A visit to Efteling

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I know it sounds cliché, but kids these days are lucky, or at least they have been since 1952, the year Efteling was opened. Yesterday we paid a short visit to this huge and wonderful theme park, which is about 90 km from Antwerp and takes 1 hour drive at most, and I was surprised to hear that it was such an old place with about 2 million m^2.

I’m not sure who had the most fun, we adults, or our 2-year-old son but one thing is certain: I want to visit Efteling again when our son will be more aware of fairy tales that are spectacularly presented there.

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Let me tell you what is difficult: Trying to find a school for your kid in Antwerp

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The process of finding a school for our son started in a very high-tech manner: The Ministry of Education had prepared a cool-looking website, and we have logged into it right after it was made online. We have answered tons of questions, and very carefully registered our preferences for 5 different schools, all of them conveniently close to us or where we work. Then we started to wait. Our reasoning was that, we would be able to register our son in one of those schools that we really liked. After all, if the first school was full, and the second, and the third… well at least the fifth choice would be available.

The time has passed and we have received the result, in the form of an official, formal letter, telling us that none of those schools had places for our son. We should go and find another school. We looked for some explanations in that letter, none to be found. After some inquiry, we were able to learn that, for example, in the first school our son was on the waiting list, as the 49. pupil. Again, we did not have any idea why he was 49th, and not, for example 10th.

Apparently having a nice web site, and spending parents’ time by forcing them to answer tons of demographic questions do not lead to a satisfactory result on behalf of them. And we are talking about a city, Antwerp,  whose population is only about 500.000 people, not millions of people. I suggest that, if the Ministry of Education is so keen on gathering data from us, it does some data science and statistics and calculate some trends about the growth of population growth and match this with the number of required schools so that parents do not face such frustration.

In our case, we are still searching for a school that is convenient for us and our son.

The first step of our son’s pre-school registration and linguistic issues of children in Belgium

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Meld je aan - school pre-registration website

Meld je aan – school pre-registration website

1 March 2013 was an exciting day for us because we completed the first step of our 1.5 year old son Arman’s pre-school registration. We were very much satisfied by the pre-registration website that the Flemish Ministry for Education prepared for parents: https://meldjeaan.antwerpen.be. They have even prepared a short video demonstrating the process, but I think having subtitles in a few different languages would be a very useful addition to this nice video.

The website requested that we select 5 different schools and now it is time to wait for about 1.5 months to see whether our first choice has enough places so that we can go and register Arman there. Among some schools that are at a convenient distance to us, we have also selected a Montessori school, and I’m curious about the experience, should Arman start attending there.

The surprising factor about the pre-registration web site was the questions they asked about the linguistic skills of our son, e.g. what language he used when speaking to his mother, what language with the father, what language with brothers and sisters, and what language when communicating with friends (apparently they forgot the valuable option of babbling ;-)) It would be very nice if the Flemish Ministry for Education publish this data anonymously and keep the spirit of free, open, and high quality data that is one of the pillars of the information age in which we are living.

Yet another Scratch programming workshop for kids – TEDxYouth@Flanders 2012

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Long story short: The children were excited but I was probably more excited than them during the “Programming and creativity using Scratch” workshop series that took place at Koninklijk Atheneum Antwerpen as part of the TEDxYouth@Flanders 2012. Both the morning and the afternoon sessions went very well, and it was a unique experience exploring the fundamentals of computational thinking with children while helping them take their first steps into programming using Scratch. After this event, I have decied to publish my “Scratch Workshop Agenda” document under a Creative Commons license so that other people who would like to organize similar events could be able to take this as a starting point. It is also very nice to see that the previous version of this document had been used at the Devoxx4Kids events (held in Dutch and then French).

Programming and creativity using Scratch - 1

Programming and creativity using Scratch – 1

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Scratch programming workshop at TEDxYouth@Flanders 2012

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I get very excited whenever an opportunity presents itself to introduce computational thinking and creativity to children. This Saturday, together with our young participants, I’ll be leading an introductory Scratch workshop, similar to the International Scratch Day 2012 we did in Antwerp, Belgium a few months ago. This time, the Scratch event will be a part of TEDxFlanders Youth 2012. If you browse the program, you will see that in addition to my introductory Scratch programming workshop, there are other workshops related to Lego Robotics, 3D scanning, Mars Exploration, 3D printing and many other interesting, cool topics (why didn’t they do things like that when I was a kid? Sigh! :)).

So if you are living in Antwerp, or nearby and have a kid who is curious about the world, feel free to visit http://2012.tedxflanders.be/youth to register.  While your child explores many aspects of technology and creativity in a hands-on manner, you can enjoy the main TEDxFlanders event that is barely a few hundred meters away.

The making of a baby jazz enthusiast: 1 year later @ Jazz Middelheim 2012

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Avishai Cohen @ Jazz Middelheim 2012

Avishai Cohen @ Jazz Middelheim 2012

Funny how time flies when you are having fun; just like the title of the first Stanley Clarke album I bought ages ago, it is unbelievable how time has passed since the first jazz festival that we have attended with our son who was a merely 1 month old baby then. Compared to the last year’s event, Jazz Middelheim 2012 was very different: It was record-breaking hot, with some interesting water sprinklers and a record number of people attending, notwithstanding the heat wave and extreme humidity. The biggest difference was of course our son, much more than a baby now, he preferred to enjoy the festival very actively instead of sleeping tucked in  a portable baby crib.

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How can a group of kids multiply their creativity by learning to code?

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Recently we have decided to put Belgium on the map by introducing computer programming to kids by using the wonderful and child-friendly, multilingual Scratch programming environment. And what time could be better than the International Scratch Day 2012 for this mission? Thanks to the facilities and support provided by Antwerp International School, not only the students from this school, but also children from other parts of the Antwerp were able to join this one-day introductory workshop.

I had a lot of fun by watching the immense creativity of children from 9-year olds to 13-year olds. Before the workshop started I had some doubts, but the enthusiasm of the children, especially after learning the simplest programming concepts, and seeing that they could easily apply these to colorful graphics and sounds, had a powerful and multiplying effect on them. Another nice aspect of the event was the collaboration between children, between boys and girls; in order to help each other overcome some technical challenges. You can visit http://scratch.mit.edu/users/scratchdaybelgium12 to see a sample of the projects created by the children during the day.

One of the many projects created on the International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

One of the many projects created on the International Scratch Day 2012 @ Antwerp, Belgium

The event lasted slightly more than 3 hours, and it turned out to be above my expectations: at the end of the day, we had to scratch the kids off the computers so that they could go home, and of course continue coding there, using what they learned that day and what they are going to learn in the upcoming days, with the help of Scratch community.

I hope this event is going to inspire similar events, because I believe in the importance of introducing computational thinking concepts and patterns to children from a very early age, so that they can be computational problem solvers in any field they choose to study in the future. I think this also means going beyond merely being a “digital  native”, and becoming a producer of ideas and implementations rather than just being a passive consumer of Internet entertainment and data explosion.

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