Something quite unexpected happened when I started hosting our outdoor activity events for kids. We started getting an increasing number of enquiries and bookings by parents whose children were on the autistic spectrum. The event that caused this unexpected but welcome interest was our Wildcraft Adventures. I wanted to find out why this was happening.
Children today live in a world where screen based technology and instant information is everywhere, it makes me feel quite old sometimes. The lure of video games is getting so strong with young people today that some writers are referring to this as the new drug of the 21st Century. Listening to parents talk about the battles they have with their children when trying to reduce their screen time it reminds me more of a heroin addiction rather than a popular game enjoyed by young people.
“Kids love the shiny tech as much as the rest of us. The ubiquity and pervasiveness of screens across every aspect of our lives has happened with astonishing speed with limited disconnect anymore between on and offline. This is voted as the number one barrier to kids playing out across the whole network from parents to organisations. How can we make sure we’re aware of our screen time and we find balance by making time for WildTime, offline, outside, liking other stuff like plants, trees, the sun, the rain and all the cool creatures? How do we help them navigate all this technology?” Project Wild Thing
No wonder children love video games so much, they can transport you to another world and you are constantly rewarded for your efforts. As adults and parents it’s our responsibility to help our children strike a balance between technology which is (quite understandably) attractive and the real world of social interactions and nature. I think one way we can do this is through inspiration. Igniting the natural urge to play in every child’s mind. That is how Wildcraft Adventure™ came about, but more on that later.
I’ve spoken with a few parents about their experiences managing their children’s screen time. I was shocked to learn of one parent who threatened to turn off the WI-FI as a consequence of some behaviour only to become frightened that her 15-year-old son would physically attack her. I was also surprised by one mother who was shocked to see her 10 year old son had wet himself while playing Minecraft on his iPad for the first time.
The first child mentioned above is dyspraxic and the second child (it is thought) has autistic spectrum disorder. These two children have learning differences and I believe that they are prone to get ‘hooked’ on popular computer games like Minecraft and Terraria, but so do many other children without learning differences. I really wanted to explore why.
Something about the format of video games really engages kids in the make believe world of computer games. Children rarely take complete responsibility for their actions and there’s usually an adult keeping their little worlds moving along. Kids have so little control in their real lives and decisions get made for them all the time. So, to be given the power to build a world that is totally of your own design, where all decisions are made by the child, their own preferences and choices, must be such a refreshing change and escape for them, no wonder they find it hard to come back to reality. Is this the big attraction of non-competitive, world building video games like Minecraft?
In our outdoor education business, my partner and I created an outdoor adventure game called Wildcraft Adventure™, which is based on popular video games, using lots of common themes that feature in kids favourite games. It has been a huge success with almost 100% positive feedback from kids and parents. We have also had some amazing feedback from children on the spectrum and their parents. These particular children normally find interacting in teams really difficult.
In our Wildcraft Adventure™ game the children get split into teams (known as ‘clans’) and they compete for points in a variety of outdoor challenges. The clan with the most XP (a common gaming term referring to experience points) wins the game. Thought the emphasis is definitely not on this competitive element, but more on teamwork and shared play.
We have been told by many parents that anything competitive can be a challenge for their child who has ASD but this has rarely been a problem in the Wildcraft Adventure game. There is not a prize for winning and the game is about collecting resources and completing challenges which earn you XP. The emphasis is on earning XP rather than winning the game, the gaining of experience and new skills. The game suits children who are competitive and non-competitive. While some children will focus on finding the most precious and well-hidden resource to earn them the maximum amount of XP, the other children will focus on creating a space that uses the imagination, like building a vegetable garden, which will also earn them XP but is less about competition and more about creativity. Each style of play is rewarded and rewarding in itself. If there are two different types of children in the same clan then they can go their separate ways without getting into conflict with one another. Each team member can pick and choose their own preference of play within the game, this helps group cohesion.
One session that we ran was for a Home Education group of 20 children with 6 parents attending also. There were both high and low functioning children with ASD. Within the group one child had been taken out of school because of anxiety, another child with cancer, another child who didn’t speak any English and also a child who had just moved to Britain from the USA and didn’t know anyone in this country.
The day went extremely well and we had some great feedback off the parents. One of the children with ASD managed to stay for the whole day when normally he goes home after just half a day, his Mum was so pleased. At the point he did get upset, he was given an iPad to calm him down in which he played Minecraft but every so often he would engage again with the game and was mostly settled in the woods for the whole day.
All the children had fun and engaged with the game. There were a couple of melt downs but parents were there to help calm the child and they resumed play quickly and without incident.
What struck me was that the children all spoke a common language, the video game language, so there was common ground for everyone to understand, which even crossed real-life language barriers. Whatever the need of the child, there was an understanding of the concept of the game, but instead of sat indoors stuck to a computer screen they were outside getting fresh air, exercise, socialising and learning new skills.
UPDATE (Jan 2018): Having had such a hugely positive response from parents of children with ASD to Wildcraft we have since developed the ASD Friendly version of the game which uses specially created game componenets presented as a social-story rather than reams of text. The children love it and this has also proved to work well for children with other learning diffrences including dyslexia.
Our Wildcraft Adventure days (which have been such a hit with video gaming kids) have now been transformed into a shorter, simpler, fast-paced outdoor game that anyone can run with a group of kids. It’s called the Wildcraft: Mini Game and it’s available from our website.
You can find out more by following the link below.
Thanks for reading,
Lea Wakeman is an outdoor activity leader and founder of Woodland Classroom, based in the UK. She is also a qualified Counsellor and has worked as a Mental Health Mentor.