dinnertime, bed time or, gasp, when you want kids to go outside and play — and also allowing impromptu "take a break" settings as needed. Given my kids have occasionally admonished me for texting while eating, I just wonder if we need a kid control mode for keeping us parents in check too...

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