Tag: parenting

How do you explain the web to your kids?

There’s no way I could respond to the following tweet in 140 characters, so I’m writing a blog post instead!

My kids are four and eight years old, respectively, so you’d think I’d have a programme all drawn up about how to teach them the web – right? After all, I’m on the #TeachTheWeb team and my job is Web Literacy Lead, for goodness’ sake! Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Intro

As I said in a post a couple of years ago, the best way of teaching is through example. You’re doing this to an extent when your children observe you read a book or use the web. However the best learning from example comes when you talk through what you’re doing. This is what I try to do with my children. I’m not perfect (or even very good at it!) but I try my best.

Ages 3-5

For my four year-old, I’m trying to help her understand that all the devices she might use – or see other people use – are connected together. I’m also interested in her fine motor control. By this, I don’t mean big swipes or button presses that babies (or monkeys) can do, but things like going ‘back’ to the menu in an app, or using a touchpad to access various parts of the CBeebies website.

Another thing I want her to understand is that sometimes things don’t work.  That happened last night when our router stopped working briefly, meaning we couldn’t use BBC iPlayer. Nor could we stream films from our media server. Last week she couldn’t play a video because I didn’t have flash installed on the laptop she was using. I tried to explain software to her using the app metaphor.

To my mind, the key thing at this age is being able to know where the boundaries are between online and offline stuff. I don’t want her growing up thinking ‘the Cloud’ is literally in the sky! A lot of it comes from you as an adult talking about what you do and encouraging the child to ask questions – either immediately or later. I find asking them whether they’ve got any questions for you can be fruitful. This is often best when they’re not distracted – for example, when you’re walking them to school or driving them to an activity.

Another thing that’s useful at a pre-school age is being silly or ridiculous. they tend to be sticklers for wanting the world to be the ‘right’ way and are amused when you present it in a way that’s not. I use “imagine if…” a lot. This morning, for example, my daughter needed some Calpol so we went through “imagine if you got better by sticking carrots in your ears!” (etc.) They learn a lot by counter-examples. In a web capacity, you could try things like “imagine if websites were open only sometimes, like shops!”

Ages 6-8

My son, who’s just turned eight, started his blog when he was five but didn’t really start using it much until he turned six. Although I encourage him to write a blog post on a weekly basis, I don’t force him to. It’s the same way I tend to strongly encourage him to do things like tidy up his toys, “find something to do rather than annoying your sister”, or play Khan Academy / Duolingo every morning. As a parent you have to dole out your ‘musts’ sparingly – otherwise they lose their effect!

Through blogging, even through the WordPress iPad app, he’s learned about basic HTML tags. We also went through some basic CSS at one point but he’s probably forgotten that. The reason the HTML has stuck is repetition. He was super-interested in X-Ray Goggles activity about 18 months ago, so I created a basic cheatsheet and put it up next to his bed. I’ve found this a great technique at all ages. When I was a classroom teacher I used to provide my GCSE History students with revision tips and facts. They’d stick to the fridge or next to their bedroom lightswitch so they couldn’t help but see them! Repetition breeds familiarity.

He’s also migrated to using more devices. Whereas his sister is still 90% iPad with the occasional use of a laptop, he’s using the laptop more often. He used it last summer to search for howto’s on loom band making, for example, and seems to prefer the web-based WordPress interface for blogging now. It’s all about asking them if they’re ‘ready’ to move onto something else. It’s fine if they’re not, but you have to keep prodding. It’s the same way I get them to eat new things – not by forcing, but asking whether, now they’re a bit older, they’d like to try XYZ.

Metaphors

I think we get too hung up sometimes about people having a ‘perfect’ mental model of things. This week our team at Mozilla has been working on adapting an activity that can help with that for the upcoming Webmaker Clubs (name TBC). This is just one way to think about the web. Sometimes it’s worth having kids come up with their own metaphors. After all, they have to relate it to their experience up to this point.

This is why it’s always a good idea to get someone to whom you’ve just taught something to then teach someone else. This could be an elder child teaching a younger one, but equally could be a younger child teaching an adult feigning ignorance. It’s about reviewing and solidifying learning. Remind them that all this wasn’t around when you were younger and you had to learn it all. Comparing and contrasting life before and after a technological innovation can be instructive.

Rationing

This post is experiencing some scope-creep, I recognise that. But this is useful for my own reflection and may be useful to others.

I just want to mention briefly the amount to which my wife and I ration access to network-enabled devices. This is slightly different, although related to the (controversial) idea of ‘screen-time’. What I will just say on that is I’ve seen my children (and others) turned into somewhat-violent zombies when they come off an epic session on the iPad / laptop / whatever. We try to avoid that by doing the following:

  • No sessions longer than 15 minutes (youngest) and 25 minutes (eldest)
  • Nothing other than specific learning stuff (e.g. Khan Academy / Duolingo) before lunch
  • Our mobile phones are ours – we don’t hand them over to our children
  • Passcode locks on everything

I’m sad about the last of these points, but it’s a result of my son sneaking downstairs at 4.30am last summer to look at loom band videos! We try to remove the passcode on the iPad now and again, but we haven’t been able to trust our eldest in that regard 100% yet. We’ll keep trying.

What we don’t do (or want to do) is filter the web. There may come a time when we make that decision, but ideally the filter should be in the child’s head. If we ever do impose a technical filter, that filter would be on for the whole family – not just for the children. I think it’s unfair to say one thing and do another. And I’d rather respond to an actual problem rather than lock down their experience so they can never go wrong.

Conclusion

So there we are, for what it’s worth. I don’t use the Web Literacy Map explicitly with my kids, but then that’s not the point of it at this moment in time. I have used Webmaker tools to encourage and follow the interests of our eldest child. Equally, we’ve used DIY.org and a whole host of other websites I’ve come across. It’s all about weaving it in rather than seeing it as a discrete activity.

Finally, it’s worth saying that my son volunteered to be a mentor at Maker Party North East 2014. I planted the seed ages beforehand with “do you think you’d ever be able to…” and “imagine if…” so he felt like it was his idea. Inception! A lot of the time with new skills it’s about confidence. 😉

I’d love to hear what you do to teach the web with your children! Add a comment below, or write a blog post that links back here.

Bad Parenting (or, On The Meditative Nature of Screens)

TL;DR: Screens are enticing, but as parents we should be modelling better behaviours in front of our children than the ‘stare and scroll’.


Last year I wrote a post in response to one by Patrick Rhone entitled Reading books in front of kids is not enough. In the concluding paragraph I wrote:

Sharing is caring. Enthusiasm and curiosity is infectious. Just seeing Daddy read a newspaper or a book means absolutely nothing in and of itself. We need to model the behaviours we want to see. I’m all for encouraging children to read – let’s just not kid ourselves that letting them see us read physical books is enough.

I’m increasingly concerned about the behaviour of parents while using technology (specifically mobile devices) in front of their young children. And before I start to throw stones around this glasshouse, let me say that this is something I struggle with as a parent too.

The reason for not saying anything before now is because I thought it would be a fad: people get new, shiny smartphones and can’t keep their hands off them. But I see it turning into something a bit more worrying and sinister. As someone who works for a technology company that’s started work on creating mobile devices I don’t take this at all lightly.

Today, for example, I went out for breakfast. On a table near me a young couple sat down with their son, who must have been about 18 months old. Without saying anything to him, they pulled out their smartphones and started the ‘stare and scroll’ I’ve seen so often amongst parents recently. Unlike his mother and father, the child was provided with no form of entertainment while they were waiting for breakfast to arrive. Predictably, after five minutes he got down from his chair and started making noise to get the attention he craved. To pacify him, his mother handed over her phone and he started the now-familiar ‘toddler swipe’ through photos.

Parenting is hard. We all know that. But this kind of thing is happening all over the developed world. Catherine Steiner-Adair is a clinical and consulting psychologist who interviewed 1,000 children about the role of screens in their lives. The quotations below by her a taken from a New York Times article:

“Children of all ages — 2, 15, 18, 22 — used the same phrases to talk about how hard it is for them to get their parents’ attention when they need it: sad, angry, mad, frustrated,” she said. They were complaining that their parents were focused on screens, she continued, “like a child’s chorus of all ages, talking about this new sibling rivalry, only it’s not a new member of the family — it’s a new screen, it’s a device.”

Amongst the five web literacies Howard Rheingold identifies is attention literacy. To me, that not only applies to the attention you pay on the web, but also decisions you make about the relative value of the things around you. While it’s absolutely OK to check your social stream in front of children, in their eyes you doing so for a protracted amount of time makes them seem second-best.

Paying more attention to your screen than your child is also dangerous. Although there’s currently no proof of causation, it’s certainly odd that the dawn of smartphones is correlated with a rise in childhood injuries – bucking a longstanding downward trend. This certainly meshes with my experience: the number of parents I’ve seen pushing their kids on the swing in a park with one hand while scrolling through their Facebook feed with the other is staggering.

Finally, it worth saying that neglect isn’t just a physical phenomenon, it’s an emotional one too. I wonder what we’re going to reap as a society in twenty years’ time from what we’re currently collectively sowing?

As parents we can do better than this. We must do better than this.

Image CC BY-SA Paul Boxley

Some thoughts on the Department for Education’s consultation on ‘Parental Internet Controls’.

The Department for Education's consultation on 'Parental Internet Controls'

If you’re in England and a parent, guardian and/or educator you should be responding to the Department for Education’s consultation on Parental Internet Controls.

The assumptions behind it are quite staggering.

It would appear that the government believes that the best way of ‘protecting’ young people is to shield them from ever accessing ‘inappropriate’ material online.

This is wrong for several reasons:

  1. Despite your best efforts, all young people will at some point come across inappropriate things online
  2. Any tool you use to block inappropriate sites will be a fairly blunt instrument leading to false positives
  3. Blocking tools tend to lead to a false sense of security by parents, guardians and educators
  4. Who decides what’s ‘inappropriate’?

The best filter resides in the head, not in a router or office of an Internet Service Provider (ISP).

I don’t want my internet connection to be filtered in ‘the best interests of my children’. I don’t want to be subject to censorship.

I’ve responded to the consultation. I’ve pointed out that their questions are sometimes unfairly worded. For example, I want to respond for one particular question that I don’t think ‘automatic’ parental controls should be in place in any households.

It’s about education, not censorship. Make sure you respond to the consultation, please!

3 rules for our five year-old (that work!)

Baby Taz

Last week I was cooped up indoors with my son.

Ben is an energetic five year-old on Easter school holidays whilst I was ill and off work. It rained most of the week meaning that there were fewer opportunities for him to get out of the house with my wife and Grace (our one year-old daughter). The temptation to let him just watch films and play on the iPad was quite high, to say the least.

Thankfully, we’ve already laid down some ground rules for him that help manage his behaviour.

1. Food

Young children can be inordinately grumpy if they’ve got low blood sugar. Actually, I’m inordinately grumpy if I have low blood sugar.

The first job for my son every morning is to eat some fruit. This is usually a banana. Given that he usually rises at around 6am, it stops him being super-grumpy before his breakfast at 7.30am.

I don’t care what anyone says about children and sugar: too much is bad for both their teeth and their mood. Ben gets that wild look in his eyes when he’s had too much. Fruit, however, contains fructose which seems to be a useful compromise.

2. Screen time

I have to admit, the notion of limiting children to a certain amount of ‘screen time’ seemed slightly ridiculous before we had Ben. But, oh my, you have no idea how more than 15-20 minutes on the iPad (or watching TV) has on his behaviour.

The rule in our house is that he’s not allowed on the iPad until after lunch. This means that at weekends and during school holidays he usually wants lunch at 9:30am!

Whilst Ben has got some games that are purely for entertainment (like Smash Cops which he got as a birthday present, or Gravity Guy and Sonic Racing), most of what he plays has a puzzle element.

His favourites?

He has periods where he’ll just focus on one game to the exclusion of the rest. And that’s fine (for 15 minutes at a time…)

3. Entertainment

Partly from necessity, partly from principle, we ask Ben to go away and play by himself every day.

We live in an age of mass entertainment when it would be easy to find him something for him to passively consume. When I was young I read books and played with cars because there was nothing more exciting to do. Now there’s a million TV channels, apps and digital distractions fighting for our attention.

Clay Shirky puts the problem well:

I remember, as a child, being bored. I grew up in a particularly boring place and so I was bored pretty frequently. But when the Internet came along it was like, “That’s it for being bored! Thank God! You’re awake at four in the morning? So are thousands of other people!”

It was only later that I realized the value of being bored was actually pretty high. Being bored is a kind of diagnostic for the gap between what you might be interested in and your current environment. But now it is an act of significant discipline to say, “I’m going to stare out the window. I’m going to schedule some time to stare out the window.” The endless gratification offered up by our devices means that the experience of reading in particular now becomes something we have to choose to do.

In a way, therefore, by insisting on analogue play (including reading and writing) we’re teaching mindfulness. It also reinforces the role of my wife and I as parents as opposed to mere babysitters/entertainers.

Are you a parent? What rules do you have in YOUR house? Do they work?

PS You’ll love Leo Babauta’s The Way of the Peaceful Parent

30 things I’ve learned in 30 years.

I turned 30 last month. Not only that, but I’m now a father to two children meaning that, at some point, I’ll need to pass on what some might call ‘wisdom’. Here’s 30 things I’ll be telling them based on my experience:

  1. Don’t be the first person to leave a gathering. Don’t be the last.
  2. Try not to burn your bridges, you never know when you might need to return to them. But if you do decide it’s necessary, make it spectacular with proper fireworks.
  3. In the long run, people will always spot substance over style.
  4. Alternate alcoholic drinks and soft drinks for an enjoyable night and productive morning after. Do the same when drinking coffee to avoid dehydration.
  5. Find what you like, including brands. Narrowing down your options in any given situation saves time and frustration.
  6. Ask. People can only say no, and are usually polite about it.
  7. Focus on routines and rituals. Nail these and you’re sorted.
  8. Women really do like all of that romantic stuff.
  9. Practice eloquence. People like listening to those who can put difficult concepts in layman’s terms.
  10. At the end of it all, the only person who stops you doing something is yourself. Confidence is a preference.
  11. Most people care less than you think about almost everything that you deem important. Avoid echo chambers.
  12. Don’t let your school years define you.
  13. Nobody knows what goes on inside your head until you say it or write it down.
  14. 90% of ‘success’ (as other people define it) is being in the right place at the right time, the other 10% is extremely hard work.
  15. Just as your tastebuds are renewed every 7 years, so you are not the same person throughout your lifetime. Don’t be beholden to people who would tell you otherwise. Be ruthless in separating friends from acquaintances.
  16. Exercise more than you think you need to. When you’re young you think your body will be in peak condition forever. It won’t be.
  17. Make your first experience or attempt at something the best it can be. It will usually affect how you conceptualise that thing or person from then on.
  18. Don’t believe what someone tells you because of their personality or good looks.
  19. Never trust people who smoke or gamble regularly.
  20. Endeavour to be the least knowledgeable person in the room at any given time.
  21. Learn another language (including music). It’s not only a means of expression but a different way of thinking.
  22. Find somewhere that is completely quiet and you can be undisturbed. Visit it often.
  23. Defer to authority, but only if it doesn’t mean compromising your principles.
  24. Develop a firm handshake and look people in the eye when you meet them.
  25. Seek out liminal spaces. Although sometimes times of turmoil (moving jobs, waiting for confirmation of results, etc.) they encourage both reflection and future planning.
  26. Try and explain complex things to very old and/or very young people as often as you can. It’s a valuable process for both parties.
  27. Money is important but only in the way that it flows (both in society, and at family/individual level).
  28. You are a collection of interactions and experiences. Ensure that the collection is the best it can be.
  29. Let other people boast about you and big you up (but don’t believe everything you see/read/hear)
  30. Read inspirational things often, especially quotations and proverbs. Dwell upon them.

Image CC BY-NC 96dpi

The one thing I never want my son to say again.

Ever since I mentioned there’s a phrase that’s been banned in our house since Ben was born, people have been asking me what it is:

Ben on a block at the beach

I can’t.

Into the Wild world of Hitler and Attachment Theory.

Christopher McCandless devant son Image via Wikipedia

Adolf Hitler’s father whipped him as a boy. His parents died (separately) when he was in his teens. He spent some years drifting, fought in WWI, and eventually became the monster we have all learned about.

Chris McCandless’ parents argued and fought when he was a child. Their lies about how they met, about the circumstances of Chris’ and his sister’s birth drove him, after university, to leave his savings to charity and eventually end up in Alaska. Trying to live apart from society in the wilderness, he died and his story was made into the film Into the Wild (which I watched this evening).

Both Adolf Hitler and Chris McCandless could be said to suffering from a lack of emotional attachment to parental figures. This led to tragic consequences in both cases. As an educator, I see pupils who show tendencies, perhaps not on the same scale, but certainly on the spectrum certainly as McCandless. This is why I was fascinated to come across Don Ledingham’s recent blog post on Attachment Theory.

It was a real eye-opener. I know I’m only four years into my teaching career, but there tends to be ‘nothing new under the sun’ after a while. The same-old, same-old keeps getting churned out and repackaged. What I read about Attachment Theory, however, really made me think. Schools can be discriminatory places, sometimes indirectly. Take, for example, the wildly different parenting experiences two pupils in the same class could have. Believing that we, as teachers, can modify a pupil’s behaviour simply through rewards and sanctions seems somewhat misguided in this light. Here’s Don’s gloss on it:

However, Attachment Theory suggests that such a model cannot influence a child who has not experienced secure parenting, nor formed a secure relationship in their early years. If we reflect upon what adults are doing with children under 3 we can characterise good parenting as being caring and empathetic. Recent brain research shows that the brain does not develop the same in an environment where the child has not experienced a secure parenting environment. So such things as neglect and abuse; overt family conflict; hostile and rejecting relationships; or death and loss can all disrupt the normal secure attachment that a child requires to properly develop.

By the time such children come to school they are not in a position to understand or control their behavour so the dominant behavioural models which most schools and classrooms depend upon are doomed to failure, as they assume that all children are the same and that they have had the same parenting and don’t make allowances for those that haven’t.

We need to educate the whole child. We need to teach young people with reference to their norms and the context in which they have been brought up and operate. I’m going to be looking for more on Attachment Theory. I think it’s got a lot to say to educators.

What do you think?

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