A Thousand Miles: north to Sequioa, then south to Julian

This past week, I went on two long trips. The first was up north, to Sequoia, where I met up with Jon Keeley, a highly-respected fire ecologist, to seek his support for F&F. The second trip was in the other direction, down to the town of Julian, where I helped run an F&F based outreach program for some of the 5th and 6th graders at the Julian Elementary School. Going up to Sequoia, down to Julian, and back, was just a bit under a thousand miles of driving. Much as I like my car, I’m a bit tired of it, though I won’t complain, as both trips were very rewarding.

Over the past few months, I’d traded several emails with Jon Keeley, talking about outreach, fire ecology, and F&F. He’s in high demand, but at the same time, he’s very passionate about ecology, and had already been looking into doing outreach through gaming. Last Monday, I drove up to meet in person, and we talked for a bit. We went over the rules of the game, discussed the ways in which they were intended to model real world processes, then played a few rounds of F&F. He had several good comments. The best idea was to introduce mutualisms. I’ve long toyed with the idea of an Animal Expansion to F&F, and been mulling over what sorts of new mechanics I could introduce, and animal/plant mutualistic relationships are a great idea (e.g. Yucca Moth and Yucca).

At the end of the conversation, Jon said he’d love to see F&F get into schools, and be willing to put his name behind it – with the caveat that he was speaking for himself, and not as a representative of any institution – which is what I’d hoped would happen. He’s not well known to the general public, but he’s highly respected among professional botanists, ecologists, and conservationists. For this reason, his endorsement will be a big help in future conversations with those sorts of professional groups. Thanks Jon!

And of course, while I was up there, I took the afternoon off to go for a hike. Specifically, I walked the foothill trail up to Marble Falls, which was spectacular. So it was a doubly rewarding trip.

Two days later, I drove down to Julian. I met up with the education coordinator from Volcan Mountain (an environmental nonprofit), and we spent an hour talking about the game, and outlining a plan for the class. We wanted to make sure that there were two people who were fully up on F&F, so that we could help things to go along as smoothly as possible. We then went into the class and put our plan into action. I took about fifteen minutes to introduce the game, explain the rules, talk them through the setup, and then through the first turn. I’d hoped to walk them through the first several turns, to set a real strong foundation, but the kids were chomping at the bit, so I just set them loose.

It was remarkably chaotic. Fun and interesting chaos, but chaos nonetheless. Lots of different kids were confused about different parts of the game. Yet they were all determined and excited to go forward, confusion-be-darned. The teacher and I circulated among the six groups, doing what we could to keep them somewhat on track. After about forty-five minutes, we called a halt to things, and turned to the discussion part of the program.

I asked some questions about different species, and their response to fire.  Several kids had picked up isolated facts, and I was able to fit some of those together to talk about (and illustrate) the way that unnatural fire regimes could negatively affect diversity. I then asked for questions and comments. Unlike other groups, most of these kids were curious about the workings of the game. The knew they’d missed important bits, and wanted to understand it better. Several said straight out that they enjoyed the game, which was a nice surprise. But I actually see their rules questions as a bigger complement.

The element of fun and play had drawn them into the game, and they wanted to learn more. While I do want to spread knowledge and promote understanding, knowledge or understanding without passion or interest are moot. On the other hand, excitement and personal interest can motivate people to learn, and more importantly, to act. Something along the lines of the old saying about importance of, “teaching a man to fish.”

In the end, this experience showed that F&F is within the reach of this younger audience, but that younger kids will need additional help to get started. A fifteen-minute explanation of rules is not enough. In fact, in the post-game discussion, one kid actually spoke up to say that. Which speaks well of his self-awareness. For F&F to be successful with kids younger than 12, you need at least one teacher per group. This need not be a classroom teacher, it could be a parent, an older friend, or an older sibling. But given that help, I think that these younger kids would get a big kick out of F&F, and have some seriously fun times.

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