Written by Jesper B. Mosbacher, Ph.D.
SimplyFun enlisted Jesper B. Mosbacher, a scientist, and Arctic ecologist at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø, Norway, to consult on the facts and particulars of the Arctic animals highlighted in Arctic Riders, an exciting new math game focusing on addition and subtraction for ages 7 and up. Below, Jesper also shares his thoughtful insight on his work and research in the pristine wilderness of the Arctic.
The Remote and Pristine Wilderness of the Arctic
I wanted to start this blog by describing my feeling the first time I travelled to the Arctic. I was a young biology student travelling on a small plane to land directly on the tundra at one of the most remote research stations in the world – in the middle of the largest national park in the world in Northeast Greenland. Here, you are disconnected from the internet, phones, tv, and radio, but what I found instead was a fantastic place untouched by human presence – a truly remote and pristine wilderness. I felt so connected to the grand nature, and it became truly a love-at-first-sight moment for me. The Arctic is this weird place on earth that is extremely remote, being ice or snow-covered for most of the year. It has long periods of no sun, and with almost no trees growing there, the ground in many places is permanently frozen. And yet it is booming with life and wonderful creatures highly adapted to these living conditions. Ironically the same characteristics of remoteness and extreme environment that drew me to the Arctic were the same that made it difficult for me to share my love with others.
It was thus with great surprise and happiness that I was contacted by SimplyFun to help them create an innovative and educational board game about the Arctic. This was the perfect way of spreading my love of the Arctic. The species inhabiting such a wild place are truly worthy of excitement and interest. To survive and thrive in the Arctic many species are highly specialized, showing unique adaptations and lifestyles – something that is reflected in the Arctic Riders game. They are truly living at the edge of the world and what we would think is possible. This childlike fascination of how species live, interact, and thrive in such remote places is something that has driven my passion, and something I hope will be shared by the children playing this game.
The Rapidly Changing Arctic and My Research
What I did not know the first time I travelled to the Arctic as a young student was how that would shape my life. The passion and fascination that was born on that day led me to a career in research in Arctic ecology. I have been privileged to work, live in, and study some of the most remote and untouched places in the world. Over the years a lot of my research has been focused on finding ways to study and unravel secrets about animals living in the corners of our world. How can we know not only how many there are, but how they are doing if we are not there to observe them? What is happening during the winter months of extreme cold weather and complete darkness? Which species are interacting with each other and what happens if one or some of the species are changing their rhythm or habitat due to climate change? What might be beneficial for one species, might be detrimental for others, and how can we understand the cascade through the ecosystem? As an ecologist, I try to view the entire ecosystem and understand these things. The relative “simplicity” of the Arctic ecosystem due to its few species makes this an extremely interesting study system. Unfortunately, you can't talk about the Arctic ecosystem and not talk about climate change. The Arctic, due to different reasons, is the region of the globe where the most extreme change is happening – here warming is four times faster and higher than that of other places. In a place that is characterized by snow, ice, and cold temperatures, these changes are extremely significant, and the ecosystem is changing rapidly. Today, as I write this blog, it is now 14 years since I first travelled to the Arctic, and although it might not sound like many years, I have seen the changes firsthand. It is happening that fast.
Over the years of my research career, I have therefore been involved in trying to protect the pristine wilderness of the Arctic. Today I am a scientist with the Norwegian Polar Institute working to monitor and document the ongoing changes in the Arctic ecosystem. As part of my work, we interact with other scientists and governments to provide information, data, and advice about the Arctic and its species. Reaching the broader population has proved more difficult, sadly. I am a strong believer that people are only interested and invested in protecting what they know and care about – you do not protect something you do not know. The same characteristics that make Arctic animals special and interesting, with their remoteness and extreme environments, also present a challenge for the broader population to interact with and experience them. Many Arctic species, their biology, lifestyle, and the challenges they face are unknown to most people because they live so far away. It is why over the years I have been involved with outreach through nature documentaries, zoological gardens, schools, and public lectures. It is also why I was so extremely thankful and excited when SimplyFun contacted me to give advice on this game. I truly believe this game can help spread the knowledge and fascination of the Arctic ecosystem and its species. It is my hope that this game can help children around the world learn about the wonderful animals, their biology, and the realm they call home. It is truly a special place!
What Can We Learn from This Game? A Wildly Immersive Introduction to the Arctic Ecosystem
The Arctic is a fascinating ecosystem with large seasonal changes. Winters are dark and cold, with long periods of no sun. Arctic species face these problems in different ways. Some migrate away to warmer and sunnier places, such as many bird species and marine mammals. Did you know that the Arctic tern flies from the Arctic to the Antarctic – the longest migration by far of any animal in the world – seeing two summers every year? Other species thrive under the snow, building long tunnels and nests, such as the lemming. Some insects completely freeze solid during the winter, only to thaw and live the next spring. Most of the resident species that stay in the Arctic during the winter survive rough winters without almost any food, having adaptations to deal with the cold and low food resources, while surprisingly only a few Arctic species hibernate. In spring, the sun is back, and soon summer arrives! With it, a pulse of energy is flowing throw the ecosystem. Ice and snow melt and large blooms of plankton and vegetation grow. Species migrate back, and suddenly what has been a quiet place now comes alive with life everywhere all at once. The summer period is very short in the Arctic, with many places only having one to three months of good conditions. For most species, this presents only a short amount of time to reproduce, forage, and gain weight again before the long migration or long winter.
Arctic Riders starts with the arrival of spring and the animals in the Arctic Circle who are excited to welcome back their friends, the narwhals. The game follows the travel of the narwhals and with the help of their friends living in the Arctic Circle, who try to feed them along the way and through the different seasons. The goal of Arctic Riders is to teach young learners about the different animals and their ever-changing environment. The children will meet many Arctic animals and learn about them and their adaptations.
The Power of Games in Learning
It was with great pleasure that I started working with SimplyFun on this game, and in the process learn more about them and their values. Reading their homepage, I quickly realized they were making games to ensure learning and skills and tools for future generations as they transition from the sandbox to their first job, college, and career. I read posts about “Incorporating 'Sneaky Math' into Everyday Life”, and how to raise “Confident Learners with Educational Games.” Their games aim to highlight the positive impact play can have on learning and emotional health. They contacted me to ensure the information presented in the game was factually correct, and I was more than happy to help. I was quickly impressed by the amount of effort that had already been put into it, the animals selected, and the game concept of going through the different seasons as the real-life dynamics of the Arctic.
I have yet to play the game but working on the 'fun facts' booklet accompanying the game with facts about the animals was a blast to work on. I showed the first illustrations of the animals to my two nieces, aged 6 and 8, and asked them what they thought about it, and what they wanted to know about the animals. The amount of interest from them was overwhelming, to say the least, as they started energetically discussing the different animals and why they look this way: “Why do they (the walrus) have such big teeth?;” “Why do the Arctic fox change color in the winter?;” “Haha, look at this one (hooded seal) with the big red nose like Rudolph;” “Aww, the puffins are cute,” and “Why do the muskox have such big horns?” are some of the questions I received. I was blown away by their interest, and understand me correctly on this, I was “mildly hurt.” For more than a decade I had travelled to these places and brought home souvenirs, photos, and stories with only limited interest in response. I even collected a lot of soft muskox wool for them to touch, which never received much attention either. The only success I ever had was when I told them I was working with Santa’s reindeer. But just by showing them illustrations from this game, suddenly they became alive with questions and things they wanted to know and learn. It challenged me to really consider what information to provide on the facts about each animal, and I consulted other researchers to hear their opinions on which facts to tell. It really opened my eyes to the potential this game could have for inspiring and learning young minds about something I love. In the middle of this process, my partner became pregnant as well, and I started thinking much about what I wanted my daughter to learn and how I could share my passion with her as she grows up. Hopefully, some years down the road, I will be sitting playing this game with my daughter and nieces, having talks about Arctic animals, and sharing our common passion. I hope others will too.
Ready to play Arctic Riders? Head on over to the blog Solve Equations and Feed Narwhals in Arctic Riders! to learn even more about how to play this fun educational board game perfect for 2-4 players ages 7 and up. Game on!