The vending machines
Imagine a child in a hallway full of vending machines.
Each vending machine has a big colourful picture of a topic ‘ Pirates, Planets, Dinosaurs, Reading, Geography, Princesses, Building and so on. A child gets briefly curious about a topic, let’s say Pirates, and runs to the Pirate vending machine and presses the button. Out pops an exciting Pirate adventure story.
Now the child may love that story and press the button again, hoping to get another Pirate adventure. Or they may decide they want to see what this whole Geography thing is all about. Either way, their interest was nurtured, rewarded, and given a chance to grow.
But what if, when they press that Pirate button, nothing happens?
They press it again. Nothing.
What do they do? They move on. They’re clearly wasting their time and there are many more vending machines to try. The chances of them bothering to try that particular vending machine again are slim to none. If a child has an interest and that interest is not fed very quickly, they will move on.
One problem we face right now is that not all of those vending machines work for all children. A girl might try the Building vending machine and get nothing. But if she even walks passed the Princess vending machine, it unloads sparkles and unicorns all over the place. That’s an interest that is fed instantly, one that is constantly rewarded. So of course lots of girls are going to be into Princesses. We don’t need to push them in that direction. We simply reward that interest while not rewarding others.
It’s not just Princesses of course, I use that as an example because it is one many of us are familiar with. Boys have their own limited vending machines to deal with too.
During the week, Harrods took a beating on Twitter for having two books side by side in their reading room. One was a book clearly for girls on how to look gorgeous. The other was a book for boys on how to be smart. Neither of these books were forcing anyone down a particular path. They don’t have to. Just as we don’t have to force a plant to grow or not grow. Water one plant and not the other and the result is obvious.
Just as if there is only one working vending machine in that hallway – that’s the one the kids will come back to.
So to give children a genuine chance to explore their interests, we need to fill all our vending machines with goodies. We need to make sure they work and are well maintained. And we need to make sure they are attractive to both boys and girls without limiting either gender.
For me, I have spent the last few years filling a little space/science vending machine called Planet Cosmo. And originally, I set out to do that because my girls had an interest in space and I wanted to feed that interest. I saw so many children too who had an interest in space but their parents didn’t always know enough about the subject to feed that interest quickly, just as I imagine there have been many brief moments of interest in a particular subject that passed by my girls because I didn’t know enough to feed that initial curiosity.
So if you are creating, developing, producing content for children, be it television, books, apps, anything, how about picking a vending machine and filling it? Let’s spread those interests, give each one a chance and try to restore some balance for both boys and girls. Perhaps pay special attention to those interests that may one day make our children into better adults, with all the opportunities they deserve, not one single child excluded. Let’s get those machines working for everyone.
Nurture. Inspire. All while entertaining.
My vending machine, Planet Cosmo, starts on RTE2 here in Ireland on Monday, the 18th of February, with other countries to follow. And just wait until you see the goodies we packed into it!