Gamify your surroundings: The social city-guide app Foursquare is a fun way to explore your neighborhood, town, or city with the help of a smartphone. It encourages you to discover new places instead of doing the same old thing. Josh’s 12-year-old son thinks of Foursquare as a video game that takes place in the real world; he borrows Josh’s phone—the service is not available to those under 13—to check in at exotic new locales around Boston, earning badges.
Another fun real-world game is geocaching, which parents and kids can do together by downloading a geocaching app to a smartphone. (We like Geocaching from Groundspeak Inc.) Geocachers around the planet have hidden more than a million caches (containers, often filled with prizes) and uploaded their latitude and longitude to Geocaching.com. We’ve found caches hidden in our own neighborhoods, and we’ve also been lured by fun-sounding caches in other neighborhoods, in city and state parks, and in other cities. Enter a ZIP code into whichever app you’ve downloaded, and you’re off and running. Note that using the Geocaching website is free, though with a paid membership you get some extra features—like automatic notification when caches are created in your area.
Design within reach: Elizabeth’s eighth-grader loves Cities XL, a city-building computer game. In addition to creating skyscrapers and urban parks, he likes the challenge of balancing a city budget and planning the streets for traffic flow. Our families are also into SketchUp, a free program that lets you design almost anything, from an apartment building to a toothbrush. (Josh’s ninth-grader used it, with the help of older kids on his school’s robotics team, to design a robot.) And it’s sure to be even more popular once your kids start begging to get one of these.
If your kid can spend hours building underground kingdoms on Minecraft, give her a chance to actively explore how video games actually work by introducing her to programming. Our kids like Scratch, a programming language developed by the MIT Media Lab that kids—with or without a grown-up’s help — can use to create games, animations, music, interactive stories, and art. Super Scratch Programming Adventure! is a companion book that teaches you how to build lots of creative (and increasingly complicated) games. Scratch can be used by children younger than 13 as long as a parent provides a valid email address.
Backseat fun: Waze is a free social traffic and navigation app whose users can report accidents, speed traps, and traffic jams in real time. It has a very cute interface, and it’s endlessly fascinating to observe fellow Waze users coming and going while you travel. However, it’s not safe for the driver to use! That’s where kids come in—as Chewbacca to their mom or dad’s Han Solo. Using Waze, they can not only help you find your destination but also avoid problems en route.
The music identification app Shazam may be tailor-made for bars, but it’s also perfect for driving together, whether on the morning commute to school or on a long weekend road trip. When an old—that is, pre-2005—song comes on the radio, the kid in the passenger seat races to identify it via Shazam before her parent can dredge the same info up from her own, ever-shrinking database.
When it comes to your kids and their attraction to screens, it's best to be a neo-Luddite: Find meaningful and fun ways to share screen time with your kids, and place restrictions not on the technology itself, but on how and when it's used. That is, of course, if you can tear yourself away from your own favorite screen diversions.