For years, health and outdoor advocates have worried that computer games, tablets, smartphones and TVs have kept too many kids indoors and sedentary.
Those complaints flew out the window earlier this month when Pokemon Go, a mobile game app, became a worldwide sensation. For the first time, gamers can’t just sit indoors in front of a screen; Pokemon Go drives them off their couches and into the world – parks, public gardens, communities and neighborhoods – to find and capture Pokemon creatures.
Instead of eye and brain strain, Pokemon Go’ers are getting sore legs as they walk for miles in search of the Pikachu behind the tree, the Squirtle by the pond and the Bulbasaur in the meadow. Gotta catch ‘em all, as they say!
Pokemon first became popular in the late 1990s, and part of their charm is that they’re fantasy versions of real animals and plants. There are Pokemon bats and turtles, birds and moths, cats and rats, sea creatures, flowers and plants, and lots more.
But wouldn’t it be even better if Pokemon Go launched a new phenomenon: Players, in their quest to catch Pokemon, actually start exploring and enjoying the natural world? They may discover that there’s lots of real-life cool stuff out there - birds in trees, salamanders under rocks, butterflies on flowers, and constellations in the night sky.
There’s already evidence of this happening. Pokemon Go players who have encountered real animals while playing the game started a new Twitter hashtag, #PokeBlitz, for sharing their sightings.
Luckily, the same mobile technology that gave us Pokemon Go has generated multitudes of apps to help nature lovers navigate and interpret the great outdoors.
For instance, while there are many bird-like Pokemon, New Jersey has many more real birds, from hummingbirds to Golden eagles. Bird identification apps include the popular iBird, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. For most bird apps, there’s both a paid version and a free “lite” version.
Pokemon come in plant and flower forms, but they can’t compare to the variety of flora in New Jersey’s forests, meadows and wetlands. If you want to identify trees and plants, try an electronic field guide like Leafsnap.
A similar visual recognition app called Project Noah identifies your photos of animals, insects, reptiles and birds. There’s also iNaturalist, which allows you to post photos of nature sightings and get experts to identify them.
While you’re outside at night, perhaps searching for nocturnal Pokemon like Zubat and Golbat, you may become curious about the stars, planets, constellations and meteors above you. Check out apps like Sky Guide, Star Walk 2, Star Map, Night Sky and Sky Safari to learn about the night sky.
And if you like the challenging of finding Pokemon, you may also like geocaching, the popular GPS-based “treasure hunt” pastime. Instead of running through parks in search of imaginary creatures, you can find real hidden caches … usually small prizes or tokens. Try out apps like Geocaching, Commander Compass Lite and Geocaching Buddy to guide your search for loot stashed in parks and forests.
And if you’d like to spend more time in New Jersey’s parks and forests – exploring trails, visiting historic sites and finding access points for boating, fishing and wildlife observation – there’s a free app for that, known as Pocket Ranger, offered by the State of New Jersey.
It’s a big world with so much to discover, and outdoor apps make it easier. And if Pokemon Go can help ignite a love of the outdoors and exercise, all the better! Studies show that time spent outdoors benefits both physical and mental health.
POSTSHit the trails on June 3, National Trails Day