Online scavenger hunts add digital twist to Behrend outreach programs

A young boy holds a smartphone while completing a virtual scavenger hunt.

Penn State Behrend's office of Youth Education Outreach is adding free activities every week through a smartphone app called GooseChase.

Credit: Canstock photo

ERIE, Pa. — With schools out and summer camps canceled, many parents are in a pinch: How do you socially distance your kids’ schedules without surrendering the entire summer to Fortnite?

“That can be a challenge,” said Melanie Ford, director of Youth Education Outreach at Penn State Behrend, “but families are adapting, as they have since the start of the pandemic. There are lots of ways to promote creative play and structure opportunities for enrichment learning.”

Ford’s summers typically center on Behrend’s College for Kids, a six-week program that last year included more than 100 half- and full-day courses. This year, because of the coronavirus, her team migrated to a virtual platform — a free smartphone app called GooseChase.

A “Behrend Summer Fun” game within the app lists a series of missions each week. Players earn points — and an opportunity for prizes — by completing each mission. A child who photographs and properly identifies a bird earns 100 points, for example. A DIY slip-and-slide is worth 100 more.

We talked with Ford about the app, cooking with math and other ways she threads learning into everyday activities.

Q: What led you to a Behrend-themed digital goose chase?

Ford: Because of the need for social distancing, we can’t say, ‘Come to Behrend and build your skills at our basketball camp.’ What we can say is, ‘Show us your moves. Have a parent film you playing basketball in the driveway.’ It’s a different approach, but it still gets kids dribbling.

Q: How important is it to offer children enrichment opportunities throughout the summer?

Ford: It’s essential, especially now. At the start of the pandemic, we were in a routine, with a clear academic plan, and the whole thing got tossed upside down. The schools are going to do what they can to make sure these kids don’t miss a beat. But even a little bit of enrichment over the summer will help kids maintain those math, reading and writing skills, so they don’t lose any momentum before they go back to school.

Q: How do you encourage that?

Ford: You start by asking them questions, or giving them challenges that build on whatever it is they’re interested in. If they like playing with Legos, for example, you can challenge them to build something. Can they build a bridge from one side of a kitchen tile to another? Can they do it again with half as many Legos?

Q: What if they can’t?

Ford: They still had to think about it. I’m a firm believer that you learn just as much from something that doesn’t work as you do from something that does. That’s engineering.

Q: What about math?

Ford: One of the best ways to learn fractions is by doubling a recipe, or cutting it in half. Say you’re going to make brownies, but you only have a one-quarter-cup measuring cup. If you have to use that to do everything, you learn how to scale up, or scale down. And at the end you have brownies.

You can do this with exercise, too. Say you’re going for a family walk. You can ask your child, “How far do you think it is from here to there? How many paces will it take for you to get there?” You can use a Fitbit, or an app on your phone, to track the distance, and you can work with your child to calculate how many steps it took her to walk a mile.

A: How often do you try to incorporate this kind of learning?

Ford: It depends on the child, and the environment. For me, it was part of everything we ever did. When we went to the grocery store, we talked about food prices and which cereal was the most nutritional. The trick is to work it in. If you show that it’s relevant, and fun, they’ll go along with it.

It’s OK to take a break, though. In a normal school year, you do school for 180 days, and then you take the summer off. I think we still need to do that. This has been a challenging year, and kids need to take a bit of a breather. Their parents do, too.

That down time is perfectly OK. It’s good for kids to be a little bored, sometimes. That forces them to be more creative in their play. And you can always slip in some enrichment.