Illustration by Ramóna Udvardi

My family and I live in Chicago, which is not famous for its friendly mild winters. However, thanks to the magic of technology, we can still learn about and enjoy nature even when Lake Michigan has turned to ice. “There’s a myth that nature is all dead and boring during the winter,” says Robb Telfer, Calumet Outreach Coordinator for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Even in cold climates, he says, “There are millions of living roots and seeds and larvae and trees and snakes and fish and amphibians all just out of view, all over every frozen woods.” Here are some ways you and your kid — with a few tools — can enjoy them if you’re indoors.

First, remember that exploring nature is easier when your technology is powerful and state-of-the-art. A computer with an 8th Gen Intel® Core™ processor inside (like the Lenovo Yoga 920), will ensure that you can work quickly and utilize better graphics and images when necessary. It’s also lightweight and portable for when you need to take it outside.


Parents strive to treat their families to amazing experiences. Catapult, in partnership with Intel, is the field guide for the modern mom, offering tech-based at-home activities that will build lasting memories.

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Venturing Outside

Whether you live in a warmer winter climate or you lucked into a sunny calm day, there are lots of ways tech can enable you to take a closer look at nature while on a forest or sanctuary walk. Interested in birds? Telfer recommends Sibley’s Bird Guide app, which, based on your location, can do a smart search of what kind of bird you spotted, along with maps that indicate whether the birds would be in your area in the winter. Families can also contribute to science by signing up for eBird to report the species and number of birds you saw, where and when. “This helps the international birding community chart how bird populations are doing, how they’re moving, and whether climate change may be affecting their behavior and mating,” says Telfer.

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Other apps that help identify not just birds but other animals and plants include Tree and iNaturalist. Telfer is a fan of iNaturalist: “If you don’t know the species, there is some pretty sophisticated image recognition software on there now that is able to suggest the species ID based solely on the image you upload,” says Telfer. Hiking at twilight? Try the Echo Meter Touch Bat Detector app, which Telfer describes as “Shazam for bats”: a bat microphone that can identify any nearby bats based on echolocation noises that human ears can’t hear.

When you’re identifying these species, have your kid write down the information they’ve gathered on their computer. Later, they can organize their notes and turn them into a visual nature guide to your own backyard or neighborhood on a program like Microsoft Paint 3D.

Even just a camera — including the one on your computer — can enhance a walk in the woods or by the beach. Let your child take a photo and save it as your computer wallpaper. Or, you and your kids can then take the images from your walks and turn them into a souvenir they can enjoy year round — drop images into Microsoft Word, Paint 3D, or Microsoft Studio to print out nature-inspired stationery or use a service like Shutterfly to create and order your own nature guides or calendars.

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Exploring Nature from Indoors

There are still ways to engage with nature even when the weather outside is frightening. If you have a webcam or a Go Pro you can use time lapse video to observe nature at work. Hang a bird feeder outside, set up your camera, and see how many birds you can identify. You can connect a camera to your computer through wifi and watch nature from your laptop in real time.

Don’t live in a place that’s conducive to indoor bird watching? Sarah McAnulty, a PhD candidate in molecular and cell biology at the University of Connecticut, says you can learn a lot from a time lapse video, a clear glass, and some homemade salt water. “Leave the glass with the salty water in a hot dry place with the camera, so you can have the kids watch as the salt crystals form and see who can get the biggest crystals,” she says. “It’ll teach about evaporation, crystal formation, and solubility maximums.”

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If you’re looking for holiday presents for young budding scientists, you can find microscopes for under $50 that plug into your laptop, so you and your kids can discover how amazing nature is up close. No matter where you live, you can likely find a dead bug, seed pod, or neighborhood leaves to examine under the microscope (and turn into a photo project if the images look cool.) If it’s negative 50 and you can’t step outside to find something, you can even grow your own specimens at home, thanks to the power of mold.

Older kids with decent attention spans and good reading skills can use Notes from Nature to participate in citizen science without leaving home. Simply by transcribing the labels found on old preserved plant and bug specimens, you and your kids can help scientists by digitizing old records. “You get to look at all these herbarium specimens, study what they look like, and help scientists,” says Jessica Turner-Skoff, PhD, treeologist at the Morton Arboretum in Chicago. Notes From Nature rewards super-transcribers with badges as home archivists build their “collections.”

Whatever method you and your kid study the natural world this winter, Telfer has a warning about the one app he does not recommend for studying the outdoors: “Pokémon Go is NOT good for enjoying nature and people have trampled many a flower chasing a bulbasaur.”

Claire Zulkey is a freelance writer and mother of two in Evanston, IL. You can learn much more about her by going to Zulkey.com.

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