School may be out for summer, but this is the season for one of the most immersive learning experiences a child can have: the chance to explore a new place. Encountering and adapting to novel settings gives a huge boost to the brain. Whether it’s a weekend excursion or a far-flung overseas adventure, summer travels give children great practice in orienting themselves, observing their surroundings and building a mental map of an unfamiliar locale. Travel also offers opportunities to show courage, whether it’s by jumping off the dock for the first time or saying hello in a new language.
And what better way is there to build anticipation for a family trip than to preview the destination—and perhaps the route—on Google Earth? Just in time for summer vacations, the groundbreaking app has released its first important update since 2012, with enhancements that make it a true “geobrowser” for globetrotters. The update is also more child-friendly, with guided adventures tailored specifically for young visitors to the site. At the moment, the updated app is only available for download on a Chrome browser or an Android device, but it will be released soon for Mac OS and Apple devices.
By combining sharp, full-color aerial images from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite and street-view videos collected on a global scale, Google Earth can now transport you to almost any place on Earth—and display it in 3D. For its new Voyager feature, under the ship’s wheel icon, the Google Earth team is creating 360-degree virtual maps of some of the most compelling places on Earth. Within these 3D models, you can soar like a bird over the Grand Canyon, plunge down the icy face of Everest to base camp, get a Godzilla-eye view of Tokyo or float through the Taj Mahal. These 3D experiences include interior spaces—buildings by Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, or the sumptuous interior of the Teatro alla Scala in Milan—and even a fly-by of a bustling penguin colony on Antarctica. Children will be particularly fascinated by the collection This Is Home, which lets them wander through traditional homes like a Bedouin tent and a houseboat made from reeds on Lake Titicaca in Peru.
Beyond the fun of flying over Central Park like one of its resident falcons, Voyager also offers narrated tours led by expert guides. After the oceanographer Sylvia Earle pointed out to the Google Earth team that the app depicts a mere 30 percent of our planet’s surface, Google invited Earle to lead underwater tours of the oceans. You can now scuba-dive with Earle through a coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico and a shipwreck in the Caribbean. To get into places hidden under the cover of trees, Google partnered with BBC Earth to create tours of forest biomes, with David Attenborough introducing the birds of paradise on Papua New Guinea, and Jane Goodall the chimpanzee families in Gombe National Park in Tanzania. (One male chimp there is even named Google.) For young children, Muppets from Sesame Street introduce the sights in their home countries, which include Bangladesh, South Africa, Nigeria, Mexico and India. So far Google Earth offers more than 50 guided tours, with more arriving each week.
There’s even a new “Feeling Lucky” button, under the dice icon. Click on it, and you’ll be jumped at random to one of 20,000 places around the globe; a Knowledge Card pops up to tell you more about what you’re seeing. If you come across a really spectacular vista as you circle the globe in 80 clicks, you can take an instant “Postcard” of it and send it to a friend, who can then zoom to the same vantage point.
The more familiar features of Google Earth—its street views and panoramic shots of local neighborhoods—are also rewarding to explore with your child, and let them see their home and favorite landmarks from new angles. Indeed, observing the change in perspective between a low street view and a high aerial view helps children grasp how maps work. They can see, from a bird’s-eye view, how the distinguishing details on the facades of individual houses disappear and roofs turn into blocky shapes, while features like roads and rivers become more prominent and important. With an aerial view of their own neighborhood, a child begins to understand the abstract conventions used in maps.
It’s said that only two basic plots have come down to us from ancient literature: the quest, in which the hero/heroine encounters strange new worlds, and the return home, in which he or she sees home with new eyes. With the newest version of Google Earth, you can have both of these experiences: the wonder of stumbling upon fantastical new places, and the surprise of seeing one’s own backyard through the distant lens of a satellite.
Wishing you fair winds—both real and virtual—on all your travels this summer,