I have just returned from an 18-day trip with my 10 year old son in which we completed nearly 30 adventures. From Cumbria to the Shetland Islands, we have climbed mountains, jumped down gorges, slept on wild beaches and rescued a stranded sheep by sea kayak – all part of our Route 125 project with National Geographic and Toyota. Despite the wild nature of our explorations technology played a significant role in shaping our experiences – for both good and bad.
As a parent and educator (I make the distinction, but all parents are educators) I always struggled with finding the right balance between my son’s screen time vs other activities. While some children are deprived of ‘wild time’ connected to nature, so too are some children deprived of important ‘screen time’ to technology. Wild and screen time are often pitched against each other in a simplistic and dichotomised way, but the reality is far more complex.
Nature and technology can conflict, complement, supplement and/or converge in a multitude of different ways. During our micro-expedition, Minecraft on our iPad definitely distracted Seb to his detriment on a number of occasions. He had to be asked not to play while on ferries between Scottish islands in order to be forced to notice castles and wildlife, something he enjoyed but needed help to experience. While I am a great supporter of Minecraft and can see a wide range of creative possibilities for its use in the wild, my experience was that it often conflicted with the many alternative opportunities around us.
We also took a laptop with us that included a range of software. Seb used it to write stories, many of which were influenced by the people we met and places we visited. When we climbed Slieve Donnard (the highest mountain in Northern Ireland) we loaded up GarageBand, a piece of software for composing music. Inspired by the cold winds, menacing clouds and deep quarries we collaboratively created a piece of dark dance music. Both storytelling and musical composition have helped Seb to tune into places in a deeper way, helping him to think through, sense and make sense of the places we have explored. Without a doubt, these complimentary uses of technology have been highly rewarding.
We have also used technology to supplement our time in the wild. WhatsApp is an application for sending messages, holding group conversations, sharing locations, photos and videos. Being able to communicate with friends and family may not be essential to have a ‘wild time’ but being connected helped us to feel secure and grounded in place, helping us take comfort from knowing we could reach out to those close to us. Enjoying nature does not have to mean feeling emotionally remote, even if we are physically remote. SMS and phone calls fit into this category too.
Finally, we have used technologies that converge with the wild, dovetailing into what I call a kind ‘wildware’ that has inspired or supported our enjoyment of nature and wild places. GeoCaching, Mission:Explore and Wild Time are just three examples of applications, services and games that not only inspire ways to engage with nature, but also link us to a wider network of users that can offer a sense of community even when we are remote from or do not even know each other. In some cases these technologies can even record data such as wildlife sightings that can help conservation programmes and so nature itself.
Exploring is often boring and gruelling. Waiting for ferries or even climbing a mountain for hours can become dull especially for an active and youthful mind. When Seb and I climbed Ben Nevis we were taking breaks every 20 minutes until we started playing word ‘association’ and ‘listing’ games. Once these games started we walked for 90 minutes uphill without a break. The game may not have been ‘screen time’ but it was definitely a distraction from our surroundings and a myriad of learning opportunities. Playing Minecraft while waiting for a ferry may also have had a distracting effect, but Seb’s overall experience was improved because his boredom had been dealt with.
Some of the moments I struggled with most were when camping. Some nights we played cards (traditional use of time when sheltering from rain and wind) and some of the time we played JetPack (a game on the iPhone that involves JetPacking through a maze of mean things that want to hurt you). While the traditionalist in me wanted us to play more cards, feeling that the JetPack screen time was somehow ‘wrong’, we were still engaged in collaborative and shared game-play even if the interface and skills were different.
As a geographer all of these issues fascinate me. How we use technology not only changes how we make sense of and record places but also how we create them, experience them and construct them in our minds. When we pick the technologies to research, navigate and share places this inevitably shapes and filters how we sense and process the places we are discovering. Just like people, places have much to offer us. By thinking about what we want from our relationships with places before we visit them and considering the technologies best suited to facilitate these, we are far more likely to have positive experiences that meet our expectations.
While nature and technology often compete for attention, the reality is that they can complement, supplement and converge in extremely positive ways. Like sweets though, its the responsibility of adults to moderate how much of different kinds of screen time that children get (until they have learnt do this for themselves). We give Seb 30 minutes screen time a day (if he has done his ‘homework’) unless he earns more (by doing good things) or is doing something creative. In my mind the answer in the wild time vs. screen time debate is clear; it’s all about picking appropriate technologies and using them in moderation. What is appropriate and moderate will be different for every person, place and situation, something I need to continue to remember as we keep exploring as a family.
I am currently working with Kitson Kazynka and the team at National Geographic Kids to put the final touches to Mission: Wolf Rescue, the second in a news series of books that helps young people to learn about endangered animals. Working with some of the best wolf experts in the world, the book introduces a range of issues that wolves face and what we can do to help them.
While on Route 125 Seb and I completed an adventure to walk with predators in Cumbria. We were delighted to meet Maska and Kajika, two timber wolf pups, at Predator Experience. We explored a local wood with the young hybrid wolves and their handlers Dee and Daniel. the video above gives you a glimpse into our time with them. You can read the full adventure report here.
The traditional aim of football is to kick a ball into a goal. The aim of expeditionary football is the use the ball to creatively explore a place, the goal being to discover unexpected things – who knows where the ball will roll…. It’s also a great way to reduce the amount of moaning children do when ascending a long hill, so it’s a great parenting tactic too.
When visiting Thrunton Woods in Northumberland we played an epic downhill game, making use of a number of steep mountain bike tracks and avoiding ‘wilder’ and more ‘natural’ places that we did not want to disturb. We did have a couple of tumbles, but they were worth it. Next time you go into the woods, why not take a football?
A good friend, Brendon McConnell, shared The Rapha Continental films with me this morning. We’d been chatting about a small adventure I went on this weekend with Seb (my son) to go hill rolling beside the Uffington White Horse. 110 metres long and around 3000 years old, it’s a great place to roll down ancient hills and to top it off, the landscape itself is called ‘rolling downland’. It was actually a confused conversation because Brendon was thinking about the Westbury White Horse in Wiltshire (a baby in comparison at just over 200 years old) that features in this film by Rapha, who make clothing for cyclists.
There is a whole series of poetic and beautifully made videos that manage to record and represent different senses of places. This film of the Icknield Way, including the Westbury White Horse, contrasts country with urban life so strongly that I actually felt a physical reaction when I watched it. These videos are such great examples of the importance of place(s) in our lives, and how exploration can deepen our understanding and enjoyment of them.
I’ve not been blogging as much as I would like to, either here or on The Geography Collective’s blog. We are currently in the final stages of developing Discover Explore, a project for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad that is part of a strand called Discovering Places. The purpose of the project is to help young people and families discover, explore and learn from new places in new ways.
The Discover Explore pilot focusses along the Great Glen in Scotland. The Glen stretches down a geological fault between Fort William and Inverness. It is here where you will find Britain’s oldest rocks and what is left of a mountain range that used to be as high as the Himalayas. Discover Explore covers and bridges some of the inseparable natural and human heritage of the area including pre-historic hunters, Picts, Clans, Jacobites, myths and legends including a number of different Loch Ness Monsters.
Parts of Discover Explore are about exploring to discover specific places.. find which street a photograph was taken on and you can win points. Others are far more subjective challenges that only the explorer will know how well their mission has been done. They can still win honesty points though.
Some of the missions are text based, others include pictures and some include listening to sounds. You can listen to two different interviews that are used in Discover Explore here. One is of a full time and professional Loch Ness Monster hunter.
Discover Explore is young and will grow over coming weeks and months. May you be a family visiting the Great Glen or a teacher anywhere in the world looking for some activity ideas, I hope you enjoy it when it goes live.
To be one of the first to learn when it goes live visit the holding page here.