Giving Pokémon GO a Go

The Challenge:

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?

Kids are excited to play Pokemon GO at Bald Hill Farm.

Kids are excited to play Pokémon GO at Bald Hill Farm!

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.

The Lingo:

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.

Setting 5-minute play intervals per kid just isn't long enough!

Setting 5-minute play intervals per kid just isn’t long enough!

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.

Kids work together to find Pokemon creatures and navigate the trails.

Kids work together to find Pokémon creatures and navigate the trails.

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:

  1. It teaches kids to share and work together. After each 5-minute session was up, it was hard for one boy to hand over the phone to the next, but they did it and even worked together to understand and play the game.
  2. It gets kids outside where they are bound to explore beyond the screen. Author and coiner of the term “nature-deficit disorder”, Richard Louv, wrote “We tend to block off many of our senses when we’re staring at a screen. Nature time can literally bring us to our senses.” I don’t know if Louv would agree, but just like geocaching, Pokémon GO helps to bridge this screen-nature divide. At times, the boys would put down the phone to check out Oak Creek, eat blackberries, identify and avoid poison oak, and ask Claire questions about Bald Hill Farm.
  3. It develops navigational skills. The game has a simplified built-in map. By seeing upcoming Gyms, for example, kids learn how to read the map and simultaneously orient themselves virtually and in real-time. This requires spatial awareness and the ability to navigate along a trail or across a landscape. These skills can also build self-confidence in kids.
  4. It requires actually moving. Unlike a lot of virtual games, Pokémon GO players must walk around. This gets kids outside and exercising. The game even keeps track of your mileage. At the old barn near the Midge Cramer Path, the boys find both a virtual Gym and a real gym of sorts. The barn was a fun place for them to climb around and do pull-ups. Is this the solution to childhood obesity? Probably not, but it does get kids moving. Combined with the apples that Claire brought as a snack for the boys, this was a healthy and safe activity.
  5. It encourages kids to play and use their imaginations. Plain and simple, the boys had fun outdoors. They used their imaginations, immersed themselves in the game, and ran and climbed around. And at the end, they wanted to return to Bald Hill Farm for another round of GO. I’d say it was a success!
A Pokemon Gym at the Bald Hill Natural Area's barn is also a jungle gym for play.

A Pokémon Gym at the Bald Hill Natural Area’s barn is also a jungle gym for play.

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: