Early Years Outdoor Apps for the iPad

22 February 2014 · 10 comments

in Digital & ICT Outdoors, Early Years Outdoors, Technologies

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“Where’s the games?”

When children explore my iPad, this question always arises.  The contents on my iPad are not what children expect. It is almost entirely a range of apps for use outside.

Once children fathom this out, one of two things happen. Either the child hands the iPad back to me and walks off. Or they shrug their shoulders, start looking at some of the apps and then begin exploring the world around them through digital media. This is what I want. It seems to encourage a healthier use of an iPad in almost all circumstances as the presence of the iPad does not detract from other activities and explorations  – rather it adds to the diversity of the outdoor experiences.

In this post I want to cover some of the things I’ve found out when working outside with very young children and an iPad.

iPad photo

1) You only need one or two iPads

This encourages children to focus on learning through play outside and exploring the outdoors in multi-sensory ways of which digital technology is one medium. It also means that turn taking and sharing has to happen. If you have two iPads in your setting, have one set up for predominantly outdoor use, the other for indoors. This will ensure contrast, variety and greater exploration of both areas.


2) Get a decent cover

I’ve got a Griffin case. It’s expensive and not perfect in that to use the lens, you have to remove part of the protective covering, but it’s good enough especially working on beaches, in muddy forests and around lots of water.


3) Know and use the preloaded apps

These are free and are the foundations of many activities and spontaneous interactions with the children. Spend time working with these and learning to make the most of them…

  • We use the calculator for working out maths problems.
  • I have notes and reminders stored in Notes to help me remember any rules and key points to be covered.
  • The clock has a stopwatch and timer. Two very handy items for a variety of outdoor activities.
  • Kindle can be used to store relevant books.
  • iBooks is the place to store pdfs of any paperwork you need. This might be risk benefit assessment, games, plans, etc.
  • The Maps function is great for walks if you have 3G coverage as children can see exactly where they are walking. It’s a good challenge to see if they can make their “blue dot” reach the destination marked with a “red dot.”
  • The Camera – the camera and the video are both useful outside and children quickly learn how to use them.
  • Photo Booth opens up a whole new way of looking at the world as demonstrated in this blog post. This can be a useful stepping stone to exploring Photo Booth on an Apple laptop or desktop which have a greater range of choice and functions.


4) Download and use additional apps one at a time

It is very easy in a bout of enthusiasm (especially when reading blog posts) to download all the apps that are being recommended. Then you find that you do not have time to use them all and they sit on your iPad as guilty reminders of your mistakes. I speak from experience.  Also, be ruthless about deleting apps which are cr-apps or at least store them all in a folder so they are out of the way.


5) Nature apps

These work well for very young children because of the images. With the bird apps, the bird calls can be heard too. This is always a big hit with young children who then tune in to bird songs they are hearing around them.  This blog post looks at ones which I like and find useful. The bird app is worth the £12.99 price tag.  There are others out there which I find less useful or too tricky for young children.


6) Weather apps

Download the BBC Weather app. It’s brilliant. Children learn the big symbol, recognise the numbers, can look at the weather during the week ahead and discover the name of their location. There are direct links to weather warning. You need 3G coverage. I’ve experimented with various weather apps but this is my top favourite.


7) Taking photos

Let children take photos. If they can manage this independently and can demonstrate that they will treat the iPad with care and return it to you or the storage place afterwards, then let them freely explore. Take a photo of the child first so that you know which photos are taken by which child. Use a photo collage app to quickly collate and share a child’s set of photos. I’m still looking for a decent one. I have Photo Shaper but it’s too easy to accidentally click on the advert halfway through the process and it can’t be switched off.


8) Using photo apps

There are loads out there. What I like is that children can build upon the skill of taking a photo.  For very young children, my favourite ones are by Curious Hat because children can learn to use these apps independently and don’t require the ability to read:

  • Phlip
  • Eye Painting series – there’s three different apps
  • Fotobabble – Talking photos. The child takes the photo and adds their voice (not developed by Curious Hat)

There are other useful photo apps out there which children can experiment with. However I do not feel they engage children further with their environment. They work best as follow-up activities inside.


9) Recalling outdoor experiences

Very often creating a story around an outdoor experience is popular with children. They like to see themselves and hear themselves. I have Pictello which is a very simple app and doesn’t crash. You can insert photos or short videos, record voices, type in up to five lines of text, download voices to read the text aloud – including Queen Elizabeth and a “Bad Man’s” voice and share the books with others in a variety of ways. You can create the book as the action is happening rather than after the event. The only downside is the price at £13.49. However it remains one of my favourite apps and very young children and those with additional support needs really like it.


10) Other apps for exploring the world

I have a few other apps which young children can use. This list will probably grow through time and it’s my intention to update this blog post as good ones are found. At present none of the magnifying apps are particularly good – give me a magnifying glass or Fresnel lens any day. However I’m sure this will change in due course.

MadPad – This app enables children to video record several seconds of sound. So children can explore what sounds can be made in their environment. Then the app turns it into a beatbox where each sound can be played by tapping the videos. Very noisy but children like it because of the high degree of ownership.

Spyglass – This is a very sophisticated app which is an example of augmented reality navigation. It is amazing and I know I’m underusing it badly. Yet a child can open this app and use it to be an explorer. The compass works vertically as well as horizontally and you can view your environment whilst data is collected on your grid reference, direction, speed of travel, direction, date, time, etc.

Naturespace – This is handy for imaginary play. If a child is pretending to be at the seaside, then seashore sounds can be found and played on this app. Various habitats and seasons are offered.


Finally – this list is far from exhaustive. What apps have you found to work well outside and why with very young children?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Kierna February 22, 2014 at 19:17

Oh thank you for a very timely post. We got 3 iPads in Jan & are just getting to grips with them ourselves. I like the idea of an indoor & outdoor one. I also managed to break a Griffin case in a short space of time. I think I love them best for videos.


Juliet Robertson February 23, 2014 at 11:06

Kierna – I think this is one of the key aspects to consider – how the use of an iPad for basic functions such as videoing or taking photos makes a difference to the learning experience. What iPads enable is a clear screen which little children find easier than a small viewer to squint through. Also there are apps which enable good use of a video or photo to be made which would be not possible via the traditional transfer onto a laptop or desktop.


Catherine February 22, 2014 at 23:03

I never really thought about using the ipad outside – I love the idea!
I have a photo app on my phone that might be a good one – Timer Cam. It is a simple 30 second (or you can choose shorter times) countdown before the camera goes off – good for getting yourself in the photo. I use Diptic for photo collages.
Another thing we do a lot is look at the weather rader to see if it is going to rain (I am in Australia and you can get the radar from the webpage http://www.bom.gov.au).


Juliet Robertson February 23, 2014 at 11:06

Thanks for these suggestions, Catherine. I will check them out in due course.


Julie Mountain August 27, 2015 at 19:11

Just a quick point about Griffin covers – yes, they are brill, but advise your readers to buy a very brightly coloured one – mine is a horrible combination of HiVis yellow and hit pink. It’s never been mislaid / lost outdoors, unlike the far ‘cooler’ black ones the school has!

Great post as always Juliet.


Juliet Robertson August 27, 2015 at 20:26

Hi Julie

Thanks for the advice – spot on as ever! I do agree about brightly coloured covers. Also since I wrote this post many more cheaper versions than Griffin have come onto the market… and seem reasonably fit for purpose. But guess what – I’ve only seen black covers! Sigh!


paula August 27, 2015 at 19:26

I think this might be one of my favourite posts by you – and I use your ideas a LOT! I hope I get a chance to use some of these in the coming months.

For collating photos PicCollage is a fab free app. It has a variety of collage formats and can be annotated by text. Children find it extremely easy to use but I’ve only used it with year 3s and over so far.


Juliet Robertson August 27, 2015 at 20:24

Hi Paula – Thanks for recommending PicCollage – that happens to be one of my favourite apps but I’ve never used it with very young children either. Since writing this post, I’ve come across some: Moldiv being the main one on my iPad.

For reference I’m no longer using Photo Shaper – the adverts come on automatically and can’t be disabled so unless there is now an ad-free paid version, it’s not OK – shame as it was brilliant for little children.


Jane October 5, 2015 at 21:00

With you on this Juliet, we use our iPad outside regularly. We also have a griffin case which is a real godsend, agree with the niggle on the camera flap but it’s been dropped, stood on and left out(inadvertently) in the rain and come to no harm. We haven’t really used much in the way of apps but the camera function is great – I love that I can capture so many of the learning experiences so quickly and easily and the children love to be able to take their own photos and videos. We can record things like the frosty spider web, beetle or butterfly. Great also to try to identify birds although we generally don’t get close enough to see much detail! Going to have a look at the apps you suggest now and see what we can use. Thanks as always for your suggestions


Juliet Robertson October 5, 2015 at 21:55

Thanks Jane – I think the camera/video function remains one of the best built apps of an iPad or any tablet. You’ve exemplified this well.


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