Attn interaction designers! Who will build an I-Spy type app to get kids out into nature?

This is a slightly extended version of a piece published at Project Wild Thing, 14 April 2014.

Use screentime to get more wildtime

Author of ‘Technobiophilia: nature and cyberspace’ Sue Thomas lives in Bournemouth and discusses the benefits of combining #screentime and #wildtime.

I want to find ways to make our digital lives integrated, healthy, and mindful. I’m not interested in turning off my smartphone and leaving it at home, and I don’t expect kids to do that either.

We carry the internet in our pockets. This makes it easy to leave our sofa-bound TV lives behind and explore the world. The trouble is that there aren’t yet many interesting mobile apps which help us do that, especially not for kids. This is a major design challenge.

I think the secret lies in gamification. Gamifying an activity means connecting it to some kind of reward. It’s not new, of course. Botanists, ornithologists, and other nature watchers are already expert in the pleasures of collecting data out in the field. But today’s technologies can make that even more enjoyable. You can track your discoveries, compare them with others in your online network, share statistics, and accumulate credits which might even translate into some kind of real-world value in the same way that we collect store card points and frequent flyer miles.

Are there any smartphone apps which ‘gamify’ the outdoors for kids? So far I haven’t found any and recommendations are very welcome. I’ve discovered lots of apps for identifying plants, trees, birds, bugs and animals. And of course there are plenty which help you find your way around. But none of them seem to offer a really engaging and complex gamified experience. Why not, I wonder? It seems to me this is a great commercial opportunity to create something small enough to go into a child’s pocket and exciting enough to inspire them to combine smartphone play with outdoors play.

But wait. It’s already been done. In 1948, Nottinghamshire head teacher Charles Warrell was very concerned about the number of long car journeys undertaken by many families in prosperous post-war Britain. Worried that kids would be sitting in the back seat for hours at a time with nothing to do he invented the I-Spy book.

A project that began in reaction to a technological innovation (the car) soon spread to every facet of life, and you could buy I-Spy books for the countryside, the farm, the city, and many other places. When everything was ticked and dated (all levels reached, in other words) and the book was complete, they posted it off to ‘Big Chief I-Spy’, first Warrell himself, then his various successors, who checked it and wrote back, rewarding the proud new member of the ‘Redskin’ tribe (hmm) with a feather and an order of merit. The books were a huge success for several decades then fell into decline.

However, Michelin has now taken over the series and re-released it. Take a look

Today there’s a huge opportunity for interaction designers to create apps which do the same kind of job that I-Spy did so well. They could begin by reverse-engineering the books to uncover their simple but effective structure. Who will take up the challenge? .

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