It’s no secret that the kids of today have a vastly different upbringing to those that came in the generations before them.
Tablets, mobile phones and computers are commonplace, as are the multitude of games and activities available on them targeted at children from as young as two years of age.
Consequently, this technology-immersed world kids are growing up in impacts on their play. A recent study by the UK’s National Trust found today’s children only spend half as much time playing outside as their parents did, as kids of today were on average spending just over four hours a week outside, compared to the 8.2 hours a week their parents spent in the outdoors.
This was a thought that had struck Wild Eyes co-creators Paul Ward and Vicky Pope, who are both parents and New Zealand based film producers.
Ward has produced for the Discovery Channel’s shows internationally and is the founding editor of NZ On Screen, while Pope is the producer of the Robert Sarkies' feature Two Little Boys and award-winning documentary Gardening with Soul.
Pope says her and Ward see their connection to nature as an integral part of their New Zealander childhoods, but they recognised their kids aren’t having the same experience.
“We looked at our kids and realised they’re growing up in a very different way to the one we experienced with more screen time, stranger danger, OSH regulations, traffic safety issues, structured lives,” she says.
“The consequence of this is they’re spending less time in unsupervised play outdoors and are less connected with nature than when we grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”
She says the idealist New Zealand childhood of roaming and playing freely outdoors 24/7 is a bit of a myth.
“This generation has less opportunity to explore, discover, take physical risks than previously; all those experiences that we know are fundamental to helping children develop and engage with the natural world around them,” she says.
The solution Pope and Ward came up with is Wild Eyes, a site designed by award-winning digital design agency Salted Herring and funded by NZ on Air, MBIE’s Nation of Curious Minds innovation fund and Unesco.
It’s targeted at kids aged 8 to 12 years from all across New Zealand, as well as their teachers and parents.
It allows kids to create profiles and then pick outdoor missions to complete, before uploading photographic evidence to prove they’ve done the tasks. It also leverages rewards, different levels and interaction with the site’s other users, much like many other successful online games.
The missions available have been crafted from the input of conservation organisations, educators, scientists and the kids themselves.
Missions include faking the discovery of a moa, being fully disguised in an indoor or outdoor environment and brewing a homegrown tea from native plant leaves.
MBIE’s Nation of Curious Minds trialled the activities in schools around the country to get children’s direct input.
“The most common reason kids gave for not playing outside was the weather, so while the site offers mostly outdoor missions, lots of them can be done inside too,” Pope says.
While using technology to get children to interact with the outdoors may seem counterintuitive, Pope says it’s appealing to kids within the digital space they operate in.
“Our approach is that being didactic and patronising isn't going to work,” she says. “Instead we need to go to the screens New Zealand kids are congregating around and then use those screens to incentivise them to get offline. So we’re using language, digital reward systems - levels, likes, comments - that appeal to Kiwi digital natives on their own terms.”
But the site aims to do more than creating fun missions for kids to embark on. Pope says the bigger objective at play is ensuring the next generation of New Zealanders care enough about the environment to protect it in the future.
She points to a quote by David Attenborough to surmise the idea: “No one will protect what they don’t care about and no one will care about what they have never experienced.”
If kids lose touch with the outdoors, she says they won’t see the point in looking after the earth – and that’s a problem going forward with issues like climate change.
“We want to help create the next generation of Kiwi environmental kaitiaki (guardians). We do this by giving Kiwi kids foundation nature experiences, so they care enough to look after the environment in the future.”
She says in the end, she hopes the site will take a backseat and the kids will inspire each other to get outdoors through their interactions with each other on Wild Eyes.
“That’s what’s most cool about this all - if we’re successful, it will be because the kids are the ones inspiring each other to engage.”
Check out the Wild Eyes website here.