Mission:Explore–Endangered Geographies

earth_sandwich.pngMy roommate, another National Geographic Education staffer, first introduced me to the Geography Collective about a year ago. An artist who does a good deal of graphic design work for our group, she was enamored with the playful design of the website. We both fell in love with the Collective’s revolutionary approach to engaging kids in real-world learning through “guerrilla geography,” and pledged that if we ever decided to pick up and move to the U.K., we’d see if we could join them.

kid_hole.jpgYou can imagine my excitement when Daniel Raven-Ellison, a member of the Collective, contacted me a few months later to see how we might collaborate “across the pond” on our respective geography campaigns. He was in the process of releasing a new book called Mission:Explore, a geography “training manual” with 102 missions challenging kids to (re)discover our world, and was looking for opportunities to spread the word. I couldn’t think of a better forum than the blog!

Read on for more about Mission:Explore and the Geography Collective, and stay tuned for future collaborative projects with National Geographic Education. Next Mission: Geography Awareness Week. Daniel and I are working on a series of freshwater missions (I might even become an honorary member of the Collective)!

Endangered Geographies
Now is a very exciting and rich time to be a geographer. Opportunities for us as professionals and as a field of study are developing at lightening speed. We  have a better knowledge and are more equipped than ever to understand a wide range of social, economic, and environmental issues empowering humanity as never before. Yet, in my view, there are many ways in which the potential of geography is under threat.

In this blog post I am going to outline five of these threats.

Threat 1 – Children’s Physical Geographies

While the vast majority of wealthy children are better connected, have
greater access to information, and have travelled further afield than
ever before, their local freedoms are being increasingly limited. Risk
aversion is reducing the area in which children are allowed to freely
roam. This issue is well documented across North America and in the
U.K., where I am from. Parents’ concerns of stranger danger, traffic,
and other risks are directly limiting the amount of time and space
children have to play outdoors. In both the short and long terms, this
has negative effects on children’s mental and physical wellbeing, as
well as that of their community.

So children are having their
everyday physical geographies limited and their opportunities to learn
about their neighborhood diminished. I do not have evidence of what the
effects of this will be, but negative implications for future community
cohesion, as well as diminished empathy for wildlife and other people,
seems likely.

Threat 2 – A Very Public Divorce
Boats, trains, cars, planes, and rockets are technologies that have
widened and deepened our geographies and geographical understanding.
But, at some point, “geography” became largely divorced in the popular
public mind from travel. Most people recognize that when they visit a
castle they are “doing history'” but how many think of travel as
actively “doing geography”?

Location-driven (and especially mobile) technologies are being used
more than ever, and in increasingly creative and important ways.
iPhones can be used for GPS navigation, geotagging media, finding the
location of friends, experiencing augmented reality, viewing web-based
maps and digital compasses, and playing a vast range of location-based
games; including Geocaching and social community activities such as

Through these devices, people are actually thinking geographically in
deeper and wider ways, but there is a severe risk that, as with travel,
location-based technologies will become divorced from “geography” in
people’s minds.

UN_desk.jpgThreat 3 – School Curriculum
The quality of geography education varies from teacher to teacher,
school to school, and country to country. The subject is suffering what
looks like a slow death in Australia, while in the U.K. geography is
being increasingly squeezed to the margins of the curriculum. In the
United States the subject has created a stronger public-engagement
base, but remains too weak in too many schools.

In the U.K. the erosion of school trips and visits adds to this
problem. Policies that make it harder for geography teachers to leave
school for even a few hours are limiting the number of mediated
“real-world” educational experiences children have. This inevitably has
an impact not only young people’s understanding of the world, but also
on the recruitment and retention of geography students and staff.
Learning about geography is just not the same if you are on the wrong
side of the window.

Threat 4 – Scale and Identity of the Discipline
Earth is big. Really big. Some people argue that the world is getting
smaller. It’s not. It just seems like it is getting smaller to some
rich people who fly between cities a lot , and for those of us who
communicate through the internet so much. The Earth is so massive and
complex that, without scaled maps, many of its problems would be too
big to make sense of.

Geography as a discipline has this problem of scale, too. It’s just so
enormous and includes so much that it can be hard to see…or fund. A
science and an art, human and physical… even as geographers we fight
amongst ourselves about what geography is and can be. The reality is
that the scale and reach of geography make it powerful, but it is a
power that is hard to control. We need to sharpen up geography’s
identity so that it is easier to communicate what it is and so that we
can get more buy-in from parents, leaders and young people.

Threat 5 – Geography’s Controversial History
Geography has a lot of baggage that it needs to recognize, reflect on,
and then act upon. Rooted deeply in exploitative explorations and cruel
colonizations, too many of the institutions that project geography into
public spheres celebrate a by-gone era that, while it has created our
present-day fortunes, has much blood on its hands. From public policies
and sponsorships, to even the fonts and colors of editorials,
geographical organizations need to shift the way they engage with the
public. A greater willingness to investigate, teach, publish, and
broadcast issues that are relevant to our everyday lives is needed to
capture the imaginations of new audiences.

Getting Geography Off the “At Risk” List
Geography is an important and useful idea, lens, tool, and way of
thinking. From transport to finance and biology to philosophy, being
trained in how to think geographically is vital to improving all our
lives and finding more balance with the world’s physical environment.
Geographers are in the position to work together to tackle all of the
above threats:

1. Geographical thinking can help parents make better-informed judgments about where it is reasonably safe to play.

2. Being up-front about our talents in a public way will help move the
current location-driven technology “honeymoon” into a stronger marriage
than our first one with travel (which we could gain back–and maybe
even dabble in a little geography “polygamy”!).

 3. Geography’s core strengths and its ability to straddle the sciences
and arts like few other subjects are key arguments for it to sit at the
center of school curriculum.

4. Geographers are the people who have the most experience in making
sense of the world, and they should also be in the best place to
communicate the scale and power of the subject. This starts with
calling ourselves geographers and labeling good geography more
explicitly when it happens.

5. The major movers and shakers of in the field of geography need to
reach out more to young and future audiences, looking to innovations in
other communities to inspire new ways of working. Geographers are good
at learning from other people and places, so this should not be a

Mission: Explore
We in The Geography Collective have been concerned about the issues
above for some time. We are a group of geography teachers, academics,
explorers and artists. Our aim is to get people thinking geographically
at unusual times and in unexpected places, an approach we call
“guerrilla geography.”

Our main focus is currently on Mission:Explore, a project to encourage
children to explore and see the world in new ways while tackling risk
aversion. The project encourages young people to go on missions,
challenges, and explorations that are fun but also involve some level
of inquiry and learning.

Mission:Explorers can expect to investigate the murder of animals,
search for lost cats, suck mints for long distances and let dogs take
them on walks. The ‘geography’ in all these missions may not be obvious
at first, but experiencing a walk from the perspective of a dog is
highly post-modern and psycho-geographical. Distance is a key
geographical concept, and while sucking a mint for as long as possible
is not an internationally recognized standard, a mixture of physical
activity, climate, and mint-type does give for a fun experiment.
Searching for anything in space clearly demands geographical skill, and
apart from lost socks, missing cats are one of those common problems
that can best be understood by studying the landscape, communities,
relationships and relationships of the animals. Finally, investigating
the murder of an animal is wrapped up in a wide range of geographical
issues including the territory, boundaries, habitats, safe places,
routes, connections, influences, dependencies, communities,
sustainability, culture; and ultimately those questions asked at all
crime scenes–who did it, when, where and why?


Other missions include mapping (un)happy places, creating political
walks, and spotting shapes in clouds; as well as capturing the smells
of different places and seeing which will sell for the most on eBay.

The Mission:Explore book came out in the U.K. in April and will be
available in the United States this month. You can also find missions
on our website, as well as our new iPhone app. We do not think that
Mission:Explore solves all of geography’s problems, but we do hope that
it makes a significant contribution.


Daniel Raven-Ellison
The Geography Collective

One thought on “Mission:Explore–Endangered Geographies

  1. Let me know if I can ever help you! I am an elementary teacher. Last year I won the elementary social studies teacher of the year from the National Council of Social Studies. I developed a geography unit for the Town of Brookline. I will be at the Denver, CO NCSS conference as well in November. I’m looking forward to read your book.

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