Normally I put strict limits on my nine-year-old son's screen time, especially in summer when he should be outside playing and experiencing the world. But when I catch him playing Habitat, I make a screen-time exception. The brand-new FREE app encourages kids to go outside and explore nature (which is what I want) while simultaneously challenging them to a fun, save-the-environment game (which my son loves). No wonder he's been obsessed with Habitat since we were invited to try it out at the Central Park Zoo earlier this month.
Habitat is really two games in one: a real-world scavenger hunt and a virtual pet. Developed by Elevator Entertainment and aimed at grade-schoolers, it's fairly straightforward: Kids collect hundreds of animal "pins" hidden in 13 different countries around the world, including several right here in NYC. Users also learn about environmental stewardship by adopting a virtual polar bear and helping him thrive by performing simple real-life eco-challenges tracked in the app.
The pet part of the game can be played anywhere and reminded me of those handheld digital pets Tamagotchi that were all the rage back in the '90s. You must check in on your polar bear for about five minutes every day, otherwise he might not survive. Players need to clean and feed him, and deal with all the trash that piles up in his habitat overnight. In order to unlock the tools needed to perform some of these duties, kids are tasked with improving the environment by changing their real-life habits, like conserving energy by turning off the lights when they leave a room or saving water by taking shorter showers. By making these kinds of small but important changes to their offline lifestyle, children see immediate results in the game. It's a fun way to break kids of bad habits and hopefully instill better ones.
Habitat also gets kids outside by challenging them to collect animal "pins" in specific places. There are more than 100 of them hidden around the world, including some here in NYC. Each pin is sort of like a virtual trading card for the animal, with basic information and a short quiz. Most of the NYC pins are hidden in the Wildlife Conservation Society's Zoos but there are a few elsewhere that are harder to find (we haven't located them yet). There is a map to help you, though. As you close in on a pin, it pops up for collection in the game. During our Central Park Zoo visit we snapped up Dash, a Gentoo penguin and Charlie, a California sea lion. Of course, you can only collect pins in your area, so unless you're willing to travel the world to find them, you'll need to trade with other players to collect them all. (My son is currently desperate for the orca pin from Australia.)
So while I'm normally a screen-time stickler, I have been a bit lax when I see my son playing Habitat since I know he's learning good environmental lessons. Plus his game play may actual result in a lower Con Ed bill for our family!
The Habitat app is FREE and available for iPhone, iPad and Android.
Find out about other cool educational apps for kids in our Geek Guide.