Wednesday 26 November 2014

How do you know which movies and electronic games are age-appropriate for your kids?

Please note; this is NOT a sponsored post; just something I thought might come in handy when we're all casting about for ideas for gifts this Christmas...

As an involved / engaged / helicopter (delete as you see fit) parent, I like to understand what it is my children are watching or playing when they're staring at their electronic devices.  However, researching every single online purchase that my children want to make - and properly understanding the plots and techniques etc that various games use - is something that I simply don't have the time (or, if I'm honest, the enthusiasm) to do.

Boy #2 came home from school a couple of weeks back lobbying to be able to download a new game on the ipad.

"Everyone has it, Mum" he told me.  Hmmm.  I had never heard of this game before.  "Define 'everyone'", I said.  "Well, M has it.  And S.  And O."  Okaaay.  All boys with previous form in the area of inappropriate / excessive internet and electronic gaming use, I noted.  I decided to ask Boy #1 if he knew of this game.

He did.  "That is definitely not the right age group for Boy #2"  he pronounced firmly, family policeman that he is (is it just me or do a lot of oldest siblings - myself included - fall into that category?)  "I've seen it and I don't think it's appropriate AT ALL."

'Appropriate'; that lovely multi-tasking word.  The Potski family use it when certain people Talk Too Loudly In Church, when they Scream At The Top Of Their Voice that their socks hurt as we walk too school , when Bottom Conversations become Too Personal, and - increasingly often - when looking into the content of various forms of electronic entertainment.

Boy #2 was sure his older brother was being too cautious.  "It's fine, Mum.  Let's just try it and see..."  We've done that in the past with disastrous results, so I wasn't convinced that in the case it was the best way to go.

Luckily, I didn't need to try the 'suck it and see' method of trial.  Instead, I was able to pass the buck on this decision to an online resource we use frequently, and who's decision is seen as final by my two occasionally biddable children.  Commonsense Media is a site that gives reviews and age ratings for almost any web-sourced content that your children may be interested in, and which - crucially - gives you an instant and easily accessible list of the reasons why those ratings have been awarded.  For example, this is their review of World of War Craft (which they rate as Age 15):

'Parents need to know that this game is incredibly fun to play and spectacular in terms of its beauty and creativity, but it requires adult involvement to be a positive and safe experience for teens. There is violence, some of it bloody, references to alcohol, and occasionally subtle sexual innuendo. Most importantly, parents need to know that this game is conducted online and may involve chatting with unknown players. Also, parents should set time limits for gameplay: With endless exploration and no clearly defined levels, it is easy to get hooked.'

Whereas this is what they have to say about Minecraft (rated Age 8):

'Parents need to know that Minecraft is an open-ended, exploration and creation focused environment. One of the best-selling, independently developed and published video games,Minecraft's official release was in November 2011 following a lengthy beta test phase that attracted millions of players. Players can create items and buildings from scratch using materials they harvest from the world around them. There is no story, but players will encounter aggressive monsters they can fight using swords and bows. Graphics are extremely blocky, and there is no blood or gore, but the creatures can be a bit scary when they moan or appear seemingly out of nowhere. Parents should note that this game has a thriving online community hosted by private, non-moderated servers. This means players could encounter offensive content in the form of profane text messages and suggestively shaped player-created structures, although players don't have to engage in online activity to enjoy the game.'

So back in Potski Mansions, we input the name of the game in question into the CommonSense Media search engine, and sure enough, Boy #1 was correct; this game was rated as Age 12.   Boy #2 (currently aged 8) was disappointed but was willing to toe the party line.


Although there might have been some reprisal-instigated wrestling that ensued when my back was turned, but hey, I can't be an involved / engaged / helicopter parent all the time...


Wednesday 19 November 2014

21st Century Learning

Who can place this quote:

"... your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not that they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."*

I remembered this quote today when I was having a conversation  with a friend and we found ourselves pondering this question: how much screen time do our children get each day?

In fact, how much screen time does YOUR child get each day?

I'm asking this not because I'm trying to make you feel guilty about the kids flopping down in front of the tv the moment they walk through the door at the end of their school day, or to make judgements about the games they may be playing on the ipad, x-box or pc in their room right now.  No, I'm asking this because I suddenly realised during the conversation I mentioned that I don't know the answer to this question myself.

That is because the amount of tv / computer time that my children get at home each day is, in fact, only one piece of the jigsaw; for 8 hours of every weekday during term time my children are not at home.  They are at school, in an educational environment where, more and more, online resources are an integral part of the teaching lexicon.

And that's fine, that's wonderful.  There are now ways for teachers to enhance our children's learning experiences to a degree that was never even dreamt of when we - the pre-Internet generation - were at school.  Want to know about the recent landing on the comet?  It's there in glorious technicolour, tattooed genius engineers and all, at the click of the button.  Need to teach your class the life-cycle of whales or the migratory pattern of puffins?  Instantly accessible, engaging, and entertaining footage is only the correct search engine term away.  Want your class to research the history of the US War of Independence for a project on national autonomy?  Well, there's no need to send them to the school library or ask them to turn to the relevant page of their dry and dusty text book any more, is there?  You just get your pupils to reach for the nearest handy electronic device (be it school or parent supplied), and ask Dr Google (or the school-approved safe content guaranteed equivalent) to provide the relevant information.

And this is great, this is liberating, this is what the internet does brilliantly.

Except.  Scientists frequently tell us that there are limits to the amount of time that a child - with their growing, emerging, fragile brain and all the establishing neural pathways and synapses it consists of - should spend in front of any kind of a screen each day.  Guidelines vary with each new study but that's immaterial since how are we, as parents, expected to gauge what actually is a 'safe' amount of time for our children to spend using a laptop or similar at home when we have no idea how much time they have already spent doing the same thing at school?

Sure, the on-screen content they have been looking at in school may have been 'educational' - but does that actually make any difference?  Does the part of the brain that deals with cognitive development analyse the information that's coming in from the screen in front of it and make a judgement call on whether or not the length of time the child has been looking it is harmful, saying to itself  'Oh, it's about the lifecycle of an amoeba.  That's educational - part of the National Curriculum.  No need to worry about that screwing with the formation of my synapses, then'?

So when he got home from school this afternoon I asked my 11 year old son how much time he had spent in front of the computer today.  He reckoned 45 minutes in his maths lesson, 45 minutes in foreign language, and 30-45 minutes doing research for a current school project.  Unusually there was no writing on computers required for language arts today, so that was it - in school hours.  But add on the approximate 30 minutes he spent online this morning before school catching up on homework, and the 30 minutes doing the same thing this evening, and we are at, let's see, more than 3 hours on the computer today.

And that's without any screen-based game time or watching any tv (because we simply didn't have time for that), so I reckon it's actually a light day.

Which leads me to my ultimate question, I suppose.  Parents are constantly being asked to take responsibility for the amount of electronic input that their children's brains receive, and I'm happy to do that; I want to do that; it's my job.  But is anyone asking schools to factor the same calculations into their lesson plans and to take a similar level of responsibility in safeguarding their pupils' brain development?

Technology is the future.  It's the way ahead, an inescapable fact of life.  But schools need to work with parents on this whole issue of screen time, because it seems to me that there's a disconnect between what they consider acceptable educational practice and what we at home are expected to allow in terms of safe amounts of access.

*Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park - you can see the fantastic scene where he uses this line here.  Vintage Spielberg.

Wednesday 12 November 2014


Yesterday it was Remembrance Day in the UK (and in various other nations around the world, I know).  I had hoped to take the Boys to see the amazing installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London when we were in the UK a week or so ago, but heavy traffic and a late-running doctors' appointment meant we didn't make it. Life, as ever, got in the way.

However, yesterday Boy #2 came home from school to tell me how his teacher (a South African) had shown them footage from Sunday's ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall London, regaling me with his tale as if it related to events from ancient history rather than to commemorate something that happened within still-living memory.

"The ceremony happened at 11 o'clock, Mum."  Do you know why that was, I asked.  He didn't, so I explained about the significance of the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month.  He nodded sombrely.  "They had rows of soldiers, Mum, all saluting" he said in a low voice, as if to emphasise the importance of what he was telling me.  "The Queen laid a wreath, and then a man shouted something, and all the soldiers stamped.  Then, they played a tune on trumpets that didn't have any buttons on the top."

Cornets, I said.  They were called 'cornets'.

And I was momentarily transported back to when I was similar age and listening to the Last Post being played on various chilly November mornings throughout the years.  My sister and I used to march with our Brownie pack (and later, as Girl Guides) along with veterans, civilians, the mayor and town council, the cubs, the boy scouts, the local army, RAF and naval cadets, and so on in a parade through the very small town where I grew up, every year on whichever Sunday fell closest to 11th November.  We walked from the parish church to the town square, where a stone cross embellished with the names of the local men who had fallen in World Wars I and II stood by the doctor's surgery and bus shelter, and each of the organisations represented laid their flag and a wreath on the steps of the memorial.

It seemed to me, at 8 years old standing in my best coat and uniform listening to the 2 minute silence, that the streets were heaving with poppy-wearing people who had come to pay their respects.  I used to catch the bus to school from the memorial every week day and on the days that I wasn't wrapped in my own thoughts I remember marvelling at how short some of the lives commemorated on the stone had been; only 16 or 17 years long, in a couple of cases.  And I especially remember that even at 8, 9, 10 years old I was struck by the horror and the pathos of realising that some family names were repeated - 3, or 4 times in some cases - denoting the fact that multiple members of the same family were commemorated as having died during the same war.  Imagine being their sibling, I thought then.  Imagine being their mother, I think now.

It seems so impossible to us; the white-hot fervour that drove entire families of young men to enlist.  From our relatively safe 21st century existence, I don't think many of us can imagine it.  But then, because 100 years ago - and more recently - they did, I don't have to.

Back in 2014, Boy #2 was still talking to me in the same low, insistent, serious voice.  "And then we heard a poem, Mum.  I can't remember the words, but they were good..."

Did it go; 'They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.'?  I asked.

"Yes!  That was it exactly!"

And I was struck yet again how many key milestones from my childhood are not present in my sons' lives.  There's little of that here, you see.  I'm not saying that the Russians don't venerate and respect their war dead, they absolutely do.  But the key difference is that the calendar date on which they do so is not called 'Remembrance Day' or 'Armistice Day'.  It's called 'Victory Day', and that is the aspect that is publicly celebrated.  It's more about military parades than about standing in silence, so that's what the Boys have known for the last 5 years.

For some reason I rarely went a Remembrance ceremony in the UK once I became an adult.  I can't think why; I suspect that I simply allowed Life to get in the way.  I hope, though, that if we return to the UK perhaps that might change, and my sons will get the chance to appreciate the value of standing in silence for 2 minutes to honour those who have died in their country's service.  In the meantime I'm going to reproduce the relevant stanza of the poem that the Ode to Remembrance is taken from.

Lest I forget.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.

Laurence Binyon; 'For the Fallen'.

Tuesday 4 November 2014

The curse of Halloween; I'm just going to come right out and say it...

Want to hear a rather unfashionable secret?

Deep breath.

I hate Halloween.

There, I said it.  And if you want to accuse me of being a boring old fuddy duddy, go ahead, I really don't care.  It's not that I hate the Halloween I grew up with, you understand.  No, it's more that I hate the way that we (as in, those of us who didn't grow up in North America) are being shoe-horned, cajoled and emotionally blackmailed, however you want to put it, into the Hallmark-isation of what was previously a low key event on our festive calendars.

As a kid growing up in the UK during the far distant days of the 1970's and 80's (or as Boy #2 so charmingly put it yesterday, 'The Olden Times'), Halloween was celebrated, but slightly differently.  It saw a profusion of pipe cleaner spiders festooned across classroom windows, the exuberant use of black and orange sugar paper, perhaps a small pumpkin Jack o' Lantern at the window, and maybe a school event or a party featuring apple bobbing*, iced ring doughnuts hanging from string**, and teens or adults running a Dark Room*** which you went into to be scared, if you dared.  And if the grown-up running the festivities was particularly imaginative they might turn out the lights, put a candle in the middle of the floor, and in a suitably sepulchral voice tell a story that began 'Once upon a time, in a dark dark room, in a dark dark house....' and so on.

There might - MIGHT - be call to dress up at said party, but generally a black cape with a touch of glitter and a home-made black witch's hat made out of black card, or a white sheet destined for a second life as a duster doing temporary service for Halloween with holes cut for eyes would do the job.

But spending a small fortune on plastic tat to dress your child up as some kind of monster or ghoul, or walking around knocking on strangers' doors begging for sweets?

*Assumes best Lady Grantham stare*

I think not.

However, my point of view on this matter is extremely unfashionable, especially living where we do right now.  'Little America' doesn't begin to cover it when we are talking about October 31st.  So rather than following my instincts and locking the doors before turning the lights off, I grit my teeth, stock up on on enough 'candy' (SWEETS!  They are SWEETS!) to sink a battle ship, and turn my children loose on neighbours who are far more excited about this event than I am and who are generous enough to allow my kids to experience a Halloween more suited to the one the kids take part in in 'E.T.' than the paltry celebrations I grew up with.

This year it was a little more challenging; we had unseasonably cold weather in Moscow on the night it was celebrated (because, you know, half term and all that), and the temperature on the Halloween Trail was a balmy -7degC.  As you can imagine, that rather put paid to some of the more adventurous costumes.  It didn't slow Boy #1 down, mind you.  He disappeared with a couple of friends wearing a viking helmet and brandishing a plastic axe (a very practical nod to dressing up, I thought, what with also needing to wear snow gear due to the freezing temperatures) and turned up blue-lipped and shivering an hour later, clutching a bag of booty and grinning from ear to ear.  

Boy #2?  He's more like me.  I think we made it to 2 houses, where he accumulated a grand total of 4 pieces of candy (Candy? See? They've got me at it now...) before telling me it was just too cold, that he had enough, and anyway, he wasn't interested in the sweets on offer.

"Because, well, none of them are 70% chocolate, mum."

Chip off the old block, that boy.  Now.  Anyone for apple bobbing? No?

This post was inspired by my good bloggie mate over at Talk About York.  Solidarity, sister!

*Apple bobbing: fill a bucket or barrel with water, float apples in the top, and children need to pick them out with their teeth.  And yes, there are germs.  Adds to the excitement, I suppose...

** Iced doughnuts hanging from string, have to be eaten with your hands behind your back.  And why not?

***Dark Room: Take one darkened room, add a number of plates covered with black cloth and invite the children to lift the cloths to put their hands underneath to feel the eyeballs (peeled grapes), intestines (sausages), maggots (chopped up cooked spaghetti).  Such fun!