Into the Virtual Wild

An app takes a young child up close and personal with a lion

Posted Nov 18, 2014

Lions, rhinos, elephants, tigers and gorillas—all the big mammals that roam the African savanna mesmerize the human imagination. As their numbers dwindle in the wild, they become more precious and more fascinating.  We gaze at them behind zoo fences, turn them into lovable cartoon heroes, and cuddle them (stuffed and faux furred) in bed. At times, we worry that our children will come to think about these creatures much as they now do the dinosaurs and mammoths, extinct wondrous species from the past.  

The modern world is driving wild animal species out of the wild, and into their last refuge, our imaginations. However, is it possible that technology might help us connect with lions and rhinos virtually, while at the same time, teaching lessons in conservation and animal welfare?  Could an “animal app,” designed for young children, harness their fascination with big wild creatures to teach foundational cognitive, social and emotional skills?  In virtual encounters with wild animals, could preschoolers gain lessons in regulating arousal, sustaining attention, perspective taking, empathy, and even mastering number and quantity concepts?

For the past year, I’ve been working with some tech-savvy app developers to create for young children just such a virtual experience with wild animals, including lions, rhinos, meerkats, and giraffes. At first, I was dubious that having children spend more time on an ipad would help connect to wild creatures and not just, well, connect.  But then, I realized that the goal was to get up close and personal with the big mammals of the African savanna, and how could one do that, absent an African safari trip, not an option for most preschoolers anywhere.  Research on zoo visits finds them a poor substitute, as most families spend only a few minutes at any one exhibit.  Moreover, interactive apps can bring images of wild animals – in high definition—close up and vivid, while at the same time, not disturbing the animals with human presence. The sense of engagement with these wild creatures can heighten children’s commitment to caring for and preserving them. Links to other videos and interesting facts about the animal kingdom can lead children on a virtual voyage of discovery.  I became a convert.

So, how does a wild animal app for young children work? Webcams installed in a zoo capture high definition video footage of the animals as they eat, drink, sleep, explore, play, in short, go about their animal lives. This footage then becomes the raw material for an interactive app (designed for the ipad).  For example, a child can “feed” a lion by shaking or tilting the ipad and then see raw meat come into view and the lion eating.  Or, a child can “give” a rhino a cooling mud bath by moving the ipad to “fill” a pool with water and then shout for the rhino to come over to have a bath. Video segments cued to these actions create the simulation of engaging with and helping these wild animals.

Besides the excitement of seeming to interact with wild creatures such as lions and rhinos, this app builds in important developmental skills.  For example, children are asked to choose their favorite food, and then asked what would be the lion’s favorite food.  In this way, preschoolers practice perspective taking, underscoring that from the lion’s perspective raw meat, not ice cream, is the perfect treat. Or, in another example, children practice arousal and self-calming, by shouting and shaking the ipad (to call over an animal) and then being very still and quiet, so that the animal can rest. Every interactive video emphasizes conservation issues, while helping children learn about basic concepts such as “more” and “fewer.” 

Will interactive technology solve the crisis of animal extinction and habitat destruction?  Will wild animal apps ever substitute for the thrill of seeing, live and up close, a real lion or rhino?  Of course not. But, beyond simply being fun for young children, this wild animal app can help build a caring connection to these endangered wild animals, while also teaching children important developmental skills.