What do you do when you are tasked with entertaining three hungry and restless 9-year-old boys? This is the challenge that Claire Fiegener, Greenbelt’s Conservation Director, faced one afternoon. Her twin sons and their friend were jumping around because they were super psyched to play Pokémon GO. They invited me to tag along so I could see first-hand what this craze is all about. Claire and I had no clue what Pokémon Go was about, or why it has become the latest virtual craze. What is the allure that has kids and adults alike walking through the streets day and night totally oblivious of what’s beyond their screens, such as cars or cliffs? And what drove Japanese Olympic gymnast, Kohei Uchimura, to rack up 500,000 yen (or ~$5,000) in roaming charges from playing Pokémon Go in Rio?
Even more challenging on a philosophical and psychological level- is this game or any technological intermediary between us and nature the type of interaction we want our children to have? Does it even qualify as interaction? Does it help them to better connect and engage with and learn about the natural world? I admit I was skeptical, as I am sure a lot of us traditionalists are, but I tried to keep an open mind. What I found in the end was quite interesting and thought provoking.
Even before we left the Bald Hill Natural Area parking lot at Oak Creek Drive, the boys were debating about who would play the first round using Claire’s phone. As we continued along the trail to Bald Hill Farm, Claire skillfully set the phone’s timer for 5-minute intervals so each kid could have rotating turns holding the phone. Before we continue down our trail, it will be helpful to have a bit of a Pokémon primer or PokéPrimer if you will.
Pokémon GO is a reincarnated game for today’s iPhone and Android mobile devices. Its predecessor was plain old Pokémon- a trading card game that came out in the mid ’90s when I was in middle school. In Pokémon GO, a player is a called a Trainer. The goal of this free game is to find and catch more than 100 Pokémon species. The more you catch, the more characters are added to your Pokédex (throw-back to a Rolodex?) and the higher your level becomes (i.e., leveling-up). The more you catch and walk around, the more Pokémon Eggs and PokéStops you find that allow your characters to evolve which helps you catch harder-to-find ones. Players can join teams and battle for control over Gyms (another throw-back to the game capture the flag?) to earn medals.
Unlike the old static card game, GO requires people to move and explore their surroundings. But just how much do people actually explore and interact with their surroundings? I’ve never been a gamer. I grew up in a small farming town in southwestern Pennsylvania where I explored the woods and local parks on foot or bike without technology and without parents. It was a freedom I didn’t know was so special at the time. I had an Atari as a kid, but I could never plug it into the back of the massive and heavy box TV in order to play it. In middle school my family bought our first computer, but how many times can you play solitaire or mind sweep? While our technology and entertainment options have changed immensely, the challenges of getting kids outside remains the same. However, after seeing these boys at Bald Hill Farm, there is value in GO and lessons to be learned that transcend the game.
Leveling-up to the Lessons
Thank you Cole, Dylan, and Jack for teaching me about Pokémon GO as well as some valuable insights and lessons:
Pokémon has transcended generations. If you played the card game as a kid, chances are your kids are now the ones walking around playing GO (or admit it, maybe you are the one!). Kids are trainers and battle for Gyms, while their parents are helping kids battle against obesity, boredom, and nature-deficit disorder. Pokémon GO is one type of interaction with our natural world that we hope leads to more traditional forms of hands-on and experiential interaction and learning. It is new, and like any new thing, it takes time for it to be accepted and appreciated. Here is the new challenge for parents: What do you do when your kid’s technical knowledge surpasses your own? Tech is here, and like Pokémon GO, it will only continue to evolve. We don’t have to love it or even use it, but we can still give it the benefit of the doubt in order to see the good in it. There’s much to be learned from kids (and dare I say Pokémon itself!).
Interested in Pokémon GO? Check out these links: