I'm thousands of feet in the air, speeding across the United States, flying from Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas. When I land, I'm going to send a picture of myself to my nieces back home - but it won't just be a picture of one of their favorite uncles in a place they've never been. There will be a familiar avatar in the picture with me - a Flat Stanley.
That's an experience that children all over the world have had. Flat Stanley calls itself the longest-running literacy and community building program on the web. The program encourages participants to carry, mail or otherwise send a cardboard cut-out figure called Flat Stanley to faraway places and interesting circumstances. When the same Flat Stanley that was in a classroom in South Africa shows up in a photo perched on a snow bank in the United States - something magical happens in the minds of the children who sent it across the world. It's as if those faraway places become more real, now the child has a connection with the place and the prospect of making that trip themselves feels more possible. Anything that expands a person's understanding of what's possible is a good thing. Now the Flat Stanley experience is available in a new mobile app, making it easier than ever to use.
Cool Stories About Flat Stanleys
Kathy Perret writes about taking a Flat Stanley on a winter hike around the Great Lakes.
New York Teacher "Mrs. M" takes a Flat Stanley to Syria!
The new Flat Stanley app lets users take a photo of themselves and insert a Flat Stanley into the picture. They can send that photo by email to a family member or friend or they can upload it to the Flat Stanley website, with their location obscured just a little bit on the map. Every photo uploaded is approved by an adult before it appears on the site. Flat Stanley has thousands of teachers participating in its cardboard in the mail program and believes it can enlist many of those people to help moderate mobile photos.
Flat Stanley is a little bit like a chain letter, a little bit like having a pen pal and a little bit like putting a folded paper boat in the river. It's simple, but it seems to touch some deep human themes.
Photos from the Road
I wrote this blog post while flying through LA. As chance would have it, I was sitting next to Jody Foss, author of the book In the Company of Mules. Foss has spent her adult life traveling around the world, including six thousand miles by mule, criss-crossing through the rural Western United States. She grew up in the suburbs of LA and sent photos back home from her travels as well, often of her trusty (and stubborn) mules.
It takes an unusual woman to make a life out of seeing the West from atop a mule walking 3.5 miles per hour and meeting strangers in the middle of nowhere.
There's something about Flat Stanley that feels related to that. It won't take you or your kids on the kinds of journeys Foss has chronicled, but it will offer a taste of travel and faraway places to the children who receive the photos. Presumably some of the children inspired by those photos will grow up and visit the places their Stanley has been; perhaps some will keep tradition alive and get there by mule.
The team behind Flat Stanley says they've tried their best to recreate the original Flat Stanley experience in the app - but that it's more like an extension of a nascent Flat Stanley brand franchise than it is a replacement for cardboard Stanleys and Stellas (the female version) sent in the mail or snapped posing with a celebrity.
There's something about mom or dad taking a Flat Stanley photo while away on a trip that says to a child, "I am here and I am thinking of you." Whether that same feeling gets communicated and whether a virtual Flat Stanley caries that same psychological payload as a cardboard one remains to be seen.
To send a Flat Stanley, I think, is to use a virtual object (either very thin or entirely digital) to write something on the real world. The Flat Stanley phenomenon makes that writing more accessible and appealing to children than anything else I've heard of before. The interaction between self, avatar, place, distance and other is a fascinating opportunity for young people to become more global in their understanding of the world. I think it's beautiful, and I hope the iPhone app helps many more children around the world connect with each other and enjoy the Flat Stanley experience.