Sunday, November 04, 2007

Geocaching - The sport where YOU are the search engine!

This past Friday, I taught a seminar called "Introduction to Geocaching" at the 40th Annual Conference of the New York State Outdoor Education Association. NYSOEA Conference

For those of you not familiar with geocaching, think of it as a HIGH TECH TREASURE HUNT….a hide-and-seek game where you get clues from websites like and then go out and search for caches using a handheld GPS. It is variously described as a sport, a game, or a hobby - it really depends on the interests of the user. No matter what you call it, this is an activity in which you not only enjoy the outdoors, you learn navigation skills, follow encrypted clues and use your wits! When you find the cache and open it, you sign the logbook, if you take something you leave something (there are all sorts of little treasures), and then you go back to the web and log your visit.

This has spawned a whole range of specialized types of caches - I particularly enjoy finding the ones known as "hitchhikers." These are items designed to travel. When you find one in a cache, you take it and move it to another cache site, logging the journey both in the logbooks and online. For teachers, this presents a digital "Flat Stanley" opportunity, where a class could stash an item, give instructions and background about what they are trying to do (e.g. see if an item can touch down in all 50 states), and then follow the progress online. There are currently 479,630 active caches worldwide - so the range of possibilities is truly endless.

We're all struggling with how to get kids outdoors - they are locked to their computers, TV, IM, cell phones. Gecaching brings it all together, fueled by the thrill of a game/search /treasure hunt. Along the way, you can teach about respect for nature ("Cache in, Trash Out" is the geocacher's motto), and have fun outdoors. I have worked for many years in educational kids' media, and this kind of multisensory engagement around natural sciences, mathematics, and decoding of clues (the underpinning of early Literacy) is a powerful learning tool (to say nothing of being totally addictive!).

Following the seminar on Friday, I took five people out to Rip Van Winkle Lake, where I had pre-scouted two good caches - scenic location, not too far from each other, both with hitchhikers (one a registered "Travel Bug"). They all handled the GPS and found both caches without any help from me - it was very satisfying. And, it was delightful to be in the woods with these professional naturalists. They identified everything - plants, leaves, berries, tracks, scat (droppings). I learned at least as much in an hour in the woods with them as they learned from me about geocaching.

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