To parents: A free (as in "freedom") exercise for your children

As I was lying in bed, waiting for Morpheus to take me in his embrace, I once again started getting a mindful of ideas (Must have been that pesky Belphegor again, the demon of invention and lost sleep). This time I thought about children and creativity and a way to channel it to more productive purposes.

Ok, first of all I will admit that I am not a parent so I am not explicitly aware of all the fine details of child raising, however I have been a child and at least I have kept my viewpoint of that time (for I do not mature, I just grow old). Lately as well, I’ve been trying to get back into [tag]Wesnoth[/tag] contributing once more and this has been expressed in me playing the new campaigns and begging people to update my campaign for now, but, you know, the year is still young…

In any case, for some reason, in my jumble of a thoughts, an idea was born, one which I will now make you suffer through (For misery loves company).

I know that many parents have problems directing their children’s enthusiasm and creativity to something useful (Gawd knows my mother always had a problem making me do something with a purpose.) Not only that, but I believe it should be of foremost importance for parents to give their children some experience of the real world, instead of keeping them cocooned until the age of rebellion. Of course there needs to be a limit and a purpose to this experience, so do not think that I am advocating the sending of your children to construction yards or something similar; rather I am thinking of a parent-driven activity that will teach your child to channel it’s creative juices to a specific task, the building of team spirit and the psychological reward that the appreciation of your peers will bring.

How do I propose to achieve that? Through free software contribution.

Now, when I say free software, do not assume immediately that I am talking about C++ coding (unless of course your child has the appropriate tendencies for hacking). What I am talking is recognizing where it’s talents lie and then selecting an appropriate project to do. Kids come with many kinds of them, but in this example we can discuss about three of the most common: Arts, Music and Maths (since these are the ones I can see as candidates, but feel free to correct me if I am mistaken)

So you know what your progeny is good at, I would assume; perhaps it has a great knack for drawing, or perhaps it loves music and wants to learn to play, in any case, it should give you a hint on what it likes to do.
The trick is now to find a project that the child will enjoy participating in, for if the exercise becomes a chore, we’ve already lost half the battle I’m afraid.

In my mind, a perfect candidate would be the aforementioned Battle for Wesnoth game which is, to my knowledge, always happy to receive Art, Music and more campaigns. Of course this suggestion is not restrictive and you can choose something else, closer to its preferences. I only chose that for it family content, easy play style and excellent community.

Starting the Exercise

So, you’ve know the Talent, you know the focus, all you need to do is select the project. Lets assume that you are using Wesnoth for now, and that your child has a tendency to draw well. Once you’ve hooked it to the game to create enthusiasm (lets say, had it play some of the introductory campaigns) you decide to have you child create some kind of art. As you can see, there are many option you might select but I believe that the best choice would be either to create a hero or unit portrait, or to create a new sprite/sprite animation.

The next step would be to join the forum as a parent and:

  1. Create an account for your child
  2. Look at what is needed
  3. Introduce yourself (if you haven’t already) and explain what you would like to do.
  4. Select a project or ask for advice. Discuss this part with your child to see what it would prefer to try (it is important to have it excited on the project)and initially you should attempt something easy. An idea for start could be that after the child plays the initial campaign, have it select a hero or unit which received a large amount of experience during the course of the game and create a portrait for it as it would envision it.

Once these initial steps have been done, the interesting part begins. Explain that this will become a project that it will need to complete. It should not be graded for it but there should be some kind of reward in the end for a successful completion, as well as for the various goals you’ve set (for example, a goal for a scetch, a goal for the coloured image and a last one of the full complete portrait.) These should keep the child working for the next reward. There should absolutely be no punishment involved.

The Community

Now, and this is really important, have the child join the community and post its progress. The point of this is manifold:

  • If the child is not really good at writing and grammar, then help it compose replies and posts, but do not allow it to dictate to you or otherwise make it extremely easy for it to post. This would help improve it’s writing skills without it realizing it.
  • Have it experience Teamwork. Explain to it that it is to follow the advice and instructions of experienced artists in the forum explicitly. You should not be afraid to be firm on this; for while artistic freedom and exercise is good, one of the main points of this project is to have the child experience groups as they will affect it during its adult life. The instructions of the forum regulars are not there to criticize but rather to guide and mold the contributions in such a way so as to fit into the game. It is no use creating something great that just won’t be used.
  • Have it experience the praise of its peers. I am absolutely certain that people informed of the project will praise any half-competent job by a minor to the heavens (especially with the crowd that frequents the Wesnoth fora) and the subsequent emotional boost this will provide should provide the fuel for continuing. I know I can only speak for myself here but in my experience, there is nothing more rewarding for a child that basking in hard-earned praise.
  • Have it experience constructive criticism. Your main role as a parent will be to have the child work as a junior member of a team and keep it civil if, as childs as wont to do, becomes aggressive or spiteful. If for example a criticism makes it want to shout profanities or whatnot, you should explain why the criticism was made and if your child does indeed have a point to argue, help it present it civilly.
  • And finally, have it experience the free software community and mindframe ;)

Reward

As I mentioned before, this can only work is the child is excited about the project and if rewards are given for achieving goals. The former is undeniable much more important than the later, which is why I stress that it should nurtured. The later however is important in helping the child push through even if enthusiasm starts to wane. The point is that we are trying to achieve a self-replicating circle between working from enthusiasm, and praise for work done which triggers more enthusiasm. If the child starts to lose steam between these two ends, a reward would be useful in getting it to a goal point and getting the subsequent praise.

The best kind of reward however is one that will be able to trigger enthusiasm just by itself. Some example that I can think of are:

  • Arrange with a campaign maintainer to have the new portrait added to the campaign once it is finished. I am certain that even if the mainline campaigns will not accept it, there are many unofficial campaign developers who would be glad to have some extra glitz in their story as long as it is at least passable.
  • If the work done is of sufficient quality, then it will be added to the main game itself as part of either a unit profile or a new unit animation. That is rock solid contribution for eternity right there.

Other talents

I am certain that astute readers can see how these instructions can be applied to any talent that your child might possess.

  • A musically gifted child might be able to enhance or improve an existing song or even compose it’s own music track that other might work on.
  • One that likes stories might be more comfortable on thinking of a short epic story to work on. Unfortunately by itself this is not the best choice as children although of great fantasy do not make good storytellers, and thus the community might remain unimpressed. However, when teamed up with other people this might make the exercise even better (see below)
  • Mathematical-attuned people make great coders. This would be a great chance to guide the child to a path that will surely come in handy in the life to come. Perhaps it could work on some short campaign WML (the engine of Wesnoth) which could serve as an introduction to the world and mindframe of programming. From its reaction you might even see if this is a path it might be worth pursuing in the future.
  • If you have a sufficiently large family or if you have enough time, you might even make this into a whole family experience. Perhaps you will provide the story that one child will work on coding, while the other will work on creating portraits for the heroes. This has the added benefit of bonding the family and also creating something much more complete.

Beyond Wesnoth

Of course, as I mentioned, I only used Wesnoth as my sample because of my recent attempts to start it again, but this does not mean that there are not other projects out there that you can switch it for. However I truly believe that it has the greatest potential as it has room for most creativity outlets, is easy enough for a young child to play, has a great community and is pretty family-safe (no blood and gore, sexual innuendo etc. At least not as far as I’ve seen).

I will leave it for interested parties to investigate what other options there are but please feel free to make suggestions in the comments.

So, this was my braindump for the night. As with most of the things I’ve written, it might be total bull so feel free to come in and make fun of me write your opinion on this. I would love to hear where my ideas have gone wrong and perhaps we might even improve this to a degree that it is actually useful.


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