For the last week of the recent school holidays I was off work to look after my daughters, Hazel (7) and Emma (6). Amongst other things designed to occupy time and tire them out we went to the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge and on an adventure walk.

The Centre for Computing History is a bit of a nostalgia trip for me – Atari VCS, ZX Spectrum, Gorf (sadly not playable when we went) and the rest – but my girls don’t carry that baggage and for them it stands or falls on its own merits. Although we did enter and run the classic BASIC program on the BBC micros (they chose to PRINT insulting things about their dad, naturally) the two things that really got them fired up were Big Trak and an Oculus Rift headset.

Big Trak is a 1980’s toy moon rover with a keypad on the top for entering simple programs in a Logo-like language. The programs control forwards and backwards movement, rotation and the rover’s lights. We spent ages experimenting with what they could do and what we could do with them (the instructions had gone AWOL) which included making them dance by spinning and moving back and forth, racing them across the room and driving them under a table from the front and navigating the legs of the table and its chair to exit from the side.

The Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset. In the museum it was running some kind of demo reel showing a chairlfit ride. The girls were fascinated by the relationship between the real and unreal worlds and the consistencies between the sensations and information available in each. For example that they had arms and legs in the virtual world that were not controllable by movement, unlike the view which changed when the headset moved.

For me, these two things have three key qualities for getting children interested:

  • Wonder: How does it work? What can it do? Why does it do that? 
  • Control: I see it can do those things. Can I make it do those things? Can I  make it do those things when I want it to? In the way that I want it to?
  • Scope: How far can I take this thing? In what directions?

Scope has two interesting dimensions: intrinsic properties and extrinsic ones. A toy with no inherent variability, for example a building block, may have scope limited only by the imagination of the user. Alternatively, a toy plastic monster with a bunch of built-in behaviours appears to have scope until the behaviours are understood and then is good only for passive attendance at play tea parties.

    At the Pac Lunch Bar (oh yes!) I got talking to one of the museum staff about how kids could be made interested in computers and about current  projects like the Raspberry Pi and BBC micro:bit versus the early home and school computers like the BBC micro and Commodore 64. I’m all in favour of providing children with opportunities to get into computers – they have been a large and largely positive part of my own life after all – but being into computing for its own sake is not something I am particularly bothered about. Along with opportunities to try things out, I want to equip my children with curiosity, skills and tools that will help them in whatever domain they end up in.

    My kids’ school issues homework from the Reception year onwards. I don’t disagree with this in principle (although some do) even if I  sometimes wonder at the value of specific pieces. One aspect of the homework that I really do like, though, is the Learning Objective notes.

    According to the Glossary of Education Reform, “learning objectives are brief statements that describe what students will be expected to learn by the end of [the exercise]” and there’s plenty of literature on them and the benefits they are perceived to bring to the various parties involved in education, including teachers, children, the schools and the parents (see e.g. 1 and 2).

    I guess I have something like learning objectives at the back of my mind when I’m setting up an adventure walk. I’ve mentioned these walks on the blog before: I make a list of things to spot and then lead the girls on a stroll round the local area where all of them can be found. It’s a kind of I-Spy thing – so an observation task – but with lots of scope for some lateral thinking, creativity, numeracy, language, knowledge gathering and a bit of a laugh. Each walk has a sheet of paper with questions, spaces to draw, places to write down lists and so on, to be filled in as we go and I try to be clear to myself what the point behind  each element is, and to balance them along a variety of axes like the ones I’ve just mentioned and also wonder, control and scope.

    It’s a really interesting challenge to create this kind of thing and then gratifying and illuminating to see it being worked through. We’ve done a few of them now and on this occasion for the first time we had a guest, Karo from my test team at Linguamatics. The girls had invited her after I told them she’d expressed an interest in the idea when it came up in conversation at a team meal down the pub.

    I thought it might be fun to list the questions. the objectives and what happened when we did the walk around the Cambridge Science Park.

    Emma’s sheet

    Draw a giant metal tree.

    My goal here was to promote observation and imagination, metaphor and making connections. Because the description can be interpreted very literally I was hoping that they would be able to see past whatever image they conjured up on reading it and recognise the electricity pylon (the image at the top of this post) when they saw one. And there was a lot of excitement and laughter when they did! A mixture of surprise and pleasure and, I hope, the beginnings of a realisation that it’s very easy to make assumpti
    ons without knowing it.

    Draw an animal that is worried about hurting its head.

    Deliberately tricky, this one needed a clue in the end. We saw some ducks on the lake in the Science Park, and talked about them. Emma even told Karo the joke we’d made up a few weeks earlier while walking round another lake at Wicksteed Park (it works better when you say it out loud):

    Emma: Shall we count the birds on the lake?
    Karo: OK then.
    Emma: (pointing) Swan.

    But it wasn’t until I gave a clue – crouching down – that they connected that to ducking, that ducking was something you might do if you wanted to avoid banging your head on something, that that was one way of hurting a head and that the action is a homonym with the bird.

    Again, there was a lot of laughter on the realisation that there was an undiscovered – if somewhat tenuous – connection. The joy in discovery is something that I’m really keen to help them experience.

    Pick three things you like on the walk and write them down with an adjective.

    I wasn’t sure whether they’d do this as they went or save it up to the end. All three of them left it to the end, and it turned out to be a nice coda to the walk. From a social science perspective it was fascinating that a kind of group decision without discussion resulted in each of them describing other participants. Emma had “great Karo”, “wonderful Hazel” and “bald dad”.

    What I’d wanted out of it was demonstration of language skills, vocabulary and thought given to the criteria used for selecting the things – on what basis do we like something? Is it the same for all things?

    Find a building with unusual windows. Why are they odd?

    I had a building on the Science Park in mind for this one,  but I was interested to see whether or not the girls would come up with the same building, what their reasons were, and how they would report them.

    Emma was entranced by the way that the windows reflected the sky and took Karo on a walk round the back of the building to see whether or not it was the same on the other side. Hazel was less interested in the question and more in trying to work out how the water flowed under the bridge outside the building.

    Find a park that you can’t play in. What is it?

    I had a couple of answers ready here. We were on the Science Park and, although there’s plenty of grass and space to play, I’d have accepted that as an answer. But what I was really thinking of was car parks, and there are many of them around the place. In fact, if it wasn’t so heavily landscaped, there’d be a lot less difference between the Science Park and an out of town shopping centre.

    It wasn’t until we were almost at the end of the walk that we crossed a car park and inspiration hit. I guess it might have been because we were reviewing the outstanding questions and that’s neat too, because I deliberately set questions that could be answered in one shot and that would take some time, some that I expected to be crossed off early on the walk and some that probably wouldn’t be, in order to see how they coped with managing the set of questions they were attacking at any given time.

    I think that the approach roughly went like this: at the start review all of the questions, focus on immediately tractable ones (e.g. find some red things), periodically return to the list of questions to see whether one has become tractable. When a multi-part question had been started it seemed to retain a high level of focus without a need to repeatedly ask it. This was true of …

    Copy down the longest word you can see on a sign.

    I teasingly only supplied room to write one answer here, to see how they would cope with the problem of having to remember the longest word so far. Impressively, after only a short discussion, they just decided to write on the back of their clipboards (which I made out of cardboard and bulldog clips so they’re clearly not precious).

    This was a great practical solution and what I particularly liked about it was that they took complete ownership of it, not asking me whether it was OK to do that, whether it was within the rules and so on. I was called upon to arbtitrate on whether answers were acceptable sometimes, but they seemed to feel that they could control the methodology used.

    Close to the end of the walk, when they’d got a 13-letter word, I asked how they defined “long” and whether there were any other ways it might be defined. This sparked a lovely conversation on the alternative of measuring the length of a word and how a “long” word in small letters might be shorter than a “short” word in big letters.

    How many bridges did you cross?

    Similar to the longest word, in this case I gave a simple box for entering the answer, wondering how they would count. Less discussion here, and no common approach. Hazel wrote numbers under the box, effectively counting in place “1” then “2” while Emma used a tally system.

    List five red things you see on the walk.

    More observation, but also the chance to compare the different shades of red, whether we perceive colours the same way and so on. We did have some discussion about whether or not particular things were red or orange and had some differences of opinion. We also thought about part-whole relationships: if a red car has red lights, can we count the lights as red independently of the car itself?

    I love this stuff.

    Pick three different leaves. Do you know what they are? Why do you like them?

    For this one I’d brought a reference book along and the idea was to look up the leaves in the book and try out different ways of comparing the leaves we’d got to the images. As it happened we only needed to do that once because they chose a couple of trees they already knew.

    When we did use the book it proved very hard to identify the particular kind of fir tree we were looking it, which itself was interesting – the fallibility of oracles, the need for our own judgement even when we have an apparent expert source, the fact that the book had drawings rather than photos, that it wasn’t at true size, that there is significant variability amongst instances of the leaves from any one tree, but only one example of each leaf in the book. How can we compare the within-species variety to the cross-species variety to make an informed decision?

    A second-order concern of this question was to get the girls to do a little descriptive writing and, as in some of the earlier tasks, think about what decisions or judgements they’re making and why.

    Hazel’s sheet

    I had a route in mind when we started, with several possible alternatives depending on how we were doing for time. As it happened we used the shortest of them because we spent so long looking at stuff along the way. On a couple of occasions we diverged from the route because that was where interest had taken us. So long as we still stood a chance of seeing all of the things on the sheet – even if not spotting them – I went with that. Pursuing a thought for its own sake is a beautiful and fulfilling activity and I didn’t want to spoil it.

    Another thing I didn’t want to spoil
    was the degree of sharing and teamwork. My daughters didn’t know Karo but still involved her right from the off. She was more one of them than like me and so got invited to discuss approaches, answers and so on in a way that I did not. I loved the way that they were prepared to suggest possible answers for the hard questions, or say what they were thinking and how they jointly decided where we’d go next. The transparent pleasure they were deriving from the walk (which they’ve got into the habit of asking for every school holiday now) was another great reward.

    Does this kind of activity give wonder, control and scope? I hope it does: I’m helping them to see wonder in and wonder about the world; I’m giving them control (in a safe way) of their exploration of their environment and exposing them to concepts which have limitless scope. Emma wants to make up the next adventure walk, so a new challenge for me: how to make the creation of an adventure into an adventure…

    A couple of things to note:

    I’m not an educationalist and I don’t have any training in this kind of stuff. I’m just doing what feels natural to me, with and for my kids, being led by their enjoyment and interests. There’s stacks of ways it works; for example, I get a kick out of helping them start to understand and make jokes because I adore the fact that the cognitive processes that that requires are sophisticated but also produce so much fun for the joker and the listener.

    Of course, I only get to do the experiment of bringing my kids up once so I’m heavily motivated to do it as well as I can, but I can’t predict what the outcomes will be. Unintended consequences abound in our house: a familial war on the superiority of brown sauce over red being only one example. (Brown is best, by the way.)

    And the last thing: if you’re going to try an adventure walk yourself, I’ve found that it’s a good idea to finish somewhere that you can get a pint and a sit down.