POWER OF PLAY

Two kids are sailing a toy boat around the world, and they’re tracking its journey online

In May 2017, two brothers from Scotland, Ollie and Harry Ferguson, embarked on an adventure. The HMS Adventure, to be precise.

The boys, who were just 8 and 5 years old at the time, launched a Playmobil toy pirate ship from the Scottish town of Peterhead, bearing a message that asked anyone who found the boat to send it back onto the high seas. Equipped with a tracking device and a counterweight that helps the boat stay right-side up, it traveled to Denmark and Sweden, aided on its journey by kind strangers who found it and returned it to sea.

HMS Adventure gets picked up by a norwgian ship
A Norwegian full-rigged ship, the Christian Radich, carried Adventure 3,000 miles south to the southern Atlantic Ocean. (Courtesy of MacNeill Ferguson)

The boat then caught a ride on a Norwegian ship to the southern Atlantic Ocean, where it continues sailing today. Almost one year later, as of this writing, HMS Adventure is sailing off the coast of Venezuela (you can track it here).

This is just one of the many adventures—500, in fact—that the Ferguson boys are undertaking with their parents. Some of the others on their list include sending Lego men and a GoPro into space, magnet fishing, riding a tractor, and unearthing a fossil. But their favorite so far, their dad told me, has been reenacting a medieval battle and getting pretend-crowned kings of Scotland.

The HMS Adventure, along with the boys’ other exploits, is a remarkable demonstration of creativity, curiosity, and ingenuity from young kids. In just four years—albeit with some grownup assistance—they’ve accomplished 239 of the 500 adventures on the list, and they intend to keep going until the oldest of the two boys turns 18.

The story of the Ferguson boys reminds us that the advent of technology has created plenty of opportunities for educational development. Sending the Lego men into space involved learning about the physics of high-altitude balloons, while launching HMS Adventure meant understanding the patterns of ocean currents.

MacNeill Ferguson, Ollie and Harry’s dad, tells Quartz that the goal of the bucket list is to encourage his sons to explore the world around them while engaging with their communities, having fun, and learning things along the way. “Everything we do has an element of learning in it,” he says. That’s consistent with the science of playful learning, which tells us that play is at the heart of kids’ emotional and mental well-being, and helps children develop the skills they need later in life.

Stereotypes abound that today’s kids and teenagers are disengaged, addicted to social media, lazy, or even on the brink of a massive mental-health crisis. While technology has its downsides, it’s also true that today’s kids are taking advantage of their new tools the way older generations once did with theirs.

There’s also momentum around the idea that play can be a way to teach kids 21st-century skills, notably how to adapt to different environments and working conditions. After all, if the Ferguson kids ever find themselves sailing on the open sea—or needing to invade Scotland—they won’t be at a loss.

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