Chris Drage turns back the years for 'a magical learning experience'

Land of me screenshot'The Land of Me': a magical learning experienceI’ve just returned from The Land of Me and I’m star struck. It’s a magical learning experience for adventurers aged 2 to 63 (all right... I know!). In just a few clicks I downloaded and discovered an enchanting world of creativity using my computer, scissors, crayons, glue and, most important of all, my imagination.

I'm now back in the comparatively boring world of adulthood, but I found The Land of Me such a refreshing breath of discovery and creativity that it took me back to those heady days of the 1980s. Those days when such open-ended educational software was more the norm, with Sherston Software and Cambridgeshire Software House leading the way, based on sound pedagogy.

The Land of Me is a virtual journey through six “chapters” of playful learning with three intrepid characters: Buddy Boo the bear, Eric the raccoon and Willow the owl. Initially, on first impression, I did think that Made in Me had created just another Disney-style, talking, animated book – edutainment. How wrong I was.

'Founded on proven pedagogy and best practice'

Conceived and created with advice from Professor John Siraj-Blatchford from the University of Swansea, along with early learning experts, The Land of Me is founded on proven pedagogy and best practice in developing creativity and communication in early childhood. During their early years children need to be stimulated and nourished with conversation, emotions and ideas. Play is all important. Through play, boundless imagination can flourish as children begin to understand and explore the world around them.

The best way to encourage and foster this development is by adults and children talking and playing together. The Land of Me might look like a totally interactive picture book, but it's more than that. It explodes the concept of the narrative to create a structured environment that offers far more possibilities and conversations to explore. In fact it's bursting with ideas to help adults tell stories and play together with their children.

Once downloaded (for Mac or PC) you don’t require an internet connection to play so you're free to take The Land of Me to places where the web can't follow. And one of the most immediately impressive aspects of this software is the pricing: download the program for free with the first chapter thrown in too! After that each additional chapter costs just £6.95 each.

Four chapters are already complete and ready for download, with two more in production. But in truth, given the appeal of this software, there are opportunities aplenty for additional chapters and types of activities. You only need buy the ones which you feel are relevant to the learner.

The Land of Me from Made in Me on Vimeo.

The Land of Me is explored via an ‘olde Worlde’ map of “Bramble Wood” which is loosely geographically equivalent to the Earth. Travel north east to the land of the snow monkeys and you are roughly in the Far East. Travel north west and you find yourself in an approximation of North America.

There is no specific order in which to tackle the various activities (many of which can take place away from the computer) and that is another strength of the software: adults and children can explore and create in whichever direction their imaginations take them.

Chapter One (free) focuses on shape, size and colour. The software encourages children to think about how to bring different elements together to create exactly what they want.

First they must pick, from one of the three central characters (Buddy Boo, Eric or Willow), who they will pretend to be. Yama-San the snow monkey helps them imagine all kinds of wonderful creations:  sea monsters, baby hippos, bumble-bees, hot air balloons, and more. The child watches a video and can click a button to create a PDF version of whatever she or he has imagined, ready to print out and play with. This is how masks, finger puppets, monsters can be create and printed out – the idea being that the adult and child will both be running around pretending to be the characters.

Chapter Two – The World Outside – allows children to journey through six unique chapters with the three intrepid friends. Once again an enchanting world of creativity is offered using the computer, scissors, glue and most important of all, the child’s imagination.

Chapter Three – Making Things – brings together science and technology for little people. The child is encouraged to design different types of buildings and choose the materials to use and the surfaces to build them on. The results can be “safe” or even crazy – a castle made out of jelly? An animation demonstrates how this would behave on the child’s chosen surface – not your average science activity.

'Once again scissors and glue can be brought into play'

A potentially powerful capability for young readers that’s common to all the chapters at this point is a simple, interactive sentence at the top of the screen that provides extra motivation to writing and playing with words. For example “A jelly pueblo on rock”. Changing just one word will change the corresponding characteristics in the image created beneath by the child. Change “jelly” to “stone” and you see your pueblo beginning to look more normal before your eyes. Change "pueblo" to “palace” and watch the transformation.

Land of Me maskesCreate and print masks in 'The Land of Me'Once again scissors and glue can be brought into play to build lighthouses, teepees and more. And once you start making teepees, pueblos and palaces you and your child will soon be talking about where in the world you might find them, and who might live in them. There are plenty of hints, tips and facts to hand to help. An activity booklet is also available.

In Chapter Four – Rhythm & Dance – children meet otters with a passion for dance while the regular characters get to choreograph and present the children’s own routines. They get to pick which animal movements to emulate and their new otter friend, Scottish to boot, takes them through suitably simple movements with plenty of encouragement – like “Give it some welly!”. To help children get into character there are printable activities to make their own tiger claws, alligator jaws, frogs eyes and more. The important aspect of the activity is to relate literacy and movement. You can even upload your own songs!

'Brings Disney production benchmarks to far richer imaginary worlds'

In Chapter Five – Songs & Rhymes – the Land of Me crocodiles will soon have you singing along in no time. Finally, in Chapter 6 – Story Time – the central character will encourage children to create their own stories or alternatively jumble up the classics to see what happens. Previews of these two yet-to-be-released chapters reveal a spirited, humorous celebration of creativity that brings Disney production benchmarks to far richer imaginary worlds. Remember the Brøderbund Software titles? It’s as if they are back, but with more bells and whistles and deeper conceptual structures.

Made in Me is comprised of a team of artists, teachers, developers and parents who firmly believe that most of the educational media aimed at young children could be more imaginative, richer and encourage more active responses from children. The company has successfully created a medium through which stories, music, dance, art or adventure all combine to help young children quickly find new ways to express themselves and develop their natural talents.

The company’s marketing ideas are imaginative and sound too, with a range of quality play products planned to support activities. For example, quality wooden cut-out characters that are well made and feel just right. Expect downloadable original music from sources like the iTunes store.

I am not embarrassed to say I personally found it all enchanting, wonderful and altogether different. The Land of Me is an absolute must for nurseries, primaries, parents and retired teachers everywhere. And, oh yes, children will love it too!

Ratings (out of 5)

Fitness for purpose   5
Ease of use               5
Features                     4 (only because two chapters are not yet complete)
Quality                        5
Value for money       5

The Land of Me
Open-ended software, with six activity “chapters” to encourage communication and creativity with early learners. The software and first chapter are available as free downloads from landofme.com for Windows PCs and Macs (require Adobe Flash and Adobe Air). Subsequent chapters cost £6.95 each (the final two – ‘Songs and Rhymes’ and ‘Story Time’ – are still in production) and school licensing information is available from the company.
www.madeinme.com


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