As a father who loves nature, naturally I made it my goal to pass that passion along to my children.
While family camping, we’d join the docent’s nature walks. We’d quiz them on the information given on those placards stuck in the ground next to the specific plants.
Also, hiking became a must-do on family trips.
Above Silver Lake near Mammoth during a family vacation in 2001, my two boys hiked in the Ansel Adams Wilderness with myself and my wife. They rowed a boat out with friends and swam in the clear lake fed by snowmelt from the Eastern Sierra. One overcast morning, they spotted a water snake darting in and out of the shore’s edge.
Closer to home, I’d hoist my first son as a toddler onto my back in a secured carrier, finishing easy hikes in the fabulous San Gabriel Mountains: Millard Canyon, Monrovia Canyon and Chantry Flat. My second son liked being pushed in a stroller but he quickly grew out of that.
Today, they are both in their 20s and love nature. Both are avid hikers. My youngest hiked the Rocky Mountains during a visit to Colorado and up a sinuous, muddy trail above Portland, Oregon. During a family trip to Kauai last Christmas, they led a hike to the island’s famed Waimea Canyon, nicknamed the Grand Canyon of the Pacific, it is 3,600-feet deep and presents panoramic lookouts, deep gorges and spectacular waterfalls.
About the only time we’d use our phones was to take selfies, or me recording videos of them swimming in the refreshing pools beneath the falling water.
Today, a Canadian firm developed a mobile app that creates a reality video game that kids can play within certain national, state and local parks. Agents of Discovery leads you through a specific natural area using a decked out seagull as a VR tour guide for ocean spots or squirrels for forests, etc.
The company has many locales in the app. For instance, a cute rat (“WR) takes you through Eaton Canyon, placing challenges that you must find using your phone. The more challenges or treasures you pick up, the higher your score. At Vogel Flats in Big Tujunga, the Anna’s Hummingbird is your animated agent tour guide. Oh, there’s some kind of dolphin at Cabrillo Beach.
Here’s the deal.
Do we really need more young people looking at their phones while hiking in nature? Because that’s what this app will do: glue a kid’s eyes to his phone. And all the while, she’s missing the serendipitous aspects of nature: that monarch butterfly that flitted by or the shriek of a raptor high in the sky.
The best thing about hiking is not knowing what’s around the corner.
In kids’ uber-planned lives of school, baseball/football/basketball or dance practices, clubs, scouts, Saturday soccer games, music lessons, pottery class, religious school, family obligations there’s little down time for unscripted exploring.
Now the one unscripted thing: just walking around looking at bugs or watching the leaves on an alder tree wrinkle in the breeze is replaced by a Disneyfied animation squawking at you on a screen. Sounds like Pokemon Go but worse.
Testimonials from teachers say the app has helped get their students excited about nature. OK. I can maybe grant them that. Teachers, especially of elementary school, have a tough job.
But I question whether this app will drag more kids into nature. It seems like those willing to go to Eaton Canyon or Hansen Dam will go there anyway. They won’t be convinced to get off the sofa because there’s an educational app linked to those places.
No, I think we ought to aim for fewer mechanical devices in nature, not more. Call me old fashioned, but I already hear about young people flocking to trails, canyons and beaches in record numbers.
The Internet is loaded with maps and helpful pointers at the tap of a phone, apps that should be turned off and placed in pockets upon reaching the trail head or sandy beach. So they can discover using their own senses.
Steve Scauzillo covers transportation and the environment for the Southern California News Group. He’s a recipient of the Aldo Leopold Award for Distinguished Editorial Writing from The Wilderness Society. Follow him on Twitter @stevscaz or email him at email@example.com.