A, a, ants in my arm…

Some days ago, I was reading an article in a teacher’s magazine about singing and how through singing children can develop their vocabulary and learn phonics naturally.

The funny thing is, nowadays children do not sing in school as often as they should. Many mothers I have spoken to say the same. My son, if you ask him if he sang at school or if he had rhymes, he will tell you “no” but he will tell you about the latest hit in his nursery classroom: phonics.

I found out a few weeks back about them when my son was going about “a, a, ants in my arm”. He was repeating it with no rhythm, no melody. Just repeating the phrase and moving his fingers on his arm, up and down.

Me: “Where did you learn that?”

Him: “Miss told us. We watched it on the biiiiiig screen”

Me: “Ahh, I see. Do you like it?”

Him: “A, a, ants in my arm…”

The following day I took him to nursery and I asked one of the teachers and then she told me about a phonic programme they are using in the class room. She told me the three letters they were working on, and she insisted on not going any further than those letters. “Fair enough” was my answer.

Later that week, a letter came from the school, explaining that children in nursery were being taught phonics to “help them and prepare them for reception” and as a reinforcement they were asked to write their name; that it did not matter if they just made a line; they should write their name upon arrival instead of putting their picture up on a board.

You may think well, considering that 50% of the children in the classroom do not have English as the first language, the “ phonic programme” is a way to introduce them to the mysteries of English phonics so it does not hit them like a ton of bricks when they start reception. About writing their name, I suppose it introduces them to writing and literacy.

But let me focus on this phonics thing.

What is the difference between a youtube clip on phonics and sing? Yes, I know…youtube is there, a few clicks away. Whilst you watch the child(ren) with a corner of one eye you can get on preparing something else for the rest of the afternoon.

Voila’! Job done! Children are entertained and hey presto they learn. And you manage to get on with that something else that needs to be done.

I have worked alongside teachers from different schools who would not sing at all. I have been with teachers who would sing just for the sake of it. And children followed, happily as if it was the most natural thing, even those whose first language was not English. Hence, they were learning the mysteries of English phonics without any awareness of doing so. They were properly, not promptly, learning.

When children sing, they are learning to find the accents, the variations in sound, the tone, the beat. The rhymes and verses nourish their imaginations and help them develop they vocabulary. Not to mention that the repetition of these will give them security and confidence when speaking.

And this goes further: when you add movement to the singing, children start to learn about rhythm, timing, helping them to coordinate gross and fine motor skills which in turn will help them at a later stage in life.

You may say that children’s tv programmes do their fair share of teaching. Yes, in a metallic robotic sound (not to mention the accent), covered with songs and a paraphernalia of colours and flashing images. Where the rhythm and rhyme are accelerated, accentuated, and stripped of any natural timbre. Nothing can beat the human voice. Nothing.

And with the human voice comes one of the most beautiful, unique, most powerful by product: Singing. When you sing with will, with joy – even if you are like me that you cannot sing to save your life – children will follow suit. Because children can tell when you are making an effort, when you are confronted with something that takes you out of your depth, but you are doing it with joy. You are role modelling that nothing is impossible.

When you sing you pour your feelings into it, whether you notice it or not. Your mood changes, the way you do an activity whilst you sing changes. Try to sing when you do not want to. It will just not happen. I can tell you even when you are in a group situation and you do not want to sing, somehow the singing becomes contagious and you end up singing and craving more, with a warm feeling inside you. Singing does have a strong social side, unifies, makes you feel part of something. Just imagine how a child would feel, all warm and fuzzy after singing with his peers. An immense shared joy which sets the base for what a social gathering should, could, would be.

Which takes me back to teachers loading any phonic programme / song and leaving the children to listen and watch. What sort of social value would/could a child feel sharing images and sounds – short of calling them noises -? From my observations, children leave the screen either more agitated or confused; in a sort of “back to what we were doing” kind of look.

Which takes me back to the gesture, to the ever so important role modelling. If a teacher does sing, even when she cannot do so like Adele, at least she is role modelling that she is putting effort into it, to do it, to get it right. She is moving her lips and showing how the vowels, syllables and phonemes are done. Perhaps she will be moving hands, standing up right and smiling.

And children are learning. The gesture, the phonics, the nothing is impossible attitude. Naturally.

 

P.S.: During the last week, we managed to put some rhythm and melody to “A, a, ants in my arm” and sounds great. Even some movement and dynamic to it.

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Everybody is wearing pyjamas

Few weeks back at the nursery my son goes to it was dress up day and the theme was “Super Heroes”. The children were to go dressed up as their favourite Super Heroes. In our household, “heroes” is a subject taught by father since I cannot recall a hero in the same way he does.

Hence it was my partners job to think on which Super Hero our little one was going to be dress like since I never put too much of a thought on heroes to be honest. Heroes for me were Gandalf; in an awkward sort of way the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland and whilst in my twenties and doing all-nighters for uni with the television as companion I discovered amongst the cartoons two “Superheroes”: “Dangermouse” and “Speedracer”.

Only when I got older – and I got to read more books – I got to know some real women who did amazing things, real heroines (not to be confused with heroin!) like Hypatia, Amelia Earhart, Marie Curie, and many others – I could be all day trying to draw a rough list! – and these women gave me the inspiration I needed at the time. They did not chase white rabbits, speak with dragons, climb walls using webs or destroy any villains with powerful glances. On second thought: they did: in the real world, giving hard stares, chasing their dreams and speaking their mind.

Although it does not escape to me the magic of the superheroes represented by cartoons: imposing justice left right and centre, smashing evils and restoring peace and order after all the chaos, with a glimmering smile and a shining outfit. And for the cartoon heroines, those as well, pose a fabulous figure enrobed with a shining outfit and the perfect smile – not to mention no hair out of place (not even one!) after imprisoning a villain and rerouting a convoy of trucks to avoid a family of ducks crossing the road at that exact time.

I am unsure how these superheroes and superheroines may affect the child and the adult it will become in the future and I am unsure if children realise that superheroes are human beings – take Wonder Woman for example – who transform themselves into something extraordinarily powerful to fight injustice. I am sure though there are many studies about this subject all going for it or all against it.

As for my partner, Spiderman and Batman have a special place in his heart and he already gave our little one enough outfits branded with both characters. He cannot tell me why those two are so special to him. But they are. My partner always tells me how singular it was to sit down to watch the cartoon in the afternoons and enjoy every second of it.

As for me, I find Superheroes cartoons very graphic and violent – not to mention that nowadays the resolution on any device is simply amazing – and the path such characters embark upon to bring peace and justice is one of destruction galore which in my humble opinion, is just not good and sets a really bad example for a child and I find it very upsetting that all the good characteristics you want to find in a superhero are just obscured – if not obliterated – by the level of destruction caused to eradicate evil.

And it is my suspicion that obliteration is what remains in the memories of children today thanks to the high definition and fine detail (and extent) on the destruction, fights and damage provoked; the end message of good goes above evil, team work and good moral values are lost amidst ruins, fires, explosions, cars flying and kicks.

I am all up for good old costumes: a skirt that can be a tunic or a long dress; a blanket that can become a cape or a portable tent and a pair of swimming goggles that magically allows to see further away over the hills. Let’s not diminish the power of a stick and a cardboard box; or a belt (oversized) with a hat which transforms a mundane child into the most impervious pirate.

One word: magic. I feel the cartoons raid the magic and slash the imagination and feeds the child from a very early age with ideas – note, I am not saying ideals – situations and results which are far from real. If you think it is not socially acceptable to go around kicking and destroying to get something (although as a society we do. Look at all the wars and fighting going on as I type this) particularly if that behaviour comes from a child.

Yes, you got it. Most likely the child will be labelled. And those labels will damp the ideals we try so hard to imprint on them either from home or school.

How did the story of the costume ended, you may wonder? Well, my partner found a pyjama with “Batman” embodied. So, my little one wore his Batman pj’s over layers of thermals plus a Batman coat with a hoodie that worked as a mask.

No need to say that he never understood how could he possibly be wearing his pj’s to go to school (he tried to have a say on the matter) and when I went to pick him up and asked him how did his day go, he shrunk his shoulders and say “everybody was wearing pyjamas”.

 

Windows of wonder

Almost seventy years later I remember clearly how the magic of translating the words in books into images enriched my life, breaking the barriers of time and space… 

Mario Vargas Llosa

 

Thanks to Goodreads I found  this phrase in my inbox. It is beautiful, and one that I can relate very easy to.

Since I can remember, reading a book was a good way to escape from the moment and from reality; it could well mean learning something new about nature, seasons and the natural rhythm that surround us; how to bake or cook something which never ever turned to be as beautiful and perfect as in the pictures; how gazing at the night sky turned into staring at the moon trying to discover the spots the books were talking about; how travelling books fed my hunger for discovering new places.

I can remember clearly how my dad with all his patience taught me to read and make sense of the words with a famous book in Argentina called “Upa” well before I was ready for it and how important I felt when I asked my grandparents if I could borrow a dictionary which  had many pictures correlating with most of the definitions, to copy the words – hence, learn to write.

My whole life has been delicately intertwined with books; I’m no book hoarder but I can say that I do have a collection and within that collection a separate bookcase with the most special ones; those that remind me of a special moment, place, or person.

The few times I have had a book clearance I gave them to my local library and even then, with a heavy heart, only to be comforted by the fact that other people would enjoy them as I did.

My collection of books becomes known and the subject of heavy conversation every time I move to a new house. And when I say, “heavy conversation” this is not only because of the number of books and the weight of such boxes; it is as well because of the amount of swearing involved in the lifting and moving of said boxes and the unkind reminders of the amount of space and dust they gather.

Although I did inevitably catch up with the internet and the wonders of Google and Wikipedia where I am amazed and surprised at every click; I must confess at times this confuses me because of the amount of information given. It is too much and discerning, selecting and choosing takes a big chunk of time.

I remember when I found out I was pregnant, immediately I went to the local library to see what could I find. I explored for endless hours’ websites and more than once I simply shut up the laptop because there was too much to read, process and digest. At least in the library the books were few and I could easily flick through the pages and see if I could find something concise that would answer one question without uprooting a dozen more.

Which – you guess – was a futile quest. But at least two or three books could be something more manageable instead of 1,200,729 results in 0.06 seconds. With 2 or 3 books, I could make better choices. I felt I could choose!

This line of thinking does takes me inexorably to think on how children are being bombarded with 9,623,719 results in 0.40 seconds and the effects those results and the variety have on them. How they are bombarded with ready made things that do not provoke a thought or a sparkle for imagination.

Yes, I hear you say, cartoons do provoke imagination. Children are replaying what they see in their own way and of course they are using their imagination to do so. But have you ever tried to read to a child what he has seen on a screen? Have you ever tried to read to a child something that the child has not seen on a screen? If you give a child the choice to read a book from their favourite cartoon on screen and a book of a classic fairy tale, guess which one will win the contest? Yes, the one based on the cartoon.

My theory for this choosing is simple: because what you read has its foundations on a memory from the screen of something they have seen already. It is far easier to recall an image – or a series of them – rather than create an image built with words.

I for one try – almost desperately – to generate a world with words. I managed to shrink the amount of time in front of any electronic device. I try for my little one to spend more time outside in the patio rather than inside the house where he will test everybody’s patience to get hold of a screen.

I discovered that the time he spends soaking in the bath is perfect for me to read him a short story completely unrelated to his favourite cartoon. And to my surprise, he does enjoy that little time where words create a world.

I cannot avoid the reality we live in and I need my little one to learn about this fast paced world; but I most definitely can show him how to open the little windows of wonder every time he opens a book.

Guess what the electronic nanny is doing now….

“I need 5 minutes” thinks carer.

The child is restless, lobbying for the attention of the carer. The child and the carer are both exhausted. The child has many, many toys but they don’t seem to make a difference. The child plays with all of them, the carer plays with the toys to see if the child is interested. Child is interested in seeing the carer play with the toys. And nothing else.

“I need a cup of tea” thinks carer.

“I need 5 minutes to myself” thinks carer.

 And there it is. The tablet.

Carer sits down to select a cartoon that can entertain the child for 5 minutes, whilst putting the kettle on for a cup of tea…perhaps to make that phone call. By now the carer is an expert on multitasking i.e. looking after the child, entertain the child and, whilst the child sleeps, do all the rest.

Finally, a cartoon that is simple, lovely songs and colours, does not seem offensive and the carer likes it. Tap tap tap, there it is.

The child holds the tablet, and the eyes are as round as two teacup saucers.

As the child is absorbed entirely with the screen silence reigns once again – and it is not night time. Ah, that cup of tea. Oh, the phone call. Check for messages or comments on the social networks. Ah, send the email and carry on working on that project. Perhaps gain some time and make a start with meal time. Or tidy up the room, get on with the dishes or get rid of the pile of laundry…

Still silence from the child. By now the child is completely engrossed with the cartoon, a different episode.

Carer comes into the room to check on the child. The child seems happy. Carer is happy to see the child happy; hence the carer carries on with a myriad of tasks which otherwise, would be left for later if not left undone.

“That cartoon is a hit” thinks the carer.

Does any of this sounds familiar?

It is what I simply call “the electronic nanny”. Any electronic device which is capable to entertain the child for endless hours, keeping both child and carer happy to the brim. The carer can get on with day to day life and the child can be entertained. By now the child has a selection of “apps” that can teach numbers, letters, colours, rhymes, songs, stories, shapes and even other language!!! ” This is just genius! How comes no one ever told me about it!” thinks the carer.

Do not take me wrong: the health of the carer is as important as the health of the child. And when I say health, I mean physical and emotional health, not just the healthy food and everything we link with the word “health”.

But compromising the future health of a child for 5 minutes of “peace and quiet” – that you know it will end up becoming an hour if not more; and more still, becomes something regular – is a steep price to pay. There is even an article on the guardian about it: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/dec/25/screen-based-lifestyle-harms-health-of-children

I know it is easy said than done; and I know this because the “electronic nanny” was once a guest in my house. It did take immense strength to remove her from my son’s life: endless hours of crying, tantrums, rage – yes, rage of him throwing everything and making everything and everyone in the house a target – manipulation (those big sulky eyes saying “oh, please, I am about to die here” sort of look) and more tears, screams, kicking and empty gazing – or evil staring.

You name it: I have been there and it is a path where you will be told “not to be cruel to the child” or “what kind of parent does not allow the child to watch TV” “C’mon…put your feet up, give the child some TV, get some time for yourself” or even worse, the silent look.

Then others may say that the child will be “behind his peers” when it comes to technology. Do they mean that the child will not know how to push a button or slide a finger on a screen? Do they mean they will not know how to use Instagram?

It took a lot of patience and a lot of “I’m not going to give in to this”. More than anything: It took me a lot of inner acceptance that my little one could be included on daily chores such as dusting, stretching duvets, putting clothes in the washing machine, putting the dishes away, do some planting, or perhaps help with the shopping. I had to accept that he was not so little anymore and if a plate fell on the floor and broke it was a good excuse to change the service set.

I must accept and adapt to get the electronic nanny out of the house. I had to give more time to the chores and tasks and not rush around if I really wanted to do this. Again, it was not easy to get into this new self-imposed rhythm. But to see the results? Oh boy, that was a real treat.

When my little one discovered that he could put his laundry inside the washing machine – although it took ages, if not eons!  to get done – and then press the button to see the machine working he was as excited as Columbus may have been when he landed in America instead of India. When he discovered the brush and dustpan and the noise it would make on different surfaces; when he realised that shaking the dustpan would undo all the work he has done; when he saw the tulips bulbs he planted starting to sprout. And the list can go on. And the electronic nanny was almost gone.

As horrible as this may sound, I had to stop under estimating my little one’s abilities and strengths. Awful words, are they not “Under estimate”. I was doing so, what I solemnly swore the first time I held him in my arms “I will not do what they did to me: I will not under estimate you”.

I mentioned that the electronic nanny was almost gone. Yes. She is with one foot out. I am still battling to get her completely out. It is hard to leave bad habits and electronic devices on a child’s hand is no different. At least we agreed on only 30 minutes per day – and now we are on 22 minutes a day. And when the bell of the kitchen timer goes off, he, on his own accord, turns the electronic device of his choice off. No moaning no complaining no tears no tantrums. He happily goes to his bedroom to play or gets in the kitchen to see what am I doing.

Now the toys are interesting and he can create his own little world. Or if he sees me reading something he grabs a book and pretends to read. If he sees me around the computer, he asks what am I doing, and soon enough he finds something to do. But he does not crave for a screen or any sort of electronic device.

Yes, it is not easy by any means to go through a “detox” but believe me, it is possible. If someone comes and tells me that “I am damaging him because he is lacking the technology side of life” I can be happy with the fact that he is learning to live without an electronic nanny to “nanny” him when I am doing things such as looking for jobs, house chores or writing. I am sure he will have time to learn technology.

I am certain, however, that the skills he is acquiring now through play and helping around the house will not be learned through technology.

As far as I am aware, there is no software on earth that can mimic the feeling of soil when planting a bulb, or the feeling of warmth inside a house made out of duvets and pillows.