Put technology to work to help Chicago kids discover the world around them

Kids’ fascination with their screens often gets a bad rap. In some cases, such as when your kids can’t seem to put down the game controller long enough to eat dinner with the family or your tween never interacts with friends face to face, only through text or IM, it’s deserved.

But the other side of the story is how much technology has opened your kids’ world and how much more it can be used to fuel their natural-born curiosity.

“I think technology is best utilized with curious kids if it is used as a means for the family to do something together,” says Adler Planetarium President Michelle Larson.

So instead of looking at technology as a passive activity done alone, put it to work with these easy ideas that are fun for the whole family.

1 Go Geocaching

Use your phone’s GPS or a GPS receiver to go geocaching as a family, Larson suggests. Her family loves the social experience of treasure hunting. The little prize at the end is just a bonus. “What builds the memory is all of those human interactions that the technology enabled,” she says.

Many area nature centers offer geocaching programs or locate your own at geocaching.com.

2 Create your own digital storybook

Children can use technology to document and share real world experiences or stories in a creative way, says Natalie Bortoli, vice president of education programming and experience development at Chicago Children’s Museum.

Have your kids take pictures of an outing to the park, museum, or other adventure (an afternoon encounter with a caterpillar?), and then use the photos to tell the story of what happened. Let the kids tell the story, express their thoughts and emotions, and put together images and words to convey their experience.

Photos can be printed and turned into books with written text or online applications allow families to create digital books using written or recorded words.

Chicago Children’s Museum is developing a Story Hub station that will allow families to do something much like this, she says.

3 Do science together

Adler offers 20 projects on the web that allow people to do science with its scientists through zooniverse.org. Anyone with access to a computer, tablet or smartphone can take part in the program, Larson says.

She says her daughter, 7, loves the Planet Hunters project in which she can help scientists discover planets outside of the solar system by observing lightcurve changes.

Larson suggests the Snapshot Serengeti project is another one ideal for kids. The project involves identifying the animals captured on camera images.

“It is real science. We have hundreds of thousands of images and computers are really bad at identifying a zebra from an elephant,” she says.

4 Create games

Elisa All, the mom behind 30SecondMom and Chicago Parent contributor, says she takes advantage of her kids’ passion for gaming by having them learn how to create video games.

They are developing marketable skills in technology, programming, design and user experience, she says. Now in free time not devoted to sports or other activities, they blog and dabble in code. The Digital Media Academy hosts a summer camp at University of Chicago and iD Tech offers camps at Northwestern University for game design. They are just two of many summer camps and programs available.

5 Map the sky

Explore the sky in your own backyard. Larson sees first-hand how exposing kids to the universe around them at Adler can make a difference, but she says you can build their curiosity in your own backyard.

Download apps for your mobile phone or tablet that literally shows you real-time positioning of the stars and planets in the sky. The apps tell you what you are looking at and connect you with more information to explore.

“When I have people talk to me about those kinds of technology apps, they love the apps, but they marvel at having the whole family outside and the neighbors coming over. It becomes this whole social bonding moment anchored in the technology. Those are the types of ways in which I think kids find technology something as a tool and they see everybody having fun around it,” she says.

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