We wondered how different kids, with different experiences of early education – for example those who had never seen or played with an ipad – would take to Little Dragon. And, socioeconomic status aside, we wondered how each unique child would feel about and interact with an emotionally attuning electronic creature. For our field trials we had to spend a couple of weeks with dozens of kids and find out.
We spent a while working-out where to conduct these first trials, but in the end China’s southwest Yunnan province emerged as the obvious and natural choice. Yunnan is a special place: more biodiversity than all of Europe, and more ethnic diversity than China’s other 30-plus provinces. And not only is Dali a unique ancient and fengshuily unparalleled town, a heavenly place that’s drawn individuals and families from all over China and the world, over the past decade it has – at different and occasionally overlapping times – been home to Fabrizio, Martin, and I.
So, after just a few weeks of Skype-life and sprinting, Magda and Joana arrived from Germany on Sunday January 17th and now the five of us are sitting in a recently opened café on the road between Cangshan and Erhai Lake glass in hand. As we sample a couple of pints of the café’s own-brewed beer – the ‘yellow’ beer dubiously similar to the ‘dark’ beer, and the barman’s introduction suggesting that they differ only in colour – we get to the critical task of naming our creation. Our conversation flowed from the cute avatar character that Joanna had rendered for our first game to the enigmatic Bruce Lee who, it turned out, was a bit of a hero for a few of us. And so the English and Chinese name’s emerged simultaneously: ‘Xiao Long’ : Little Dragon.
Unlike anywhere else we know in China, in and around Dali county we could spend a couple of weeks playing and learning with Little Dragon and both rural kids in state organised kindergartens and kids from the coastal cities whose parents had opted-out of the mainstream to give their children a less constrained education. I currently work at Dali University a few days a week and do a little teaching with families who have migrated from big Chinese cities to the rural idyll and pool together to create home-schools for kids in their communities. With the help of these friends and colleagues we were able to organise a trial with each of these very distinctive groups of kids.
Binjuzhen Central Kindergarten. converted from a middle school by the government and run by a private company, is increasingly typical of China’s approach to preschool education. Compared to the previous generation of smaller and more scattered schools, these large and well-resourced kindergartens provide a more systematic and regulated learning experience to large numbers of children. For these kids – 200+ aged 2.5 years to 6 years – there’s usually an impermeable boundary between the classroom and the playground. Still, the 20 boys and girls who attended our English Camp and App Trial quickly found a sprightly stride running from the small tree-sheltered green to the chalkboard we’d wheeled through the classroom door. We wanted to connect the new letters and words they were learning with the stuff out there on the grass they could touch.
The teachers seemed a little sceptical of our approach as we carefully unpicked the seams between inside and out, but were soon playing and smiling with the kids as they first searched for leaves, then sticks, before making nests for the birds we’d sketched on the chalkboard. Perhaps the most striking and representative tendency of the local teachers might be called ‘over specifying’ – rather than let the children experiment in how to build their nests, teachers quickly jumped in and regulated production. We gently disrupted this and spontaneous acts of creativity soon emerged. Piercing a leaf with a twig to make something new. Perching a nest on the branch of a tree to put it where it seems to belong. Innovations seen and emulated spread memetically through the group. Behaviours and skills we’d not taught were being honed and enjoyed.
For 3 days we played games, made stuff, and painted, all the while practising English words. We’d split the 20 kids into four animal teams – rabbit, tiger, panda, rabbit – which gave them a fun group identity and also facilitated logistics! I knew from experience in administering research studies, as well as classroom management, that the right degree of structure makes it easier to have fun in learning. Our 3-hour morning and afternoon sessions were split into four 45-minute periods and so once a morning and afternoon each animal group was taken into the adjacent room to play and learn with Little Dragon. Hussein, our videographer extraordinaire for the field trials, captured their first encounters with these new friends.
As had happened during our initial piloting in December, the kids quickly gave us a ton of things to think about!
Taoxigu School – is perched within an astonishingly beautiful cluster of homes and guesthouses, nestled among teafields that lead to a gorge and waterfall a couple of kilometres up Canshang mountain from Dali Old Town. A group of families from other cities have set-up camp there and recently started a homeschool-type collective for their children. I met Maisie through a friend and she helped organise a few days of trialing with a bunch of their kids. By contrast to the Binju Kindergarten pupils, these kids were both used to both material privilege and abundant freedom in and out of ‘school’. Over a few days we followed them from activity site to activity site and offered them the option of playing with Little Dragon.
Here, the novelty of iPads was diminished (nothing new for these kids), and we presented the Little Dragon puppets in direct competition to the enticing natural environment of Dali University’s Hundred Flowers Garden. We set the new friends on a stone table top and pointed them out to the kids who were rampaging around, climbing on giant rocks, exploring this new place. Upon first glance there was definitely some ambivalence, the momentum of their ongoing play overcoming an immediate rush to the curious puppets (one of the mothers suggested a little too ‘curious’ for Chinese tastes, a bit too hipster perhaps, not conventionally cute, though the kids soon seemed to contest this). Then we showed the kids the face of Little Dragon and told them that he could see them and mimic their smiles and surprise and anger. The engagement was fast and contagious, and soon we had several kids around each Little Dragon.
As you can see in our 2 minute video the kids took to and picked-up (literally picked-up) the Little Dragons quickly and naturally, walking around holding them, carrying them, playing and learning with each other in the open air. Once again we learned from our little collaborators.
Over the two weeks our team, with the help of the amazing kids, families, and teachers in Binju and Taoxigu, gathered a load of data and ideas to take us to the next level. As we leave Dali for our various destinations, much learned and understood, our friendships cemented, we’re excited for the next of development and the start of our crowdfunding campaign.