Wild Eyes: The website connecting Kiwi kids with the outdoors again

by Sharon Stephenson / 22 November, 2017

Greta Neilson “discovers” an extinct moa in the bush.

A website that creates “backyard missions” for Kiwi kids is dragging digital natives back outdoors.

Long before “digital” and “native” were words that could legitimately fit into the same sentence, Kiwi kids had adventures in the great outdoors – the sort of nature-filled adventures Wellington filmmaker Paul Ward experienced as a child growing up on a Marton farm.

“Unfortunately, children today don’t have the same exposure to nature,” says the father of Estella, nine, and Sylvie, seven. “Instead, these digital natives are often glued to their screens.”

Wanting to reconnect this young generation with the outside world – via a medium that they’re familiar with – Ward teamed up with film producer Vicky Pope (Two Little Boys and Gardening with Soul) to create Wild Eyes, a website that uses technology to help children aged eight to 12 get in touch with nature.

Wild Eyes requires users to complete interesting backyard missions, including building a bivouac, “discovering” an extinct moa and hosting a kawakawa tea party. Once a challenge is complete, the player uploads a photo to the website to earn online incentives and “likes” from other players.

“It’s all about interacting with kids on their own terms and mimicking the rewards from social media sites with a homegrown product,” says Ward.

Wild Eyes sets challenges to engage young Kiwis with nature.

Ward and Pope spent two years developing Wild Eyes, which cost around $400,000 and was funded with the help of NZ on Air, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Unlocking Curious Minds fund, and Unesco NZ. The website features video clips with local actors Nova Waretini-Hewison and Christian Dennison, the 14-year-old twin brother of actor Julian Dennison (Hunt for the Wilderpeople).

Ward, who spent almost two years working as a producer for the Discovery Channel in Los Angeles, says the response so far has been positive. “We’ve had more than 15,000 site visitors to date, which is really encouraging.”

Both Ward and Pope were particularly keen to engage the hard-to-reach demographic of Maori, Pacific Island and rural children, and they’ve worked hard to ensure all the missions are affordable and adaptable for both the home and classroom. Ward admits there’s also a future benefit to turning square eyes into wild eyes.

“As David Attenborough says, people will only protect what they care about and they’ll only care about what they’ve experienced,” he says. “Given so much of our lives are lived online, if we care about looking after our natural taonga, it’s important we provide compelling digital experiences that engage young Kiwis with nature.”

This was published in the October 2017 issue of North & South.


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