Turning Screen Time Into Green Time

A high-tech treasure hunt known as geocaching is helping parents coax their children outdoors, away from indoor electronic devices

03-11-2013 // Doreen Cubie

A family goes geocashing in a North Carolina forest

POWELL FRANKLIN, JR., AND HIS WIFE JENNIFER were looking for a way to pry their young daughter Emma away from computers and televisions and get her outdoors more often. “My generation was probably the last one to grow up playing outside all the time,” says Powell. Indeed, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, U.S. children between the ages of 8 and 18 now spend an average of 7.5 hours a day indoors in front of an electronic screen.

Two years ago, when the Franklins discovered geocaching—a type of high-tech treasure hunt—they found the ideal solution. “It’s a great way to enjoy the outdoors while spending time together as a family,” says Powell. Participants use a smartphone or handheld Global Positioning System (GPS) device to navigate to a hidden container called a geocache. Once they find it, they sign a logbook in the container and later go online to share their experiences. “Geocaching is a great way to marry screen time with green time,” says Lindsay Hauswald Legendre, manager for NWF’s Be Out There® movement.

According to the activity’s website, geocaching.com, some 1.9 million geocaches have been placed outdoors by participants worldwide, with some 5 million people seeking them out. Geocache trails, a series of caches placed at intervals and united by a theme, also are growing in popularity.

NWF launched Ranger Rick’s® Geocache Trails two years ago. Today nearly 80 of these wildlife-oriented routes are located across the country in parks, nature centers, campgrounds, zoos and even aquariums. All of them are family friendly and easy for newcomers to navigate, and most can be accessed year-round. “There are three to eight geocaches on every Ranger Rick trail,” says Legendre. “Each one includes mysteries to solve and nature-related activities to do along the way.” Each also offers kids an opportunity to hone their navigation skills while learning about the natural world.

The Franklins began laying out their own Ranger Rick’s Geocache Trail in Tennessee’s Natchez Trace State Park in 2011, after Emma, now 9 years old, read an article about the program in Ranger Rick®. “She was the catalyst,” says Powell. With the support of Walter Pope, the park manager, and with funding from the Friends of Natchez Trace, the Franklins set up the course on the park’s Pin Oak Trail. The 1.5-mile path winds through rolling deciduous woods where geocachers sometimes spot wild turkeys and beavers in the nearby lake. Last year, the Powell’s trail won the grand prize in a geocaching contest sponsored by NWF.

To some people, the activity may seem like an unusual way to get children outdoors. But Robin Schepper, a senior advisor for the Bipartisan Policy Center’s nutrition and physical activity initiative, begs to differ. “We know technology is not going away. So the question becomes, how do you use it to get kids into the woods? This is one effective way,” says Schepper, who frequently takes her two young sons geocaching near their Colorado home.

The Franklins know it works. “We have met several family caching teams  on our trail, and they always have big smiles on their faces,” says Powell. And now when the Franklins go geocaching, they take a new member of their family. Newborn Abby goes in a harness, as she and her family navigate through nature with the aid of a GPS.

Hitting the Trail

To learn more about geocaching and to find a trail in your region, visit www.RangerRickTrails.com. For information about other outdoor family activities, visit www.nwf.org/get-outside.

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