Geocaching has very broad appeal and offers a wide variety of benefits. The benefits of involvement in geocaching will vary according to how a person chooses to engage in the activity, but the potential benefits are immense. Clearly, physical benefits are incurred when people become actively involved in the search, but people will also accrue important social benefits from engaging in the act of geocaching. The potential educational benefits are profound—a quick Internet search reveals powerful examples of how geocaching can be used to teach history, geography, social studies, math, and science. Geocaching also teaches people to have respect for the environment through positive environmental stewardship.
One of the chief benefits of geocaching is that it involves being physically active. The level of physical activity will vary according to the person and the caches that are chosen. If you are organizing a geocaching experience or program, you can tailor the level of activity involved specifically to the individual or individuals who will be participating. Additionally, you can encourage participants to continue their involvement in geocaching independently as a way to integrate more physical activity into their life. By plotting a series of geocaches to be visited in sequence, you can create a course for groups or individuals to follow. Some participants might run the course trying to find the caches as quickly as possible; others might walk the course or run between some caches and walk between others. In short, geocaching can be used to carefully individualize the level of physical activity that people receive as a result of their participation.
Linking geocache locations as previously described creates something similar to an orienteering course; participants use the geocaches as a form of point-to-point racing in which the "race" is self-paced. In this scenario, varying the location and the type of cache would help maintain interest and allow the overall distance to be tailored specifically to meet individual needs. The fastest, fittest athletes would visit more cache sites over a far longer distance than the slowest nonathletes would. Simply resolving to hunt for a cache once or twice a week can help people increase their level of physical activity. People seeking to exercise through geocaching could vary their caching between parkland and urban settings or could use a combination of both. Varying the environment in which caches are being hunted is another way to build and maintain motivation.
Whatever the location, the distances involved, and the level of intensity of the participants, the element of adventure associated with looking for something adds a level of interest that makes geocaching more than simply running or walking. This element provides an additional benefit. In short, beyond the physiological benefits of the exercise, participants also receive the psychological benefits associated with the challenge and subsequent success of seeking and finding a cache.
Many people feel a true sense of accomplishment in finding a cache, especially if it’s well hidden. Children in particular can build self-esteem through the sense of accomplishment that comes with finding a geocache. This may be especially profound in children who are not well coordinated and perhaps not very successful in sports and more traditional physical activities. Geocaching gives people at all levels of physical ability an opportunity to be successful. It provides a form of physical activity that does not demand high levels of physical skill. In addition, geocaching offers the camaraderie that comes with belonging and being part of a group with common interests. People can take part in online communities of geocachers who discuss and exchange their geocaching stories, as well as event caches where geocachers gather in groups with other local cachers to socialize and talk caching.
The social benefits of geocaching are not limited to a sense of belonging or a sense of success and accomplishment at finding a cache. When used with a group of kids or adults as a group experience, caching can provide a powerful medium for developing group cohesion, building cooperation, and fostering communication. Recreation leaders, physical education teachers, and group leaders in a variety of settings frequently design activities to encourage group problem solving. This is a way to foster improved communication within a group of people who interact or work together. Geocaching provides an ideal forum for group challenges of this nature. A diverse set of skills is often required to find certain caches or perhaps to solve the puzzles within a mystery cache. As a result, a group often needs to call on the unique contributions and inherent strengths of all its members. The potential social skills learned in this situation make geocaching an effective activity for youth groups in various settings (e.g., church groups, Boys and Girls Clubs, after-school programs, and urban leadership settings).
In many respects, the potential educational benefits of geocaching are limited only by one’s imagination. Many popular geocaches (published on geocaching.com) are located at or near sites of historical or geographical significance. Many of these caches will contain information about the location. Some will focus on well-known information, while others will focus on more arcane trivia that will enrich the knowledge of those who find the cache. The process of setting a cache can also be very educational. If you are organizing a geocaching experience in an area of historical or geographical significance, you might set a series of caches that you don’t publish—that is, you set them temporarily just for your group and do not list them on the Internet. You could also assign the group you are working with the task of hiding a temporary geocache for others in their party to find. In this case, you might add the stipulation that the cache must contain information about the significance of the location.
In setting or searching for a temporary cache, the geocachers must learn something about the area in which the cache is located. At its simplest, this will involve learning the basic geography of the area and perhaps discovering a road or trail that they had not explored before. In an urban environment, geocachers may discover a tree, a bench, or a memorial plaque they had never seen before. Geocachers may also discover a new hiding place within a familiar location. At its most complex, this will involve learning about the history or culture of a particular area. Whatever a cache leads to, the process of finding the cache will usually stir the geocacher’s curiosity to the point of learning something. As geocachers learn more about the area in which they are caching, they will have a natural tendency to pay attention to the setting and their surroundings. Most people who go geocaching in the area where they live discover something new about a place they thought they knew, or they find out something new about their local environment. Geocaching in unfamiliar locations can be exciting from the standpoint of exploring somewhere new, but it will also often introduce you to aspects of a town or city that you might otherwise have missed.
Many instructional ideas are presented later in the book, but one of the most inventive ways to bring geocaching into the classroom is through the use of travel bugs. The basic concept is that a designated object, or travel bug, travels from one cache site to another by being picked up and dropped off by visiting geocachers. A travel bug is a trackable item that is easily identified by a dog tag–style label; the dog tag is stamped with the geocaching.com Web site and an identification number (figure 1.2). To create a travel bug, geocachers purchase a dog tag from the geocaching.com Web site and firmly attach it (by means of the accompanying chain) to an object of their choice. The travel bug is then registered on the geocaching.com Web site using the unique ID number listed on the dog tag. During the registration process, the travel bug’s creator assigns a name, destination, and purpose to the travel bug. This information is stored on the Web site so people can look up the travel bug.
Travel bugs could be used to launch an instructional unit or theme within the school year by having the bug sent to visit sites around the country or the world. The sites that the travel bug is sent to visit might then be featured in some way through the curriculum as the school year progresses. For example, students studying the Civil War as part of a U.S. history class might send a travel bug out to relevant battlegrounds. The travel bug could include instructions asking the finder to take digital images of the battlegrounds and to post them to the Web site or e-mail them to the class. With careful planning, a teacher might have students help send out a travel bug at the beginning of a school year; this travel bug could visit key sites that will be studied during the year and then return to school by the end of the school year. Other examples of how travel bugs might be used to pique people’s interest will be presented throughout the book (refer to chapter 4 for a detailed description of travel bugs).
The mere process of setting a new cache or registering a travel bug can itself be an educational experience, particularly for children and youth. The process involves rules and guidelines that must be adhered to before the cache or travel bug can become listed on the geocaching.com Web site. Aside from finding and reading all the guidelines posted at geocaching.com, a great deal of problem solving and a myriad of decisions are involved in setting a geocache. Decisions must be made about the type of cache, the precise location of the cache, and the type of container that is most appropriate to the cache site. With the traditional cache, decisions must also be made about the initial cache contents. Researching and designing a new cache could easily become a group project that will test the participants’ social and group work skills.
Social studies is another popular content area for educators and activity leaders to focus on through geocaching. There is no need to travel for the activity—by placing a series of temporary caches in the ways described previously, you could have your geocachers discover a wealth of information about any given topic without leaving your regular meeting site. If you were running a kids camp on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, for example, a series of eight or nine temporary cache sites could be used to yield a wealth of information about Martin Luther King Jr. This information could in turn yield the answers to a series of questions about his life. In this example, the campers would all learn something about Martin Luther King Jr. while having fun geocaching and being engaged in an enjoyable physical activity.
Geocachers use a handheld GPS unit that relies on the use of coordinates for longitude and latitude, and the GPS unit is required to communicate with a series of orbiting satellites. These aspects of geocaching provide some obvious educational content in terms of geography, math, and science. Whether or not you are using geocaching in an educational setting, people’s natural curiosity provides an opportunity for them to learn a great deal while being fully engaged in a fun and exciting activity. Simple Cartesian coordinates can provide a lead-in to explaining the coordinates used in geocaching. Even if you’re working with children who cannot fully understand longitude and latitude, geocaching will enable them to see a practical application for the math of coordinates. In a similar fashion, you can introduce the many aspects of science that are embraced by the technology used in geocaching. These aspects take on added meaning when participants are engaged in the activity. Specific examples of integrating academic content into geocaching are addressed in part II of this book.