A few new online map applications could be great fun for older kids as well as adults:
- Wikisky is a detailed sky map with constellations, astronomical photos, and more. Try clicking the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) button (the leftmost blue button) to see galaxies galore, or click “Astro Photo” or “The Collection” to see individual objects.
If you or your child are into astronomy, you may also want to try the free Celestia space simulation software or the Stellarium planetarium program. Wikisky has an edge because it requires no download. If you plan to take your laptop out into a field while stargazing, however, the offline Stellarium is the better choice. Celestia is great for future astronauts since it lets you zoom around in 3D and add spacecraft, real and imagined, to your journey. (It works best with a reasonably new computer and a good graphics card.)
- Google Maps, while not new, has now added a My Maps tab so people can create personalized maps complete with placemarks, descriptive information, and more. After (or before) your next family vacation, let your budding cartographer create a map of your destination and points of interest, along with his or her annotations.
- Finally, for the whole family, if you’re outdoorsy types: Google Earth, Google Maps on steroids, has added a hiking trails layer that shows trails, directions to trailheads, difficulty ratings, and sightseeing information. Lifehacker has more on this new feature.
While older kids will get the most out of these applications, don’t underestimate their attraction, at a basic level, to younger ones. My three-year-old loves zooming around Google Earth, especially when I activate the National Parks layer or the like so he can pop up photos of different places.