Want Your Kids to Spend More Time Outdoors? Try iNaturalist!

Taking a photo of a flower outside


  • iNaturalist is a joint venture of National Geographic and the California Academy of Sciences.  
  • Users of iNaturalist can find out more information about the flora and fauna around their homes or in areas they explore.
  • Users can contribute to the scientific community by adding their photos and observations to the biodiversity database.
  • Parents can find fun ways to incorporate iNaturalist into their family’s life, blending kids’ love of technology with healthy outdoor activity.

“My kids are always on their phones! They never get any fresh air!” Have you said or thought something like this? If you’re like many parents, you probably remember spending a lot of time outdoors, playing with friends and siblings or cousins and exploring the world around you. 

You may see your children sitting inside with their heads bent over their phones instead, and it’s easy to worry. Are they consuming junk information instead of getting real knowledge? Are they failing to connect with real people in favor of avatars and profiles? Are they losing out on the joys of nature and the health benefits of playing outdoors?

Let’s be realistic; you’re probably not going to convince your children to give up their phones. But you may be able to guide your kids to a healthier lifestyle by combining their interest in technology with more outdoorsy pursuits. iNaturalist is a perfect way to do that. Take a look at what it is and how your kids and family can benefit from it. 

Kids Are Naturally Curious

Your kids are digital natives. That means they probably turn to their phones or other devices first when they want to know something. But they also have a child’s natural curiosity about the world they live in; they do want to know things. One of the topics that kids often find interesting is the natural world — the animals, bugs, and plants that surround them. 

If you can find ways to engage your kids in exploration of the natural world, they’re likely to continue their love of nature and exploring the outdoors throughout their lives. 

Enter iNaturalist.

What is iNaturalist?

iNaturalist is an app that identifies itself as a community for naturalists and a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. The app was designed to allow users to provide valuable information about the biodiversity of their regions to the greater scientific community.

How iNaturalist Works

The app allows users to take photos of flora or fauna and upload them to the site. It will then use the images to identify the species, or at least the family that they belong to. So, it might be able to tell you the name of a specific flower, or that the bird you’ve snapped belongs to the crow and raven family. App users and testers say that it’s pretty good at this. 

But there’s a lot more to iNaturalist. Once a user uploads a photo, they can agree to allow others to use the photo for biodiversity research under a Creative Commons license. They can also discuss the image in the photo with the groups they have created or with the entire iNaturalist community. 

While this feature isn’t perfect — most discussion takes place on the website, so the app is only useful for community connection in a limited sense right now — it’s still helpful. There are enough users on the website that you’re able to get useful answers in most cases. 

If the app can’t identify the plant or animal, chances are good that someone who visits the site can. And once it’s been identified, users can have more in-depth conversations about it and learn more about the species and where in the world it can be found. 

What Makes iNaturalist a Great Choice for Families?  

Kids have questions about the things around them. iNaturalist is a great tool to find answers.

This app can help get kids off of the couch and out of the house. If they want to find out about the animals and plants they see outside, they’re going to have to go out there and snap pictures. They’re still using their phones and apps, so they’re not being asked to give up something they know they like; they’re just gaining a fascinating new way to use that technology. 

Kids also enjoy having their questions answered. How often have you had to say “I don’t know” (or even “ugh, get that away from me!”) when your child asks you about a bug they’re curious about? Kids definitely want to know about these things, but parents can’t be expected to carry entomological textbooks in their heads. With iNaturalist, they have a way to get answers on their own.  

iNaturalist can also give anxious kids reassurance. Perhaps they’ll learn that that weird-looking beetle that hangs out in the yard is harmless, or that the new plant growing beside the house won’t poison the cat if it happens to take a bite. 

And you can even make the use of iNaturalist into a fun family game. Plan a scavenger hunt. Each kid must take a picture of a tree, flower, bug, and animal in the neighborhood and identify it. The first one to get them all wins. Or ask each family member to find one new plant or animal to identify by the end of the day, and you can all discuss them and compare notes over dinner. 

What Is the Suggested Age Group for iNaturalist?

On the Apple Store, iNaturalist is rated for ages 4 and up, but many features of iNaturalist are too advanced for young children. However, while they will need guidance from parents to use all the features of the site, they can still have a lot of fun seeking and snapping plants and animals. 

Because it’s free and available on both iOS and Android, iNaturalist is accessible to most families; all you need is a phone plan. It can also be accessed with a web browser at www.iNaturalist.org

What Users are Saying About iNaturalist

Bird in the rain.
The features of iNaturalist are fun for families to use together

Feedback from real users of iNaturalist tells a positive story. It has a high rating on the Apple App Store – a 4.7.  It’s clear from the reviews that the users really enjoy the app and consistently rate it highly. 

Examples of common comments are: “I use it to explore areas I already am familiar with to learn about the things living around me I’ve never heard of,” and “I have only been using it for about half a year and I can’t tell you how much joy my family has gotten out of simple moments like seeing a unique plant off the trail while on a hike and being able to know what it is almost instantly.”

Users also leave suggestions, such as “I would like to see them update it with a section where you can go to a person’s profile and see all of their observations in one place like the way you view a project and all of its observations,” and “I would find a how-to video most helpful.” 

In short, users don’t just like the app, they like it enough to want to make it better so that they can get even more use out of it. That’s a good sign that iNaturalist has a strong following and will continue to gain popularity with interested users.

If you want to find out more about what your children are doing online and on their devices, WebWatcher can help. To find out more,  get our free trial.