iPhones and Outdoor Learning Part 3

8 August 2009 · 2 comments

in Digital & ICT Outdoors

Here’s the low-down on which apps may be assets to outdoor learning activities. If you should be fortunate enough to own an iPhone then I’m interested to hear your ideas about apps that you have have used and enjoyed outdoors with children (3-12 yr olds). I think they are of particular value for a child whose face is surgically attached to a computer screen. Make it a rule that they can only use an iPhone when outside because this is a hook that’s hard to refuse. Most activities are great fun for families but quite a few ideas are transferable to school, off-site or residential situations.

Useful apps for outdoor learning

Doodle apps allow you to mess about scribbling post-its, drawing or writing. They are great outside because no other equipment is needed. I also think this is great for reluctant writers and children who need more fine motor skills practice…you’re allowed to be messy with these apps! Use them for simple games like noughts and crosses or dots. Keep score during games or for making quick notes when you can’t be bothered to type or child doesn’t know how to. Some apps have a function which allows you to save your work to your iPhoto collection. However, this can be done with any screen. You hold down the top button and press the big black button at the bottom. A click will be heard and that’s your iPhone taking a photo of the current screen and saving it to the iPhoto library.

Drawing in the Sand

Has a pendulum swing for making geometric patterns, not unlike a simple version of Spirograph. There’s a replay button which allows you to see your creation being re-invented in front of your eyes.

Beach Sand Doodle

The sound of the sea accompanies this app along with a token sea creature to add to the decorative effect. The sand can be raked as well as drawn.

Pocket Whiteboard

This is exactly what it says. You get a choices of colours and an eraser. You can write or draw on it just like a real one. There is also a replay button. There are noises too such as a rubbing sound when you use the eraser.


This is a doodle app using a fountain pen nib. You can’t rub out but the interface is a miniature graph book where you can turn the pages if you make a mistake. The pages are “saved” at the front of the book and can be kept there or deleted. The drawback to this app is the pen nib doesn’t quite follow your finger, it’s ever so slightly out of synch so accuracy isn’t possible.

Tool Replacements

What??? Yes these apps are a substitute for the Real Thing. Whilst not ideal, in some ways, one iPhone is a lot lighter than a rucksack full of measuring equipment. And right now the iPhone has a high status with primary children (OK I know next week or year, it will be replaced with a funky new gadget, but let’s have a moment of glory here…)

Top of the list is a paid app called iHandy Carpenter. This is a virtual toolbox containing:

  • A plumb bob to measure the verticality of walls or lines
  • A spirit level
  • A ruler with a swipe facility to measure longer lengths in cm or inches
  • A surface level for obtaining a flat surface
  • A protractor for measuring angles up to 180 degrees.

Bug spray

This app emits high frequency tones that in theory have the effect of repelling insects. I somehow doubt that Scottish midgies or clegs will be thwarted in their efforts to sample human blood. The dog can definitely hear the sounds. What is interesting though is the sensor which monitors decibel levels. Great for children to watch, listen and think about and adds to a different way of observing the effects of sound visually.


How to raise the stakes in Musical Statues. This app monitors Hz (Hertz) levels in all directions and is remarkably sensitive. The data can be uploaded onto a website or e-mailed for sharing. Children can use this on different surfaces and try beating a rhythm to find out if there are differences in sensitivity. Good for free exploration as well as formal experiments.

Google Earth

Every iPhone should have this app. It is just like Google Earth elsewhere. However being able to access this out in the field is a really useful tool. For example, showing students the layout of the land when looking at glacial features. Whilst it does not replace a map and compass, it’s a very visual way of showing how far a group has walked or how near to a destination a group is. The possibilities with, and potential of, this app are endless. For younger children this app helps make a direct link about location and how 3D objects are become 2D on a map.


This is meant to be a torch but it isn’t. However the range of funky colours and patterns is nice and will add interest for night time activities – the person with the iPhone is the Keeper of the Light! For very young children, exploring this app in a dark den, tunnel or nook will add a little extra excitement.


You “break” the stick and slowly a colourful glow is emited. Not as funky as the flashlight but good for children who just need to stare at a screen and not blink and for outdoor parties and campfires of course!


What fun! You can choose your Star Wars character or be yourself. As you move the iPhone around, the lightsaber noises are emitted. Wait for a sunny day and instead of shadow boxing, let the force be with you and use the iPhone lightsaber to add special effects.

Run Keeper

This is a very clever app which locates your position via GPS and then collects an assortment of data on your walk, run or cycle. You can track duration, distance, pace, speed, total rise, elevation versus speed and path travelled on a map. Suddenly maths outdoors is so much more than speed = distance/time. The data is recorded on a website and can be accessed after your trip. This makes walking projects and physical activities outside interesting for further analysis. Every Active Schools Coordinator’s dream. Ollie Bray’s blog has a good explanation here.


An interesting app. If you have an iPhone 3GS then your can make a 12 second video, record commentary and this app will automatically upload it for sharing by e-mail or being posted on the 12s website. Those who only have the camera need not worry. Take three photos and 12s merge them together to make a short film…you can view my trial effort here. Whilst I’m not sure about the privacy settings on the website, the future potential is fantastic. On trips and outdoor activities, groups can capture their progress through a series of microvideoblogs – Twitter TV!

A quick word of caution about the Google search app. It has a voice facility but this seems not to cope with my name. No matter how many different fake accents I tried, when I voice Googled “Juliet Robertson” I would be given a list “Julia Roberts nude”. So don’t try this with the kids! My son fell off the sofa laughing so hard.

Finally I would like to say a big “Thank You” to all those folk on Twitter who answered my plea about iPhone apps outdoors. Geoblogs, Johnjohnston and Kenny73 gave me several links. jnxyz told me about a fabulous app called Hidden Park which uses fantasy creatures to explore local parks. At the moment it’s only set up for Kensington Park in London but plans are in place to release an up-dated app to use in any park. Also Ty “MacHead” Tyson deserves an honourable mention. He convinced me to buy an iPhone and keeps me up-dated on all the fun apps he finds that distract from my real work.

Next week: weather, stars and nature apps – I ran out of time today!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John August 9, 2009 at 19:55

Thanks for the mention:-)
Rather than use a doodle app I’d try to get the kids making some environmental art (well sand castles;-) and taking photos of that.


CreativeSTAR August 11, 2009 at 18:51

Hi John

You’re right on here! I did cover this briefly in Part 2 suggesting the Sand Doodle apps are really to support a visit to the beach (or desert). I also think the app widens the potential for thinking beyond the env art and sand sculptures – strategy games work well in sand – the simplest of course being Noughts and Crosses. Or quite simply large scale sand doodles. My own son is 12 years old and still loves making trails and following trails made by others in the sand.

Sand is Super!

Best wishes and thanks for posting a comment.


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