Molly's World of Learning

To complement its art and design tools, I always envisaged Molly’s ‘world’ as an environment in which children could explore and learn, with Molly, Patch and Thumper as companions and guides. Molly is the know-all, full of answers, and Patch the eager learner – while Thumper adds an occasional touch of untamed wildness.

I learnt just how important these characters are to the whole enterprise when I showed our focus group in Evenlode primary school in Penarth the first version of ‘A Cliff Too Far’. (You can see this two-minute animation, made by a new graduate in the style of a silent movie, HERE.)

After only a few seconds Molly falls off a cliff, at which a girl asked anxiously, ‘Oh no, will she be alright?’ Noticing that tears were flowing gently down her cheek I quickly reassured her. We put the animation on the children’s iPads and several weeks later I asked her if she had watched it again: ‘I watch it every day came the reply.’ Later, I asked if she had seen this encounter between Molly in her capacity as bank manager and the overly-eager Patch. ‘Oh yes,’ she assured me, and went on to recite Molly’s words verbatim.

When discussing the app with the head teacher of Evenlode, Steve Rees, he encouraged me to include some ‘wellbeing’ material, explaining that ‘the children will follow guidance from Molly more readily than they will from teachers or parents.’ Judging from these responses I understood what he meant.

Developing an interface

Although I do not have children of my own, memories of an experience back in the early 1990s with those of my oldest friend proved decisive in creating an interface that evokes the feeling of a ‘world’. He took me to an exhibition of the work of the celebrated etcher, Anthony Gross, and as soon as I walked into the gallery I was captivated by one large piece:

I didn’t look at it closely (a distant view of its glorious ‘cosmic swirls’ was enough to know I wanted it!) and when we got home my friend’s young daughters insisted I unwrap it. ‘Look, Sarah, there’s one of those insects that can walk on water,’ the older girl – then aged eight – cried out. Unlike me, they were instantly captivated by the wealth of realistic detail: fish, alone or in small shoals; crayfish lurking on the stream bed; dragonflies; beautifully rendered pebbles; and, of course, the ‘cosmic swirls’ – of tangled weed.

Children are fascinated by detail and have a natural affinity with other living creatures. And their perception is untroubled by such things as memories of the work of Jackson Pollock, a favourite artist, that mediated my adult perception. As Wordsworth remarked of his intense childhood experiences of nature in his sublime Tintern Abbey poem, he ‘had no need of a remoter charm, / By thought supplied, nor any interest / Unborrowed from the eye.’

The Molly’s World interface is a direct response to the experience with the Gross etching, and is often greeted with incomprehension by adults. ‘There aren’t any drop- down menus’ is a common complaint, and some seem to think I have a ‘duty’ to introduce children to adult conventions. Children acquire adult ways all too soon, and happily, when I showed it to Peter Trevitt, the former director of the Techniquest science centre in Cardiff, he suggested that ‘it could do for children what Apple’s introduction of the virtual desktop did for adults in the 1980s.’

Structuring knowledge

For children, ‘objects come before words’, as John Amos Comenius, the father of modern education, observed. This underpinned the first educational picture book, Orbis Pictus, which he published in 1658, and is the basis of the educational elements of Molly’s World. To take three examples: Patch’s Journeys of Discovery, the MollySub, and the Cabinet of Curiosities.

Journeys of Discovery

The Journeys of Discovery begin by tapping Patch’s balloon, which then roars (literally!) and floats up and away to drift to the ‘Fields of Knowledge’. It lands with a bump (as the iPad vibrates in sympathy) on a random location: in this example the ‘water volcano’ in Molly’s (ie my!) front garden. From there the visitor can choose to learn about volcanoes, glass or fountains, or take another random journey, which might lead to something as unconnected as the Peter Blake-decorated ‘Snowdrop’ ferry across the Mersey.

This process emulates the way children acquire most of their early knowledge, through encounters in the ‘real world’, on tv or via the Web, in books and, of course, in school. Most of this is not structured according to a ‘curriculum’, and is all the more enjoyable for it – and, I would argue, all the more memorable. A digital environment offers simple and enjoyable ways to reinforce the knowledge gained by, for example, tracking where each child has been and constructing a very un-test-like- test to see how much they can recall. Anything they have forgotten can be re-visited at the proverbial tap of a button:

The MollySub

The MollySub is the vehicle for learning about the inhabitants of the sea. As it descends it illuminates sequences of creatures. Tapping on them while lit up produces a full-screen picture and an informative discussion between Molly and Patch, suitably equipped with aqualungs.

Molly’s Cabinet of Curiosities

Precursors of the modern museum, cabinets of curiosities contained, to modern eyes, bizarre collections of objects organised according to no obvious system of classification. Typically, a basic division was between the natural (naturalia) and the man-made (artificialia). Molly’s (naturally!) follows both this and the common practice of keeping objects in drawers and cupboards, which in her case open to reveal their contents when the knob (which gives a hint about what’s inside) is opened.

Richard Weston
28 March 2020