American Essence

How One Teacher is Using Geocaching to Inspire A Love for Nature and Geography in Kids

Geocaching is a fun activity sure to inspire love for the great outdoors
BY Janice Abernethy TIMEJuly 7, 2022 PRINT

What child, or adult for that matter, doesn’t love the thought of going on a treasure hunt? Did you know that there are real-world treasure hunts that you and your family can participate in no matter where you are traveling or where you live? Well, that is exactly what geocaching is! With summer upon us, geocaching is a great way to get outdoors and learn, and it’s fun for all ages.

There are millions of “treasures” or “geocaches” hidden all over the world. Yes, I said world! There are official treasures called geocaches registered on the internet site Geocaching.com. To find them, you must become a member and download the geocache app. Although the app does cost about $10, everything else about geocaching is absolutely free. After you make an account, you can search for “geocaches near me” or you can specify an area if you are going on a trip. After using filters like “within 5 miles,” or “easy,” or “handicap accessible,” you will come up with a list of geocaches you can search for. Choose one, and you are on your way to finding your first treasure!

If you are a teacher or even a parent, you can use geocaching as an educational activity, but most importantly it is a family activity that is fun for all ages. Here is how I used it in my fifth grade classroom. Use it as I did or adapt it to fit your situation.

Latitude and Longitude

One evening, I was preparing a geography lesson on latitude and longitude. As all good teachers do, I wanted to begin by making it relevant. I looked up the latitude and longitude of the school where I taught.

“Hmmm… interesting,” I thought to myself. “Those are the same numbers that most of the GPS coordinates begin with when I am looking for geocaches in the area with my friends after school.” The lightbulb went on, and after 40-some years I suddenly understood the real meaning of those “imaginary lines” I was taught about in fifth grade! I suddenly knew the meaning of the GPS coordinates, too. They were the same thing! Maybe I should be embarrassed, but I told you anyway. The moral of the story is I now knew how I was going to teach my students latitude and longitude. I would teach them about geocaching.

First, I needed to create a geocache, but what exactly is that? A geocache is a container of any size, ranging from micro to large. A micro geocache is only big enough to insert a rolled-up piece of paper as the logbook. All geocaches must have a logbook so that the finders can sign their names when they find it. Larger containers can hold anything from a few to many items (the treasure) and a logbook. The finder may take one item from the container but must replace it with an item of his or her own. This is really fun when you are geocaching with small children. Before embarking on the adventure, you have them go through their toys and find a few items to bring with them that they are willing to give up and swap out during the treasure hunt. After you sign the log and swap out treasure, you must put the geocache back exactly where you found it and exactly the same way you found it.

Back to teaching my fifth graders, I put together a container that held some stickers, erasers, and other various treasures. I also inserted a small notebook to use as a logbook. Then, I hid the container in the schoolyard habitat. After determining the GPS coordinates and writing them down, I was ready to teach my fifth graders about latitude, longitude, GPS, and geocaching.

The Lesson

Each student had a laptop with the Google Earth app installed. Students put in their addresses and looked at their houses. Then, I asked them to notice the GPS coordinates at the bottom of the screen. Students walked around the room and compared their coordinates to each other and discussed what the numbers meant, and quickly I heard such phrases as “west of my house” or “north of my house.” I was excited! They were beginning to understand what the numbers meant and that the increase or decrease in number correlated with direction. Next, I had the students open flat maps, and I introduced/reintroduced latitude and longitude to them. Just as the light bulb went on for me, I looked around the room and saw it light up in their faces as they connected GPS to latitude and longitude.

Finally, I asked them to get out their cell phones if they had one or grab a partner with one. I wrote the coordinates of the geocache I had placed in the habitat and asked them all to write it down on a piece of paper and bring it and their device with them to the schoolyard habitat. Using the “compass” app, I asked the students to find the coordinates they had written down on the piece of paper. Lots of whoops and hollers were shouted when they found the geocache, and I explained that they would learn about geocaching the next day.

To extend on the latitude/longitude lesson, any time we had a few extra minutes I would point to a city or landmark on a map or globe. Students would use whiteboards to write down a latitude/longitude guess for where that might be. Using our town’s coordinates as base, the students became pretty good at giving reasonable guesses. Some became excellent!

Geocaching

The next day, I taught the students about geocaching. We went to the geocaching site, watched all the videos, and discussed when and how they could do this wonderful activity with their families. My school district is in a small town with a population of around 6,000 people. It is situated in rural Pennsylvania and is 80 miles from a large city. I asked the students how many geocaches they thought might be in a 10-mile radius of their small town. They made some guesses, but none came close to the 347 geocaches listed after they did a search! I allowed them to play with the filters, and one student realized that there were 27 geocaches within a mile of the center of Greenville! This was a treasure hunt game they could play without ever leaving their town!

The beauty of geocaching, however, is that you can leave your town. You can leave your state and even the country. Geocaches are everywhere, and so are geocachers! Beware of muggles, though! What are muggles, you ask? They are those pesky people who don’t have a clue about geocaching. They are suspicious and they wonder what you are doing, or they find geocaches and don’t know what they are, so they throw them in the trash. Lucky for you—you are no longer a muggle!

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

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