After a morning of canopy zip-lines adults are usually happy to grab a drink, lounge by the pool, or kick back in a hammock for a nap.
However, parents know the kids will barely be out of their harness and helmet before they ask “What’s next?!”
If the parents have the energy for another workout and around $300 to $500 to spare ($60-$100 per person times four or five family members for white water rafting for example…) they can choose from dozens of organized tours.
If you (or your parents) are too tired or too broke for another professionally guided adrenaline tour there are a dozen “do it yourself” answers to the question “What’s next?” listed below.
Inexpensive or free things to keep kids of all ages busy, engaged and entertained on vacation in Costa Rica
apps | hydrological engineering | retro | other kids | nature | slackline | collections | helicopter races | swimming | magnify | underwater basket weaving | binoculars | the beach | videos
Natural History Lessons
You may think you need to read all 810 pages of Janzen’s “Costa Rican Natural History,” plus fifty or sixty other books, spend years tramping the jungle and hold an advanced degree in science to be qualified to teach tropical biology.
You’d be right if you were applying for a position at Duke University’s OTS Field Station but if a bunch of kids are your audience you can orchestrate a natural history lesson without any prior education or credentials.
I adopted the “make up a story and check it out later” approach described below when Sue threatened (quite rightly) to quit going on tours with me if I didn’t stop “lecturing.”
All you have to do is look around for something unusual – big winding buttress roots, two inch spines on a trunk, a pile of band-aids, a hole in a mud bank.
Take pictures, check it up close with a magnifying glass, smell it (I strongly discourage tasting), poke it with a stick, if the subject is small (carefully) pick up a sample. Then everyone is challenged to make up a story explaining what you found… What is it?, How does it work?, Why is it shaped like that? – maybe take some notes on the different theories.
When you return to the lodge continue the exploration by trying to find out what story scientists tell to explain what you’ve seen.
You can usually get a pretty good start by just asking the staff or resident guides at your lodge. Even if they aren’t guides by profession many Ticos know a remarkable amount about nature. If they don’t know or you’re isolated at a vacation rental house where there’s no one to ask then the answer is available on the internet.
Special Googling Instructions – It can be very difficult to search for something when you don’t really know what it is. I’ve found a two step approach that almost always gives good results.
1) Enter a long search that describes what the thing looks like. For example if you found one of the seeds on the left of the picture above you might search “tropical seed or nut that looks like a hamburger.” However, instead of a normal search choose “Images” and then scan through the pictures to find one that looks right and click the “Visit page” button. For the hamburger like nut search you’ll probably end up on this great site http://waynesword.palomar.edu/mucuna.htm which has tons of great information.
2) If you want even more information the second part of the special Google search is to find the scientific name (Latin) for whatever you’re looking at. It’s usually pretty easy to spot either on the image search or one of the webpages you found in the first round. Just look for Latin words in italics – and in this case you find Mucuna sloanei. Google again using the scientific name for a search term and selecting “All” instead of “Images“. You should easily find the Wikipedia entry https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mucuna and several other informative pages.
So in summary it’s
long description >> “Images” search >> scientific name >> “All” search
Another Google Approach – Using an AI scheme Google is starting to try to match your photo of something with other photos from the web. Basically an automated version of Step 1) above. It’s hit and miss but if you can get a photo with a “plain” background (concrete, a table top – anything that’s just one color and no shapes) it sometimes works pretty well.
Using a browser on your computer or phone go to images.google.com then upload an image or drag and drop an image in the search box. Select “visually similar images” on the results page.
Apps & Downloads for Kids
We encourage everyone to disconnect and actually experience Costa Rica but the reality is most youngsters will have a Kindle Fire, i-pad, smart phone or other device.
Whichever electronic nanny they use it may be possible to sneak a little education in between Candy Crush gaming sessions if you get a few appropriate applications ahead of time.
My favorite is StarWalk – star, planet, galaxy and constellation finder. It costs a couple of bucks but there are free apps that do similar things. Away from San José there is relatively little light pollution in Costa Rica and the night sky explodes with celestial objects.
For many kids it’s their first glimpse of the Milky Way and being able to identify other planets with the naked eye is fun too. If you have binoculars you’ll be able to see Nebulae, look for the rings around Saturn, and see if you can identify the significant craters on the moon.
The low tech version of the star finder I grew up with requires a bit more thought and effort but works great too.
Birds & Wildlife – unfortunately there are not any good bird or wildlife apps specifically for Costa Rica. We’ve been trying to get our friends that own Zona Tropical publications to use the data and images from the excellent print guides they produce to make electronic guides but haven’t been able to convince them. Until they do there are a few options.
The Audubon Guides are apps that are specific to the more temperate regions of North America but there’s huge overlap with Costa Rica from migrants and species that inhabit the Everglades of Southern Florida. Unfortunately you won’t find many of the fun species like Macaws and Toucans.
The Birds of Costa Rica Field Guide book is available as a Kindle download from Amazon. It’s not as user friendly as an app and doesn’t include calls or advanced search features but the kids can find and learn about birds from it.
Maybe the best option isn’t an app at all – the laminated guides described below.
Tides & Moon – Dozens of apps provide information on the tides and phases of the moon that can be used for everything from figuring out when the waves will be best for boogie boarding to when you should look for sea turtles nesting. We also publish monthly calendars with all the information for every day of the upcoming year.
Google Maps – If you have a young navigator help them download the free local maps from Google and let them GPS track where you drive or hike. Who knows they might grow up and come to work for us updating the Waterproof Travel Map of Costa Rica.
There are millions of apps out there and more every day. We’ve only included a few of our favorites but if you know of others that are good let us know!
Retro “apps” – AKA Real Books & Gizmos
The Star Finder makes it more fun to check out the night sky which is probably much darker in Costa Rica than where you’re from. You should easily be able to identify the Milky Way, planets and several constellations.
Wildlife Laminates from Rainforest Publications are a fun accessible way to identify birds and animals or find out which species are common in the ecozones you’re traveling through. Our favorite is the general guide but there are more than a dozen titles of laminated fold out pocket nature guides for Costa Rica – Marine, Mammals & Tracks, Reptiles, Amphibians, Birds of five distinct regions, Butterflies, Arachnids and Insects, Medicinal Plants, Tropical Trees, Flowers, Tropical Fruits and Orchids.
Pencil and Paper for drawing, journaling and taking notes. A company called Rite in the Rain makes waterproof notebooks and journals. Of course if they have a tablet or other device that’s perfect for keeping a journal and most have some sort of “draw” or “paint” app included.
Any small pre-trip gift can help get kids excited about the upcoming explorations. It never hurts to have more Headlamps or Flashlights, a Laser Pointer can be amazingly helpful for showing what you’re looking at in the forest (green shows up much better than red in the daylight), their own Swiss Army Knife or other multi-tool can include either of the above and a magnifying glass to boot.
The kids love flying my drone but I only have one so the helicopters and other “aircraft” they ended up flying off the balcony of the villa at Punta Dakota were more low tech.
When one of the kids found what seemed to be a weird pile of used band aids they asked what they were and I explained they were like the helicopters from the maple tree in their front yard back in Colorado.
Anyone who grew up around maple trees probably had competitions to see who could keep their samara – the proper name for the flat thin maple nut with the curved papery wing – airborne the longest. Maples are temperate trees and don’t occur in the tropical forests of Costa Rica but there are literally dozens of trees that use similar dispersal mechanisms to the “helicopters” or “whirlybirds.”
I felt completely vindicated for being what my wife calls an obsessive pack rat when I could reach into my pocket and pull out a couple of other types of wind dispersed seeds that I just happened to pick up while walking along the forest margins of the beach that morning.
Within minutes the kids invented helicopter races. Running up and down the stairs to the second floor balcony testing which type stayed in the air the longest or traveled farthest away. Foraging around the lawn and surrounding forest for new shapes and sizes.
Soon someone tried holding the seed pods in front of ants who unwittingly walked aboard and were launched over the railing for a twirling ride to the lawn. The kids were convinced that the ants ran in circles after they landed because they were dizzy from spinning but I suggested it was just what ants do to get their bearings when plopped in a new environment. This initiated an hour of experimentation involving tiny ant passengers on rotary and non-rotary seeds.
They moved on to caterpillars and other insects unfortunate enough to wander into the laboratory zone with mixed results but there has to be a future high school science fair project in there for one of them.
Investigating seed dispersal mechanisms and effectiveness entertained five kids for more than three hours which is 15 kid/hours of fun. Applying the “international fun conversion factor” that is equivalent to almost $1,000 worth of laser tag and bumper boats. They also burned over 500 calories each and were definitely ready for bed that night.
Introducing helicopter races had the added bonus that everywhere we went for the next week the kids were all hunting new and unique seed dispersal examples. It even transformed a potential whine fest while waiting in the parking lot for 11 people to use the only functioning restroom at a service station into an entertaining natural history lesson.
Actual Helicopter Races
If your job happens to be mapping and exploring Costa Rica you might have a drone or two hanging around…
Swimming Pools & Holes
It would be just plain silly to stay anywhere in Costa Rica without a swimming pool.
I remember loading into the family truckster for trips across the U.S. and Canada when I was a kid and my brothers, sister and I only wanted to know one thing about the place we were staying – “does it have a pool.” We’d happily play for hours in 60 degree water until we started turning blue and our teeth were chattering. The water is warm in Costa Rica. Stay somewhere with a pool.
Not only are swimming pools very common but in nearly every small community the kids have a local swimming hole, river rope swing or cliff jumping pool. If you see a group of twelve year olds on bicycles with towels around their necks that’s probably where they are headed.
As with any time you’re out unescorted in the “real” Costa Rica please remember you have to be responsible for your own and your kid’s safety. Make sure the water is deep enough to jump, check for currents and life vests or other flotation devices are never a substitute for knowing how to swim well.
That’s me in my younger days on the rope swing in the photo. I was with some kids from Pital who didn’t point out the 12 foot crocodiles in the river until we were headed back to town…
Skipping Rocks & Hydrological Engineering
Parents who regularly hang out with their kids near water are going to say duh, but city dwellers may not have any idea how much time you can while away on the shores of a little stream or lake.
Kids are absolutely fascinated by water. Just start shifting gravel and rocks building anything from a channel (did one once that included a “locks” to raise little boats into a streamside puddle) to a dam and see how quick they join in.
Four of our neighbor kids and I once hiked upstream about an eighth of a mile above a waterfall. We found a spot where erosion from the tiny stream had cut a big pool with a small notch where the water was flowing out. It was ready made for a dam but the water kept washing away the sand and small rocks before we could shut off the flow.
Undaunted we returned the next day armed with a couple of pillow cases to fill and create makeshift sandbags that completely blocked the flow for about fifteen minutes as the water level in the pool rose. Just before the dam over topped we collapsed it releasing a huge surge of water downstream. Years later the kids still talk about how funny it was to “turn off” the waterfall and confuse the other tourists who had hiked up to see it.
Another no-brainer right?
It may be obvious that families enjoy the beach but what’s less obvious is the distinction between the beach as an outing and the beach as something to keep the kids busy. At the top of this article we mentioned the difference between organized activities and “keeping the kids busy.” It’s an important distinction to keep in mind while planning because if you’re staying on the beach it’s a constant source of entertainment but if you’re staying near the beach it’s an organized activity.
If the beach is even a few blocks away it probably means prepping a meal or packing snacks and beverages, then loading the boogie boards, snorkeling gear, umbrellas, towels, sunscreen, etc. in the SUV. There will be momentous decisions about who’s going, who’s staying, who’s babysitting, when you’ll be back.
…If on the other hand you can see the sand and waves from your lounge chair next to the pool everyone can come and go as they please and the mango juice stays cold in the fridge in the room.
As often as we can we stay right on the water and use the beach as a constant source of diversion instead of an outing. It’s well worth the extra expense.
It’s almost instinctual for humans to pick up shells, seeds, smooth rocks, driftwood, sand dollars etc. while strolling along the beach or a forest path.
Cleaning, sorting, organizing and creating things (see below) out of the collected items can occupy downtime around your accommodations.
Please Note: Many beaches and forest trails are in National Parks or otherwise protected areas and removing plants, animals (not a good idea to collect animals anyway), rocks, shells or anything else may be prohibited. Please ask if you aren’t sure and respect the rules and regulations.
Even outside protected areas please consider making your collections temporary or virtual (see below). After enjoying the shells during your stay commit them to the waves to be redistributed on the beach and enjoyed by others. If you do find a couple of really special ones you want to take home please see this article about getting them there.
Professional artists know that sketching, writing and photography can all benefit from having a theme. It’s an easy way to introduce discipline and create a reminder to be creative.
A blank journal or sketchbook can encourage a virtual collection of drawings, poems or observations and phones, tablets and other devices can be used for writing, sometimes drawing, and most have cameras now.
Try to help them pick one or two themes that include things that can be seen reliably and frequently everywhere you’re going – for example houses, trees, food, butterflies. As fun and amazing as it sounds “jungle cats” is probably not a realistic theme.
If they stick with a photography theme or do a series of digital drawings (export them as digital images) when you get home use a service like snapfish to create a bound, printed “photo book” to create a lasting memory and instill a great deal of pride in their accomplishment. They cost about $15-$20 to print.
Borrow some, find some locally or even make some more of your own but more is merrier. The helicopter races described above entertained for hours because we were three families with half a dozen kids to compete, cooperate, change and evolve the game. If it had been just two sisters at the villa it would have ended in a fight within ten minutes.
When you’re booking that dream house on the hill overlooking the beach you may be dreaming of swinging serenely in a hammock but if there are no other kids around you know what you’re going to hear “…mommy?…mommy wake up and play with me…”
Most parents probably aren’t going to try this but I couldn’t resist including it because the kids love it so much. I’ve been walking slackline for about 30 years, no kid grows up in our neighborhood without learning, and there’s always one in my travel kit.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to be able to walk it yourself in order to help your kids learn and there are no big secrets.
Stretch a short line (less than 20 feet more than 12 feet) close to the sand and away from any logs, rocks, lounge chairs or other things that could hurt if you fall on them. Holding someone’s hand or shoulder is a good way to get started and looking straight ahead at a fixed point (like the trunk of the palm tree) helps with balance.
You don’t have to buy the official $150 “slackline package.” Twenty bucks for a couple of d-links or carabiners and 30 feet of 5/8″ supertape tubular webbing is all you really need. It rolls up about the size of a large paperback book and is small enough to fit in a little outside pocket on a backpack.
Binoculars, Monoculars & Spotting Scopes
A monocular is much better for a child for many reasons. First, toy binoculars are crap and generally give a worse view than the naked eye. Second, decent quality binoculars are all sized for adults and just cannot be used by children.
A high quality monocular or small spotting scope is about half the price of binoculars because they are literally half of a pair of binoculars. A monocular is easy to focus, just the right size regardless of how far apart your eyes are and you can say “Arghhhh…!” and pretend you’re a pirate when you’re using one.
Any monocular, scope or binocular can also be used for digi-scoping. Digi-scope means combining a small non-telephoto camera like the one found on any phone, tablet or other device with some sort of telescope to get a close up image of a distant subject. The results can be really amazing and it’s so simple a child can do it!
Just hold the phone camera against the eyepiece of the monocular, point at the subject and let the camera autofocus then snap the shot.
Magnifying Glass & Microscope
The more ways they have to explore and interact with the environment around them the longer it will hold their attention and the more they will learn. There are also phone apps and add-on lenses that allow almost lab microscope quality magnification in a form of close-up macro digiscoping. They vary a lot in price but even the ones under $10 work pretty well. However, a regular old glass magnifying glass has the added (dis?)advantage of doubling as a space star death ray to fry ants…
One really cool subject for magnification is butterfly and moth wings. It’s probably impossible to get a good look at most live ones and despite the huge number of butterflies in Costa Rica you don’t find them just laying around dead very often because the ants (another good subject for magnification) will typically scavenge them pretty quickly. However, butterfly enclosures are very common in Costa Rica and there are usually dozens of wings to be found.
Underwater Basket Weaving
Even if you didn’t take the mythological elective in College it’s fun to see what you can make out of the palm fronds that are a ubiquitous part of landscaping in Costa Rica. We found a pile of palm fronds the gardener had trimmed and my nephew announced that he was going to weave a hat.
That might have been a little ambitious but we ended up with a pretty decent coaster and he found the excuse he’d been looking for the whole trip to use the pointed “big kid” scissors on my Swiss army knife.
The suggestion extends to all sorts of craft projects using found objects from sea shell portraits to reassembling a sea turtle skeleton.
Lets face it. No matter how critical society is of parents who “cop out” and park their kids in front of a video screen, everyone reaches that point where they think “I’d give a thousand bucks for half an hour of peace and quiet!”
There are a number of excellent educational and entertaining videos about Costa Rica. We’d love to just give a list of links but unfortunately there about a gazillion different ways to access, purchase, download and stream video. Without knowing which one you’re using there’s no way to know what you might have included in your preferred service.
Whatever your video platform of choice there are some good keywords to search besides “Costa Rica” Try adding “National Geographic”, “Discovery Channel”, “BBC”, “PBS”, “NOVA” and some specific destinations like “Corcovado”, “Manuel Antonio”, “cloud forest”, “rain forest”
Do NOT assume streaming or downloading video in Costa Rica will be easy, fast or cheap. Many services you might subscribe to are blocked, wifi connections can be very slow, and cellular data for phones or other 3G/4G devices can cost insane amounts of money. Get a good data plan or pre-purchase and download content while you’re at home or you might discover that you literally paid that $1,000 for a half hour of streaming video tranquility.
Please Help Your Fellow Parents
There are some really lame lists of ideas for keeping kids busy on top of the Google results. I must have read 100 variations of “give each child their own small packet of crayons with their coloring book so they don’t fight over colors when sharing one large box.” Seriously, that’s just insulting.
If you’ve found this page genuinely helpful please share it or post a link on a blog because we all know the last thing parents have is spare time to dig through a lot of unhelpful crap designed by internet marketers to secure high search rankings.
A tired out kid is a good kid and the quickest (morally acceptable) path to unconsciousness is playing until exhausted. If you’ve got other original suggestions for entertaining kids while traveling please contact us and share them.