The Promise of Tablets

For now it is simply a test but by the end of the year Carphone Warehouse plan to provide all 11 year-olds in British schools with access to tablets.  Much depends on the outcome of the trial currently underway in a number of schools and whether exam results indicate that those with such access outscored those without, yet early indications seem positive.

Indeed, results of focus groups carried out by Family Kids and Youth indicate that tablet use allows children to be more creative in their approach to study and also act as a motivator for them whilst enabling them to keep on learning away from the classroom.  At the same time, the fear that these tablets would be distracting or that they would be broken have proven to be unfounded.

All of this ties in with one of the major talking points of the electoral campaign that just came to a close here in Malta: that of the provision of tablets to school-children.

It is a bold promise (without going into the economic implications) with the potential to revolutionise teaching in Malta but which needs the proper infrastructure to succeed.

One of the key limitations at the moment of tablets as an educational tool is the complete absence of the Maltese language.  There is practically nothing out there at the moment in Maltese, let alone anything which is of educational value.  The same goes for books where there is almost nothing bar the odd self published title, something that is partially (or majorly) due to the absence of Maltese font on big platforms  like Amazon's Kindle (which isn't because of lack of trying).

With or without tablets in classrooms, this is an area that needs addressing.  In some instances there are gaps that could be filled by someone with an educational background and an entrepreneurial spirit.  In others it might perhaps require a bit more pressure (perhaps of an official nature) to convince any company reluctant to do so to carry our language.

Regardless of what it takes, if this talk of distributing tablets to schoolchildren gets things moving in this area then the scheme will already have achieved a significant result before it even gets off the ground.

Note: I would like to acknowledge that both political parties came up with this proposal (albeit to varying degrees).  Indeed, this article is being published now rather than when the proposals were announced because then it could have been construed by some as an endorsement to one or another party, something that was never the intention.

Memo to Politicians: Don't Tell Me to Think of the Children

These past few weeks have been pretty intense; they always are when there's a general election coming up.

Of course, for some they have been more intense than for others.  On a personal level I haven't bothered too much on what was being said, much less commented on it.

There is one particular aspect of a politician's typical language - one that gets all the more insistent the closer it is that we get to the election - that really gets to me and that is when they demand of parents to "think of your children's future" when deciding on who to vote.

How condescending! What insolence!

I think of my kids' future all the time, thank you very much.  They're the first thought on my mind the moment I wake and the last one when I go to sleep.  Everything that I do is with them in mind. 

I don't need your feigned interest in order to do so, especially when it is pretty clear that what you're after isn't my family's well-being but rather getting the votes so that you and your party get the power you crave for.

There are a lot of ways to get me to decide one way or another but using my children as a scare tactic isn't one of them.

PS - Just in case anyone tries to read this in favour of one party or another; don't.  Both sides are just as guilty of this as the other.

Board Game Review: House of Anubis

As my daughter gets older, she's increasingly being attracted by the multitude of shows that the likes of Disney and Nickleodeon put out aimed for tweens.  These tend to be formulaic and mind-numbingly bland fare most of which centre round a wannabe singer / group of singers /  actors.  The aim, evidently, is to keep churning more of the same stuff for an audience that doesn't know better.

Given this competition, House of Anubis was bound to stand out.  Not because it is overly original - a show about a group of kids at a boarding school who stumble across a mystery can hardly be that - but as at least it tries to be different from the rest whilst delivering a cast of interesting individuals.  As a show it knows its audience and does not try to be overly clever but, even so, the kids are intelligent, not dumbed down caricatures of teenagers that you see elsewhere.

On learning that there was a board game themed around House of Anubis, I knew that I had to get it for my daughter.  And it hasn't been a decision I've come to regret.

The aim of the game is fairly simple: in a bid to collect one of the four hyrogliphic images scattered across the board, each player adopts a character from the show which can then be moved around using the numbered cards that are picked on every round  (each player has at least five cards at all times).  What's interesting is that you get to build the play area since rather than a 'board' there are a number of pieces showing the different rooms that make up Anubis House along with other pieces for corridors and these can be fitted together to your liking.

The result is that each time you play you can change things round making it easier or more difficult depending on how you want to play.

Then there's also the special cards that give you special moves like locking doors or changing place with someone else.  These make for a lot of strategic moves and can turn every game on its head which can be a source of fun or frustration (depending whether you are of the giving or receiving end).

There are enough of such cards to make the game interesting whilst at the same time not too many to make this too complex for the children who are playing it.  Any seven year old kid (possibly even slightly younger than that) should have no difficulty playing it but it is also interesting to the point that you can keep on playing it for a number of years without a huge decrease in the enjoyment.

Digging Up Our History

Dinosaurs.  If you were to ask my five year old son what his favourite thing in the world is, then that would most probably be his answer.  He, like most boys and a fair few girls his age, is fascinated by everything about dinosaurs: how big they were, their strength and (perhaps worryingly) their viciousness.  By extention he is even interested in the work of those people who get to discover dinosaurs; those palaeontologists who get to dig them up as well as archeologists who work on uncovering human activity in the past.

As a result, in his mind arcaeology is one of the glamour jobs out there (along with being a superhero).  Which piqued my interest as to whether real-life archaeologists found their own inspiration at such a young age as well.  Not really, it turns out.  At least not by going by the experience of Nicoline Segona. "I got into archaeology without any previous plans of doing so and simply because the subject attracted me and stirred curiosity!" she explained.  "I was never into history before but, funnily enough, when I enrolled at University I chose this subject together with History of Art because both seemed exciting and I was sure I would do well in subjects which interested me."

These days, apart from working in the field Nicoline also carries out educational sessions such as Heritage Malta's Excavate! that introduce children to her work.

"Educational events are meant to bring culture and education closer to young people.  In all activities that we organize we always try to educate young children in a fun and exciting way, different from the normal things they would encounter at school, and in a totally different environment."

On top of all that, they get to experience what it means to be an archeaologist.  "Kids get to see a museum, perhaps for the first time, and participate in a hands-on activity which focuses on a topic related with that museum.  They also get to meet other kids and work in teams.  This particular activity deals with the topic of archaeological excavation and will introduce children to an archaeological dig, what goes on behind it, the tools involved and so on."

Indeed, it isn't simply the kids who benefit  "Such activities are recommended for parents simply because they give the child a different activity to participate in, also knowing that the kid will learn something about our unique past and our precious collections, while doing something useful and in a clean environment."

Check out the Heritage Malta Current Events to keep informed of when they're holding great events like Excavate.

Life in a Poem

Despite reading anything I could get my hands on - including instruction manuals if they were the only reading material within reach - there was one thing that growing up I could never really get into: poems.  I can appreciate the clever use of words to generate a rhyme but even so, poems never seem to engage me.

So it is intriguing to come across Christine Attard (pictured, left), a poetess (among many things) who strongly believes in the educational, emotive and therapeutic  effect that her chosen art form can have especially among children.  Indeed, it was so intriguing that I felt compelled to talk more to her about this.

When did you start writing?
I began writing about 4 years ago when my daughter began asking questions about life and situations at school. I found it easy to talk with her but my husband did not know how to put into words what he wanted to let her know.

I then realized that certain people found it difficult to answer children’s questions in a simple way easy for them to understand. So I began writing down what I was talking to my daughter about in a simple way.

And what inspired you?
I was inspired by my daughter as well as by the children I used to teach to write something specifically for them. I wanted to help others who found it difficult to talk with children since the way we deliver information can affect children and their way of dealing with situations.

Why poems?
In all honesty I am not too keen on reading but I love rhymes and so do children. My favourite book is “Oh the places you’ll go” by Dr Seuss, which explains about life and things that can happen, even though it is a children’s book is also good for adults. Poems are short and straight to the point and that’s why I enjoy writing them.

Typically, what do your poems talk about?
My poems explain the thoughts, feelings and situation that children pass through as they grow, from the time they begin school really. I answer questions ranging from situations children encounter at home to explaining the feelings they have and how to deal with them.

Sometimes children need to realize and acknowledge the emotions they are going through and by doing so they seem to be able to deal with them a bit better the next time they feel the same way i.e. Getting angry, Feeling sad etc. Therefore the poems make the children aware of what they are experiencing and also give them the tools to deal with similar situations in the future.

Your target audience, at least for a lot of your poems, is children. Why did you go for this segment?
I sometimes feel that children are not treated like the priority in people’s lives. I feel sad to think that children are not given the attention they deserve, or are not asked what they think or feel and why. Just by asking them and taking the time to talk with them they seem to change their attitude and behaviour as I found during my lessons with some of the more challenging children that when I took the time to let them air their views and thoughts their attitude in class changed.

I feel strongly about allowing children to be responsible for themselves and we can do this by making them aware of what they feel and how do deal with certain situations in life, thereby giving them the tools to deal with future encounters. This will not only help them but also us parents/guardians since in reality we cannot always be there, at the time needed, to get through the challenges in life.

Are poems a good tool for getting children to read?  And to write?
Since I had never been too keen on reading, who knows maybe there are children out there who feel the same way, so through the poems they may be motivated to read more and even write some of their own.

Poetry or writing in general is a means of self-expression and is thereby an excellent tool to let people know how they feel and what they are thinking.

Each poem comes with a drawing challenge , which in itself can act as the key to opening communication about topics the child needs to talk about.

You’re a teacher: what advise do you have for parents who struggle to get their children to read and write?
Do not force them and do not get frustrated or angry at them, they are children and do not know what you do. If you force them to read or write they will feel the negativity and will steer away remembering the pressure and the stress around them whenever they had to read or write.

I made this mistake with my daughter and when I realized what I was doing I stopped myself and had to change my attitude and approach, it was hard work for me but I had to do it for her.

Set up a calm and fun environment for reading and writing.  Here are some ideas:

1) Give them fun stimulus to write about e.g. let them choose a toy they like and if they like drawing let them draw pictures to go with their story.

2) You can set up a reading time in the day or on the weekend, make it something for them to look forward to e.g. set up a picnic (both inside or out) with some comfy cushions where you can sit down together and read and snack on some fun nibbles.

3) Read your own book in front of them, they may copy you through your example.

4) Read with them before bed, you can maybe play a word game by changing every word beginning with ‘s’ with the word sausage (let them com up with a substitute word for other letters but only 1 letter per page).

A positive environment will make for a positive experience, children feel the same way we do.

Do you think that children are given enough room to express their creativity?
That is totally up to each child’s environment and education. Some schools emphasize the expressive arts and some are still well behind. Unfortunately children are not exposed to the expressive arts and self-expression is such an important life skill that should be given more importance than it is.

Parents/guardians can help develop creativity by allowing the child to feel comfortable and confident to dance, sing, act, write, paint, draw etc. Give children strange stimulus to get heir minds going e.g. get them to create a song, dance or poem about unusual objects such as a straw, shoe horn, plastic cup, piece of newspaper or empty box. Show enthusiasm towards their work with words such as “Good Job” and “Great effort” and have fun with them, copy their dance moves and try to sing the songs they compose. The fact that you are willing to do what they are is a huge boost to their confidence.

What's next for you?
I am going to publish my poems and am hoping to get them to as many children as possible. I am creating an art exhibition made up of interactive installations about life feelings and relationships for adults so I then hope to create one specifically for children.

I need as much backing as I can for my poetry book so people can like my Facebook page – Poetry for children by Christine Attard. On this page you have access to some of my poems.

Cartoons That Parents Will Love as Much as their Children

No matter how much you try to limit the amount of screen time your kids get, there will be times during the day where they will monopolise the television and insist to watch whatever they want.  This naturally means one thing: cartoons.

Thankfully,channels seem to appreciate this so much that a growing number of shows are catering not only to a young audience but to an adult one as well.  If you want evidence of this try watching a couple of them without finding some of the jokes funny. I assure you that if you've picked the right shows to watch - such as any one on the list below with our favourite shows - you won't have problem having that reaction.

The Amazing World of Gumball

What is it about?
In a lot of ways, this is a more kid-friendly version of the Simpsons in that you've got an idiotic father, a mother who is the sensible one among the parents and three kids, one of whom is clearly more intelligent than anyone else in the family.

The main character is Gumball, a blue cat with a giant head while his genius younger sister Anais is a rabbit.  The family is made up of Dad (a pink rabbit), Mom (a cat) and Darwin, the pet fish who joined the family when he sprouted legs.

What makes this show unique is that whilst the main characters are animated real photos are used as a background giving it more of a 3D feel.

What I like about it
Like others on this list, this was a slow burning hit in that initially I saw nothing to be enthused about.  Eventually it grew on me largely because of the absurdity of it all.  Among Gumball's school friends there is a banana, a T-Rex, a ghost and a balloon.  The stories themselves lack the depth of others on this list - they mostly focus on Gumball and Darwin immaturity and inability to face up to the consequences of their actions - but the slapstick nature of the show still makes it highly entertaining.

The Regular Show

What is it about?
Contrary to its name, this show is anything but regular.  That much is instantly apparent upon meeting its main characters: a six-foot tall blue jay called Mordecai and his best friend Rigby, a somewhat hyperactive racoon.  The show is about them as they push through a fairly dull job at a local city park together with Benson, their highly temperemental boss (and a gumball machine), the poetry loving Pops (a lollipop) and muscleman Skips who is also the one who often has all the answers (and is a Yeti).  The storyline often follows a familiar path: Mordecai and Rigby get into trouble, something surreal happens and they work their way out of the problem.

What I like about it
Forget for a moment that this is a cartoon and strip away the queerness and this is a sitcom about two slackers in a deadend, unrewarding and uninspiring job who depend on each other to instill some excitement in their lives.  There is a lot of wit in the dialogue, clever use of pop culture references and, despite the storyline being the same show after show, it never gets repetitive or boring.  Plus Mark Hamill (THE Mark Hamill) is the voice behind Skips.

Phineas and Ferb

What is it about?
The main characters - Phineas and Ferb - are two genius step-brothers who spend the summer building incredible contraptions (such as a roller coaster or a time machine) for their and their friend's enjoyment.  These tend to irritate their sister Candace who tries in vain to get their mother to see the inventions. Each show features a side story of the family pet Perry the Platypus who is in reality Secret Agent P and is often tasked with stopping evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz from utilising his evil inventions.

What I like about it
Tons of pop culture references and easter eggs make this one of the coolest shows around, something that is boosted by the original songs that there is in each show.  On top of all that, it sends out the message that children's creativity can lead them to build things that adults can only dream about.

Adventure Time

What is it about?
As the catchy intro song says, Adventure Time is about Finn the Human and Jake the Dog.  The two are best friends living in the post-apocalyptic Land of Ooo which isn't as bad as it sounds since there's a lot of greenery about.

What I like about it
What first thing that caught my attention was the show's logo - drawn in 80s style sword and scorcery book titles - and this was further heightened by the main characters playing highly pixelated computer games like the ones I had spent my childhood playing.

Once I started paying closer attention to it, I found more things to love.  Such as the excellent, 8 bit inspired songs that pepper the shows, the intricacies of the world in which the show is set (deep down, there is a very strong anti-war / nuclear message) where the every character is extremely well thought out regardless of how minor a role it plays and the Easter eggs that can be found all throughout each show.

The best thing about it, however, is just how smart it all is.  Whilst the stories are captivating and entertaining for children and adults alike, there is a lot of dry humour thrown in that will mostly be picked upon by the latter.  Like the heroes of the sword and scorcery books on which it appears to the based, Jake has very strong morals which guide his actions which is quite a good message for the kids to pick on.

Legend of Korra

What is it about?
Set in a world where there are people who can control four elements (earth, wind, fire and water), this is a follow up to the series Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Set some 70 years after Aang managed to defeat the Fire Lord this series focuses on the coming of age of Korra, the new Avatar.

What I like about it
Normally, whenever the kids are watching a cartoon show I like, I feign disinterest because if they know that you like it, they've got you.  Not this time, however.  I made it a point to sit down to catch this from the start; I was as eager as they were to see how the story unfolded.

That is largely due to the excellent storytelling.  But there's more than that.  The producers have managed to flesh out the stories of most of the main characters in the first series without allowing any of these stories to become overbearing.  Similarly, they managed to add colour to a world where the changes that have taken place - there is more than a hint of steampunk in a society that appears to be going through the equivalent of 1920s industrialism  - appear realistic enough and there is a believable synergy between what is powered by the benders and what by technology.

Perhaps more significantly, they managed to come up with a completely fresh villain where you're kept guessing till the very end whether he can be defeated. Even the drawing seems to have improved with this being perhaps the best rendered series currently on network television.

Book Review: Id-Dinja Tieghi

If you want to ensure that your child grows up loving books, there isn’t a better way to achieve this than to expose them to books from as early an age as possible.  This is fairly easy to do given the wide choice of books that are aimed specifically at toddlers.

Or, at least, that is the case if you’re looking for something in English because if you want books in Maltese then I’m afraid that you’re in for a struggle.  There are some ‘first dictionary’ type of books but these tend to be printed on normal paper which normally does not deal well to being handled by little ones.

It is a gap on the local bookshelves that Merlin Publishers have noticed and have rectified thanks to a collection of board books in Maltese that they’ve just published.   This collection, titled “Id-Dinja Tieghi” (My World) features four books: “Il-Kuluri” (Colours), “It-Trasport” (Transport), “L-Annimali” (Animals) and “Il-Frott u l-Haxix” (Fruits and vegetables)

Far be it, however, from us implying that these books should be bought purely because they are the only ones in our native language aimed at this age bracket.  The truth is that there are plenty of other reasons for buying them.  There is a wide variety to choose from (although, with the whole set setting you back just €22, we would suggest getting them all), the illustrations are delightful and there is that touch and feel element that delights children.

The quality of these books is such that they can be enjoyed for a number of years, from when they can barely utter the words to describe the images to when they start learning to read.  And, when they do learn to read, their experience will have been so good that they’ll be more than eager to experiment with other books.

More information on these books can be found on the publishers' website.