The Armchair Globetrotters

IVN Entertainment, 1998
Phone/mail order only: (800) 767-4486

Travel and the media have a longstanding mutual relationship. In fact, travel used to be "the media"--before printed books, when verbal accounts represented knowledge, someone who'd actually seen a camel or a rhinoceros was effectively a "reference work." Now, books, globes, the telegraph, TV, and all the rest have made us armchair travelers: we know our world because of the media.

But can you find this in software, videos, films, or TV programs made expressly for kids? Just barely. Kid-level, globe-hopping geography, natural science, anthropology, or sociology media are often limited to nature videos and a few choice games. The Carmen Sandiego computer games and TV show have done a good job of awakening kids to the wonders of the modern world, and there's a great old Canadian film called Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveler that follows an exciting storyline all around the globe. These exceptions aside, it's easier for a kid to learn about an animal in Sri Lanka than to experience another kid's life there.

These thoughts come to mind for several reasons: one, it's winter and I wish our family could take a trip; two, the Internet has revived the idea of travel-as-knowledge with its concept of "going to" a "site" that contains words and pictures; and three, I can still remember a couple faded black-and-white photos I saw in some old Junior Scholastic about the wooden shoes and giant cheeses of Holland. They made me want to travel, and eventually I did. But if such images can remain imprinted in my brain for so long, where are their modern equivalents?

We're in a world culture now; it's a global marketplace. And interesting, fun, reliable geography-oriented media for kids is a necessity because the competition--shallower media experiences--is already more exciting. We just got a Nintendo 64 unit at our house, and like many others lately we've been figuring out The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which is a charming and clever game (and won't rot your kid's brain). "Role playing" games like Zelda structure knowledge and learning as travel--they require the player to venture forth, try things out, and speak to people. This is a method that's worked well for the longstanding Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail programs, but the fictional, Zelda-style games far outnumber them. Wouldn't it be great to have more videos and games that make travel exciting?

As an experiment, I checked out some travel videos from my local library. They all started with maps and featured offscreen narrators, and they showed mostly buildings and locations. They weren't all that focused on tourism or history, but from a child's point of view they were dangerously close to those boring old filmstrips they used to show in grade school.

If a boy or girl is going to get interested in the world beyond his or her neighborhood, he or she needs a reason to engage with such knowledge. A promising twenty-three-minute video called Trav's Travels: United States of America has the right idea. It begins with an onscreen host, a happenin' teen who tells a classroom of younger kids where he's going to take them, and then it shows a highly condensed tour of most of our fifty states. It's abbreviated and sketchy, and "Trav" himself doesn't return on screen, but there is a decent balance between shots of buildings and people, and kids are highly visible.

Without these kinds of features, travel and geography remain abstract. Once long ago, when my wife and I were able to take a trip together, our then-three-year-old remarked that his parents had "just gone to Spain," as if Madrid were somewhere near Milwaukee. Of course he had no idea what travel and distance entailed, which is always the problem with all those "are-we-there-yet?" questions. But if he had a reason to know this (and, admittedly, if he had been older), and someone to follow (even a cartoon character), then he could have used some resources. What about a video showing kids in Spain having breakfast? Or a Nintendo game where you have to race Columbus across the ocean? Or a "Webcam" site on the Internet where some Spanish kids say hello each day?

Even with these as-yet limited resources, if you like to travel, you can find ways to encourage the same feelings in your kids. You'll have to dig a little; try plotting a trip to Grandpa's with one of those mapping CD-ROMs, or check out the videos of The Red Balloon or Big Bird in China. Try some of the other games and videos mentioned above. There are plenty of books, of course, but sound and images really make the experience come alive. Maybe it's time to actually ask your neighbors to show their travel videos.

Trav's Travels: United States of America is a winner of the 1998 Kids First!® Award of the Coalition for Quality Children's Media.


Phil Anderson is a regular reviewer of movies, software, and technology for Minnesota Parent.

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