Fake a giant moa discovery mission (Photo: Supplied)

How to get kids out in the wild while staying at home

There’s never been a better time to connect our tamariki with nature than now. Paul Ward, co-founder of the gamified learning platform Wild Eyes, explains how. 

Thanks to Covid-19, cabin fever is on the curriculum for primary and intermediate school kids and their parents. Keeping Kiwi kids active, curious (and awake!) during lockdown – let alone keeping up to speed with schooling – will present a serious whānau challenge. Screen time is going to be irresistible. It’ll be a vital tool enabling kids to learn and socialise with friends, teachers and family. My eldest daughter and her mate are doing daily PE and yoga together via WhatsApp (Corona-cise?) while my youngest did her hip hop class yesterday via Zoom. 

But parents are going to need help and inspiration to avoid 40 days and 40 nights of YouTube make-up tutorials or a fortnight of Fortnite. The kids can thrash Netflix, finish Doom, and clock TikTok.

Or they can turn their square eyes to Wild Eyes’ backyard nature missions for Kiwi kids. 

Wild Eyes is a web app designed to get kids off screens and engaged in New Zealand nature… using screens. The Wild Eyes website provides digital incentives to kids to complete 22 offline (IRL!) activities, ranging from ‘Fake a Moa Discovery’ and ‘Build a Backyard Bivvy’ to ‘Nature Ninja’. Wild Eyes’ missions are designed to be completed at home, in the backyard or at your local park. 

When Wild Eyes launched a couple of years ago, it was in response to a generation of kids being stuck inside on screens and disconnected from nature. A combination of helicopter parenting and financial and time pressures have created a generation of couch kūmara. In AUT’s State of Play survey from 2015, only 15% of New Zealand children were allowed to play in the rain and more than eight out of 10 respondents spent more than two hours a day in front of a screen. Researching Wild Eyes, we met kids who were unable to identify common animals like tūī or a duck, and 10 and 11-year-olds who’d never been to a beach, river or forest, or struck a match.

Lockdown is going to heighten the nature aroha deficit. “Go outside and make sure you’re back by tea-time” is off the cards as Aotearoa looks to manage the biggest public health threat in our lifetimes. For the next few weeks, we’re all insiders.

Why is this important? Connection with nature has long-proven physical and mental health benefits, boosting immunity and well-being. The physical challenges children face in the outdoors teach them to take risks, be independent and develop self-confidence. As Kiwis we know this intrinsically: natural taonga – the silver fern, kiwi – are central to our identity. We know it in our manawa (‘heart’, ‘breath’: a good word for these days).   

Connection with te taiao is crucial for fostering the scientists, growers, conservationists and kaitiaki of the future. People are much more likely to care about the health of our rivers and ngahere (forest) if you’ve grown up doing bombs in them or receiving kai from them.

In the lockdown, tens of thousands of kids are going to deep dive into e-learning. But nearly all of our online educational and entertainment options are international products. If a child wants an animal avatar it has to be a panda or polar bear, rather than a kiwi or tuatara. This dilutes our sense of self and connection to our unique environment. 

In 2017, co-producer Vicky Pope and I decided to do something about this. We are both parents to young kids and both come from film and media backgrounds. We aimed to create a product that would appeal to digital natives; that would enable them to learn, own, share, and express engagement with their environment in a safe online space. And most of all, it would empower them to have fun.

The result was Wild Eyes, funded by NZ On Air, MBIE’s Nation of Curious Minds and UNESCO NZ. Users upload photos of completed missions to the website to earn points, share their achievements with others, and find validation via other users’ likes (using a suite of tawaki penguin emojis). As they level up, a user earns their avatar its own set of wild eyes (based on native wildlife). The missions are curriculum friendly and developed with the input of Science Learning Hub. Supporters include Forest & Bird, Manaiakalani, Predator Free New Zealand Trust, and Enviroschools.  

Since launching in 2017, thousands of Kiwis have become wildlings. The gallery of mission uploads includes velvet worms, motor moa, mud monsters, and kawakawa tea parties.

We want to inspire the same wonder that kids exhibit at a zoo, but for their backyard wilderness. Did you know that a tūī has two voice boxes? Build a ‘Wild Bird Café and attract some manu X-Factor. And did you know that a giant weta and a giraffe have the same size poo? Detect weta in your backyard using a ‘Backyard Spy’ insect tracking tunnel.

Get your kids together with their classmates or friends online to choose their own Wild Eyes adventure each morning. Play, laugh, experiment, compete and share the results with your class and on social media (#lockdownwildeyes)

Remember to stay safe while going wild: most of the activities are backyard friendly, but if you head to a local park, remember to stick to your bubble and keep yourself the wingspan of a Haast’s Eagle/pouakai (two metres!) away from others. 

When we surveyed parents it turned out that weather was the number one reason for not going outside, but don’t let that stop you during the lockdown. Rain makes for perfect conditions to fake a mean moa footprint in the mud or craft moa coprolite (poo!). And apologies parents, but mud is also a perfect disguise for the ‘Get Lost’ (camouflage yourself like a kākāpō) mission. 

Arguably, there’s never been a more urgent time to connect tamariki to their environment. Listening to tūī singing in the sun is a reminder that there’s a world out there beyond Covid-19. 



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