Learn how the Backpack Explorer experience on Roblox came to be through a fun Q&A with project leader Kimberly Thompson Panay.
Q: How did the Backpack Explorer experience on Roblox come about?
KIMBERLY: The short answer: It was inspired by my twin daughters, Lydia and Zoe!
The long answer: I joined Storey back in December of 2020 in the throes of the COVID pandemic. My daughters were just about six years old and, like most kids, were spending significantly more time on screens than ever before. Communal activities were canceled, and playgrounds were closed. I found myself looking for ideas to keep them active and outside. We immediately fell in love with the Backpack Explorer series. Taking long walks in the woods with Backpack Explorer scavenger hunt downloadables in hand!
Fast forward two years, Hachette announced its inaugural Innovation Challenge aimed at tapping into the collective creativity of its global workforce. The competition offered folks across nearly 200 imprints an opportunity to think big about how our books could reach new audiences, with winners receiving funding to bring their ideas to life.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic progressed, my kiddos (and millions and millions more!) became increasingly enthralled with technology, spending many hours each week on Roblox. I thought, what if I could meet them where they are on Roblox to build nature curiosity with the goal of getting them outside—and the idea was born!
Q: What was the process to take this from idea, to a fully launched experience on Roblox?
KIMBERLY: Once my initial pitch made it past the first round, my Storey Publishing colleagues Deanna Cook (Executive Editor, Children’s Books) and Jessica Armstrong (Senior Art Director), co-creators of the Backpack Explorer series, and Alethea Morrison, our Creative Director and resident brand building expert, joined me to refine the idea. We fine-tuned and then pitched the concept to Hachette’s International Executive Committee in a Shark-Tank style setting—and the rest is history!
Once we received word we had won, Anna Lemp, Senior Project Manager of the Hachette Group’s Innovation department, joined us, and together as a team, we worked to translate key concepts in the book—like nature identification and discovery using a magnifying glass and stickers for recording in-person sightings—into a game plan. We then researched and identified our development partner, Dubit, to help us bring the Roblox Experience to life!
Q: How does the Backpack Explorer experience on Roblox bridge the nature literacy gap?
KIMBERLY: For a myriad of reasons, kids are less likely to spend time outside exploring. I grew up on a farm in rural Virginia. I have many fond childhood memories of long summer days spent roaming the countryside, with the only caveat being that “I be home by dark.” Now, as a mother of two nine-year-olds living in Los Angeles, I can’t fathom giving my kids the freedom to explore that I once had.
In the absence of unfettered access to the outdoors, the Backpack Explorer experience on Roblox helps bridge the nature literacy gap by employing a virtual on-the-trail scavenger hunt to spark nature curiosity in kids. There are three central game mechanics that come into play: earning points for recording nature finds in a virtual Explorer Book, collecting habitat patches to adorn an in-game backpack, and leveling up as they gain experience and nature knowledge through gameplay.
Q: What will children learn about nature through the game?
KIMBERLY: At its most basic level, kids are taught facts about animals and their habitats through a gamified learning experience. But there is much more to it than that!
Kids start by navigating the trail to find animals, birds, and bugs, earning points as they go. A quick, fun fact accompanies each. This virtual seek-and-find gaming mechanic develops foundational nature observation skills. While searching for animals, kids explore six unique habitats in the game environment. If they get lost, they can follow directional signposts or reference a virtual map to get their bearing as they would in real life.
Finding and recording all the animals in each habitat unlocks a corresponding backpack patch and develops an innate understanding of how in-real-life field guides, like the Backpack Explorer books, function. An immersive environmental soundscape accompanies gameplay—footsteps echo in the cave and splash in the water, and real-world sounds accompany each animal, further enhancing the experience and related learning outcomes.
Q: How will the game encourage kids to get outdoors?
KIMBERLY: Roblox is an inherently social platform. Kids meet up and hang out online in Roblox experiences, like a virtual playdate of sorts. I’ve experienced this firsthand watching my kids play together over the past few years—and personally, as we’ve play-tested the Backpack Explorer experience together during development.
We’ve designed the game’s core loop to encourage these interactions, giving kids the opportunity to pool their knowledge of the Backpack Explorer experience and share their navigation skills to complete the scavenger hunt together. Getting kids talking and excited about nature is key to getting them outdoors.
Parents can foster this excitement and extend the game experience to real life by printing a free downloadable scavenger hunt available on the Backpack Explorer Series page on the Hachette Book Group website.
Additionally, parents can claim an in-real-life Backpack Explorer patch reward for their child (or themselves!), then grab their favorite Backpack Explorer book (available wherever books are sold), and use their newfound nature observation skills and knowledge to hit the trail for an IRL adventure.
Q: Where can parents and educators find the Backpack Explorer books?
KIMBERLY: Backpack Explorer books can be found on the Hachette Book Group website, at participating online retailers, and wherever books are sold.