Holiday Camp at The Little Executive

My 7 year old was whisked off to a 5 day Globe Trekker holiday camp with The Little Executive at the start of the June school holidays. It was his first time going for a holiday camp and he didn’t quite know what to expect.

I showed him some videos and photos of The Little Executive’s past holiday camps such as the Dino Discovery Camp and Astronaut Training Camp which got him fairly excited, yet I was a little bit concerned because the camp he would be attending didn’t have any of his favourite dinosaurs or spacecraft, he would be ’traveling’ around the world instead.

It would be a 5 morning program where the kids ‘travel’ to 4 different countries to learn about their history, traditions, cultures and the languages they speak.

I was excited and thought that the camp could better prepare him for our upcoming Japan trip. Then Day 1 came and he figured out that instead of having the luxury of spending the morning at home, fiddling with his toys, he would be going for some sort of ‘lesson’. It took me more than an hour to cajole and coax him to get out the house.

We met Michelle Wee, one of the 2 brilliant ladies behind The Little Executive. I have known Michelle through a close group of mother bloggers and was drawn to her blog for her very down to earth approach to bringing up 6 kids! Yes, you heard me right. She has 5 girls and 1 boy and in her blog, she often dishes out sane tips and wise parenting advice on how she does it without going broke while maintaining her sanity. Apart from being a mother of 6, she is also a trained occupational therapist and she seems to have married passion with work when she started The Little Executive. I have been eager to find out more about their program, so when Michelle offered a spot for the upcoming Globe Trekker holiday camp, I was quick to grab it.

Marcus quickly met up with the facilitator for the camp. His name was Jim, a very friendly guy and it wasn’t difficult for my playful one to warm up to friendly stranger. Very soon, he forgot about our morning fuss and disappeared into his classroom without bidding goodbye. By the time I picked him up after the class, he was chatty and chirpy and rattling off about what he had learned. They had travelled to Mexico and learned about the Aztec people. They did some worksheets, made some craft and tasted some food. It was not hard to see that a lot of thought has been put into the lesson plan. Everything was planned around the country they ‘travelled’ to that day. I like this thematic way of teaching and learning. There are so many interesting things and ways to learn about a country!

I was glad that he enjoyed his first lesson and that kind of set the mood for the rest of the week. He was eager to know the next country they would ‘travel’ to and the week whisked by quickly. I was curious to find out what made him change his initial impression of a ‘learning’ camp and here are 3 main things that I found out from him that the camp did differently from his school.

1. More interactive teaching and learning

Instead of listening passively to the teacher delivering the lesson, the session was a lot more interactive and provided an end to end learning process.

The kids got to watch interesting videos on the countries they were visiting and that was certainly more interesting than listening to his school teachers’ monotonous voice. Before watching the videos, they were asked to look out for certain objects so that they could complete the given worksheets and the facilitators would discuss further the information that they have gleaned from the video. The kids were particularly attentive and would buzz with excitement while watching the video.

This would follow by a craft session where they would get their hands dirty, making things that were associated with the country they visited that day. Beside Aztec mats, they made boomerangs, sushi, paper origami and even a sandy beach using kinetic sand.

I think these craft sessions are good for tactile learners who learn by touching and doing. The physical activity and “hands-on” craft helped these kids to understand and remember things better.

2. Talking is allowed

Yes, kids are allowed to talk in class. In school, my boy would tell me that he was not allowed to talk even after he has completed his work.

During the camp, the children were allowed to talk and discuss, albeit quietly and respectfully. My boy confessed that he gets bored, sitting whole day in school, listening to his teachers talk. I probably get bored too and I seriously think this is the reason why so many children these days are being diagnosed with ADHD. Well, I probably need more data to justify my assertion. I think interaction and exchange of ideas are such important aspects of learning but sorely absent in our current school classrooms.

3. Peer learning

The age for the kids at the camp ranged from 4 to 8. The class was a mix of kids of different age groups, thus different abilities. It was so completely different from our local schools where the kids are grouped based on age, graded, sorted and further grouped into groups of similar abilities.

During the camp, the older kids got to help out the younger ones. Age appropriate activities of varying complexities were also given to the kids so that the activities were within their abilities. Being an older boy, Marcus was assigned as a group leader. He told me his job as a leader was to help out the younger ones. He loved it and felt mighty pleased with his new role as a ‘big brother’ in the group.

On the last day of the program, the kids were grouped and given the task of doing a presentation to the parents. So I was expecting something like a show-and-tell session my boys did in school, where a written script is required for rating and often parents go to great lengths to help prepare the most impressive presentation materials.

At the camp, I was impressed that the kids did everything themselves and were free to decide how much to present. The older kids would help the younger ones in the group. I saw them whispering to the younger ones during presentation helping them out with what to say. It was so very cute and heartening to watch these little people work as a team.

Personally I like this ‘peer learning’ setting where the children learn and help each other. I think at the camp, they have found a good way of mixing the kids without leaving anyone behind. The younger kids learn by observing how the older ones do things. The older kids learn a great deal when they have to explain what they know to others. It is like reinforcing and internalizing what they’ve learned. As fellow learners, they are more empathetic and understanding towards another kid who is struggling to grasp the new concept. They learn empathy, cooperation and team work. Isn’t that how we have always learned since the beginning of mankind when we lived in small tight communities.

All in all, I like the fact that the camp focused on the journey and the process of learning rather than the outcome. I think this runs against the grain of the Singaporean psyche where outcome is the penultimate. It is not easy putting such a program together and I think at The Little Executive, they have done exceedingly well in delivering such a program.

To find out more about The Little Executive’s curriculum and programs for children from Nursery to P2 Level, please visit their website or follow their FB page

You can reach them at

Address : 144 Bukit Timah Road Singapore 229844
Telephone : +65 6908 1889
Email : knockknock@thelittleexecutive.asia

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Learning to Code : Hello Robota!

My 7 year old loves his Lego. He still plays with them everyday. It’s the first thing he runs to after a long day at school and he will only sit down and do his homework after getting his dose of Lego fix.

Like most kids, he loves anything that is computer related. He has learned some Scratch programming from his elder brother. But unlike the Arduino stuffs his brother fiddles with, there isn’t a physical ‘robot’ that he can command using Scratch. The programming language his elder brother used is too complicated for a 7 year old and we have yet to figure out how to make their Arduino ‘speaks’ Scratch.

We realised that the next closest thing to building his own robot is using Lego Mindstorms. Lego Mindstorms is a series of kits which contain software and hardware to create customizable, programmable robot. It is made for little people but comes with a hefty price tag and it is not something that we would splurge on the kids. So far, the people I know who own Lego Mindstorms are adults, mostly Dads, usually fulfilling a childhood dream.

So my 7 year old was pretty excited when we received an invitation to try out Introduction to Hello Robota programme at MINT Museum of Toys. He would be playing with computers and Legos, how not to be excited!

Over the 4 weekends, he learned about basic programming and the history of robots.

Because I was unable to sit in during the lessons, I’ve got him to tell me what he learned. This was what he had to say after his first lesson.

About the Robots

I learned that the first robot in the world was Liliput. It was built in the 1930s by the Japanese. The second robot in the world was the Atomic Robot. The third one was the Hook Robot. It was called the Hook Robot because it had a hook on top of its head. The fourth robot was Robby the Robot. All these robots were built by the Japanese. The next robot was Astroman. It was the only robot build in Germany then and it was a remote control robot. My favourite robot is Astroman because it looks like an Alien and it can be remote controlled. I wish I have one of these robots.

About his first lesson

I learned about teamwork and the different types of robots. My partner was Ian. We worked together to build a robot using Lego Mindstorms. To build the robot, we were given a book with instructions. We followed the pictures to build our robots but we needed some help from other groups because we couldn’t finish in time. We programmed the robot to move forward for 4 seconds and backwards for another 3 seconds. The robot had 4 wheels. The front wheels were a little bit smaller than the back wheels. It looked like a sports car. We were supposed to make the back wheels of the robot touch the line on the floor. The next lesson we are going to make the robot turns.

As the lesson progressed, he learned about the different types of sensors. They used touch sensors and colour sensors for their robots and they learned how to connect and program these sensors.

He obviously had a lot of fun as he looked forward to his lesson every Saturday. The programme was a drop off session but I was able to have a short chat with the instructor just before picking him up after one of the lessons.

Winston Lau who conducted the lesson has a knack with kids. During the short period that I was there, kids were running up to him, interrupting our conversation and asking him for help. He was able to engage the kids and build a good rapport with them.

While I think that coding isn’t meant for every 5 year old kid, that children need to reach a certain level of maturity, be able to think logically before they can learn computational thinking, which is effectively, the ability to break down tasks into a logical sequence of smaller steps. Winston has an alternative view. He believes that every child is capable of learning how to code. He pointed out to me how the kids never get bored during the lessons even when they couldn’t get their code to work and their robots couldn’t move the right direction most of the time. They were having so fun that they didn’t even realise that they were learning!

Maybe he is right.

Unlike conventional learning in a school classroom, children in a coding class are not penalized for getting the wrong answers. In fact, there is no ‘model’ or right answer because there is usually more than one way to write the code to get the robot to do a certain task. It is impossible to penalize the children so long as they can make their robots move the right direction and there is no way for the children to memorize the answers!

On top of that, children in a coding class stumble and fall all the time. They are testing and failing their code over and over again to gain understanding and mastery. If their code works, great, they get instant gratification for the work they put in. If it doesn’t, the instant feedback motivates them to persist until they fix the error. Coding does seem like a powerful educational tool and it is no wonder many countries, England being the first and Sweden probably the most recent one, to introduce coding in their school curriculum.

 

Note : MINT Museum of Toys will be conducting their next Introduction to Hello Robota programme in June. It is priced at $280 per child and is suitable for children aged 7 -12 years old. You can follow their FB page to check out for their latest updates.

Introduction to Hello Robota is a 4-lesson starter programme aimed at introducing robotics alongside its predecessors, vintage robots, to kids. Using the LEGO® Mindstorms EV3 System, kids will learn basic programming skills, such as moving forward and backwards, which will be applied to explore the museum’s collection of vintage robots. Set in a fun and interactive environment, kids will get to learn the fundamentals of robotics as well as learn more about the collection of vintage robots.

 

 

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A Good School

Few months ago, we were in the process of looking for a Secondary school for our elder boy. He has done considerably well for his PSLE. Though we can’t claim much credit for his results, we did put in effort in finding a good school for him.

Despite MOE’s goal to make every school in Singapore a good school, our own experience showed that the reality is not quite as such. Each year, the heightened anxiety during school registration might be a good indicator to support our sentiment.

We didn’t know any better 7 years ago and we just went for a school that is nearest to our home. It was quite a popular school in our neighbourhood probably due to the awards the school had clinched and the past years’ PSLE results of students. It was then that I realised that different parents may have very different judging criteria for a good school.

I was the parent who questioned when my boy brought home too much homework or when they were not allowed to run in the field during recess time or when they can’t buy a bottle of mineral water from the drink stall because the school doesn’t sell them. That was despite the school being in the Healthy Meals Program. Apparently, sweet drinks made it into the school’s list of healthy drinks but not mineral water.

Our experience with our boys’ school has given us a clearer idea what to look out for when choosing a school. But the truth is, to really know the inside working of the school, we have to go beyond reading the schools’ vibrant web pages and glossy pages of the schools’ journal.

While MOE’s website has given a good list on what makes a good school, the question lies with how well can schools achieve those goals.

We went through the grey handbook that was given to every Singaporean kids registering for Secondary 1. It gives the list of schools in every part of Singapore and all the CCAs and special programs offered by different schools. The book gives a good summary of what each school offers but little about what we really need to know about the schools.

We decided to visit some of the schools and eventually it was these visits that helped us decide on our 6 choices of schools to put in his posting form.

Here are the 4 things we look out for in a school that goes beyond A* and PSLE cutoff point.

Trust and Respect

During our visits, some schools welcomed us onto their premises when we told them we were considering putting our kids in the school and wanted to take a look around, others were suspicious and unwelcome. We understand the need for security in the school, but what threat can a mother with two young kids in tow pose to a school during the December holidays?

We believe that a school with a culture of trust and respect can be observed through the non teaching staff in the school, from administrative staff to security guards and general cleaners. When students grow and learn in an environment where every individual is trusted and respected, the same attitude will be cascaded down to the students. If the general belief is that students are pesky troublemakers, they WILL be pesky troublemakers.

A Caring School

Are school decisions made through careful consideration on what is the best for the students, guided by a consistent value system and principles? Or does the school implement (MOE) policies but fail to achieve the intent of the policy? Does the school hold itself to its own values? Does the school pay lip service to what it says it will do?

For example, I think it is futile to teach students the school’s values by doing worksheets. Can we teach leadership skills and values by having the students do more worksheets? Don’t be surprised that some schools actually do that. As parents, we teach good values by modeling them and setting good examples. We make tough decisions based on our values in our everyday lives and during our daily interactions with the children.

I believe that a school that cares enough will also put some thought into the kind of food they serve in the canteen. When students are expected to spend long hours in schools, I would think that schools have the responsibility to give students the option of buying healthy food during recess and lunch.

The selection of food in my kids’ Primary School is dismaying. Our request for a microwave to be placed in the canteen so that children can bring their own food to heat up during recess was turned down. Speaking to the school and Health Promotion Board people who came by to audit the school canteen proved to be futile in improving the quality of food sold in the canteen. I learned about the problems faced by the school and stall holders. I concluded that the school either lacks interest or believes in different things.

My advice is, check out the food in the canteen when visiting the schools. The rule of thumb, if you think you wouldn’t eat there, why should we expect the students to do so.

Empowerment

One of the things that we want is for schools to empower their students. Empowerment makes the students take charge and take ownership of the things that they do. However it can be risky because things can go awry and the school ultimately needs to take responsibility. It can also be scary for the student because it forces them to try something new, go outside their comfort zones, and they can fail. Failure, can be scary, but a necessary ingredient to success. After all, we only learn how to walk by falling countless times.

During one of the visits to my son’s current school, I was taken aback by a student’s speech. He had said something which I thought wasn’t really appropriate. The principal later clarified that he did not vet through his speech and had only given the student a few pointers on what to talk about.

The principal gained my admiration because of how he chose to give his students free rein to do his speech. I see a principal who values the learning experience of his students over the image of his school. How many principals will risk having his students give a lousy speech that will make his school look bad?

This is probably hard to tell from a walk-in-visit but a school that often let its students be in charge of school’s event such as open house and orientation might be a tell tale sign that the school is unafraid to let the students make mistake and learn from their mistakes. Both failure and success build learning confidence. When students feel confident about decision-making and feel recognized as capable by the school, they gain the confidence and skill to “take” control of their own learning.

Positive Experience

There are many insights that can be gleaned by simply talking to or observing the current students. Are the students generally negative or positive about their school? Are the students proud of their school and its values? Do they come forth to defend the image of the school? Do they behave themselves in public? Students who behave themselves even when their teachers are not around show a high level of maturity and self discipline. Sure, there will be outliers but the trend will always tend towards the mean.

And I think our intuition about my son’s Secondary school had been right. Just 3 months into his new school and my son has everything good to say about his school. It is a big contrast from his 6 years of experience in his Primary school. What his Primary school couldn’t achieved in 6 years was accomplished in 3 months in his new school.

His current school invested significant resources to organize orientation and school camp within the first month of school year. I think the investment had paid off. It fostered camaraderie amongst the students, created a common sense of identity and ownership. Though still new to the school, my son feels that he belongs to the school and is also responsible to uphold the school’s values. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that your children is in good hands and that you have a found a partner to journey through this turbulent teenage years.

Our experience with our son’s new secondary school has given us hope that making every school a good school is achievable. However it is only possible under a capable principal and a team of dedicated teachers. Like any organisation, it takes good leadership with effective execution skills and sound strategy to bring vision to fruition.

 
 

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