Heroes of the City – review & giveaway

In stereotypical boy form, Andrew is very into vehicles of any sort (though he does like the colour pink). From passenger ones like cars and buses, to construction ones like diggers and cranes, to emergency ones like police cars and fire engines, to countryside ones like tractors and harvesters, and of course to airborne ones like planes and rockets, he can’t get enough of them. So when we were given the opportunity to review some goodies from the TV cartoon series Heroes of the City, I knew he’d love to put them to the test.

Heroes of the City is about rescue vehicles in a small town where everyone can be a hero. Each episode involves an exciting adventure, where characters such as Paulie Police Car and Fiona Fire Engine help the people of the town find thieves, put out fires, and solve the many mysteries that happen in the otherwise quiet town. The characters emphasise friendship, warmth, and what can be accomplished by helping each other. The cartoon is primarily targeted at children age 3-7, and is created by Swedish company Ruta Ett DVD AB. So Andrew well and truly fits in their target audience category.

Hotc eng copy

We were sent a goody bag that included 3 exciting items – toys, book and DVD – each of which I’ll review in turn below. Andrew’s first impression of these goodies was this:

“Wow I love these toys, they’re my favourite!” (though I don’t think he’s quite understood the concept of favourite, he says that about a lot of things, but still, this means it’s positive), “can I watch the DVD please?”

Toys

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We received two die cast toy vehicles – Paulie Police Car and Troy Tractor. These are very cute, and just the right size for Andrew to enjoy playing with now that he’s old enough to have something that bit smaller than the chunky vehicle toys that Joel still plays with. They look well made, and being metal (rather than plastic), they look like they will last for a long time of being well loved. I love how they are cartoon-y in shape – not like a standard Matchbox-style toy car – and reflect really well the characters that you see on screen. They have already been played with a lot, including the snippet of fun in this video in which they went to the car wash (or tractor wash)…

Book

We were sent the Hot Air Balloon story, and there are others too. It has hard front and back covers with glossy full colour pages inside. The pages are filled with full scenes from the episodes, with chunks of text in boxes overlaid to tell the story. I think there is just the right amount of text for Andrew, and he can easily follow the story. He loves the big, bright pictures that fill the pages, and he’s had fun pointing out what he can see as well as reading the story with me and recognising letters and a few words. I think the font is easy to read and about the right size for Andrew at this stage. On the front and back inside covers, there’s even a spot the Calamity Crow scene, which is a fun searching game.

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My one slight reservation is that it sounds slightly American to me – for example in this book, the word soccer is used instead of football, and I had to explain to him what this was, because he knows what football is but he hasn’t heard of soccer. I don’t have a problem with American culture, it’s nothing personal, I just like to stick with British English when reading to Andrew. In time he will no doubt get used to American English too. It won’t stop us reading this book, I just have to do more explaining on a couple of things.

DVD

We were sent Volume 1 which has 5 episodes on. Andrew likes watching it, and straight away picked up on the fact that it’s the same characters and city as the ‘games on Mummy’s phone’. I like the animation, and the faces on the vehicles cleverly show all sorts of emotions using lights for eyes, bumpers for mouths, grills for noses etc. I can see how the aim to ’emphasise friendship, warmth, and what can be accomplished by helping each other’ comes across through watching it myself with the boys, I think it achieves this well and in a way that appeals to preschoolers, particularly if they like vehicles.

The theme tune is catchy, and I found myself humming it to the boys randomly – this happens with various kids programs I find, and this too has made it into my subconscious playlist 😉

Again I should say that the English is American, which isn’t necessarily a problem, but just something to watch out with in terms of vocab differences that crop up. It doesn’t seem to stop Andrew understanding it, though he’s used to watching DVDs and youtube in various languages that he doesn’t understand much of!

App

We were also asked to review the Heroes of the City Movie app, which is free to download from the App Store and Google Play. It is aimed at 2-6 year olds, so again Andrew fits well into this target audience. Included in the app are films and games, based on the Heroes of the City TV series. You get one full episode, one music video and 3 games for free, and then extra ‘fun-packs’ cost £2.49 each, with more films and games.

Web

I downloaded the Apple version of the app on my iPhone (we were sent the full app for free). I first gave it to Andrew one morning whilst I got Joel ready and did some jobs around the house; I wanted to see how much he could figure out on his own. Before I knew it he had played most of the nine games, so I asked him to show me what to do so I could play too. He’s used to the finger actions needed to play games on his grandparents’ iPads, onto which we also downloaded the Heroes of the City app too.

He loves doing jigsaw puzzles, so the game on the app where you have to slot pieces into a puzzle to reveal a character was particularly popular, and he was very good at it. The pieces were trickier to move on the phone than on the tablet-sized screen, but he still managed it. He also liked the game where you have to touch a car that’s racing along to make him jump and catch stars with points attached. This was mainly because the car makes a ‘waps’ sound whenever he jumps, and Andrew thought this was hilarious – this game is now called the ‘waps’ game to him.

HotC_app_01As you play more games, you earn trophies depending on how well you perform, and then you can look at all your trophies in another section of the app. Andrew asked me what this was as he was flicking through, so I explained to him about the gold, silver and bronze trophies – I’m not sure he understood fully what the different colours mean, but he now knows he’s winning and collecting trophies as he goes along. I’ve also heard it on the grapevine that there is a special secret surprise in store which you unlock when you’ve collected enough trophies….!

As well as the games, there are some film clips – more than 6 hours in total (if you buy the extras). Andrew has watched a few of these, but so far it’s been mainly games that he’s played. I can imagine though, that the film clips would be a great way of entertaining him for 5-10 minutes or so if we are out and about and he’s bored waiting for something – it’s like watching a DVD but handily on the phone, already downloaded so no issues with internet connectivity when out and about. If you’re at home and have Apple devices, there is an Air Play function for your Apple TV.

I generally don’t spend money on games apps because there are some good free ones out there, but I would consider paying for 1 or 2 extra Heroes of the City fun packs because they are great games and just right for Andrew’s skills and interests at the moment, plus there are levels that increase in difficulty as he grows and develops.

Overall

We have been impressed with the pack that we were sent: Andrew has enjoyed the games, TV episodes and book, and I have generally found them just right for his age and development, with room to ‘grow’. I also like the fact that this is a collection of various media all based around the same characters and stories. Many of our books, DVDs and games are like this, and I’ve noticed that these are ones which Andrew generally comes back to again and again – maybe he likes the fact that he recognises characters across the various activities he’s doing, whether that’s reading, watching a DVD or youtube, or playing a game on the phone/iPad.

If you’d like any more info on the series, you can find out all about it on the website, Facebook page or on Twitter.

Competition time!

If you like the look of all this fun we’ve had, here’s your chance to win your very own set of toys, book and DVD. All you need to do is fill in the Rafflecopter below to be in with a chance of winning, by 22nd March (please see full T&Cs below).

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Disclaimer: we were sent the pack and full app to review free of charge, but all opinions expressed are honest and our own, based on our experience of using the items.

The beginnings of reading

It’s Children’s Book Week this week, which I’ve become aware of mainly through twitter and other parenting blogs. I’ve been thinking about writing a post about Andrew’s reading anyway, so I thought this would be good timing to join in with the fun.

Andrew has always been interested in books, right from flicking though board books with us as a baby to sitting down on his own and talking through what he can see on the page of his ‘big boys’ books’ (to differentiate from Joel’s baby books). He doesn’t sit down and ‘read’ for hours on end at a time – his general philosophy to playing is spend a bit of time here, a bit of time there, getting as many toys, books and puzzles out as possible and not committing himself to any activity for more than 5 minutes but often coming back full circle to what he started with after going round them all. But he does enjoy sitting and reading, both with us and on his own.

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Over the past month or so he has consolidated his knowledge of the letters of the alphabet that he’s been interested in ever since we started reading the Ladybrird Cosy Cat alphabet book to him over a year ago. He knows all the letters and can tell you what they are both randomly pointed at in words and going through from A to Z in context. This is the beginnings of him learning to read. Now he has the foundation of single letters, he can build on this and learn how letters join together to make written words.

As well as reading books, he is very keen on watching the ‘Alphablocks’ on DVD – this CBeebies programme is all about learning to read, with little blocks that each have a letter of the alphabet and their own character, who get up to all sorts of adventures and make words along the way by holding hands and saying their individual sounds out loud. It’s quite ingenious in my opinion, and Andrew adores it! We try not to let him watch too much on screen, but when it’s something like this, I really don’t mind him watching it in sensible quantities. He also has an Alphablocks magazine that Granny bought him, which has various activities in, and this is encouraging him to understand how we write letters as well as read them.

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As with other aspects of parenting, we have been very child-led in this part of his development – he has shown interest in reading and we have followed his lead and also encouraged him that it is a good thing to do. When we had his 2.5 year check (a little late) with the health visitor recently, she said he was doing very well to know all the letters at his age, which is good to know, as I didn’t really have much clue about time scales for children’s literacy. Hopefully this will stand him in good stead for starting pre-school next year.

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With this background of finding out that Andrew is doing well for his age, I was particularly shocked to read some stats on the disparity in attainment between infant school age kids from poorer and better off backgrounds which were published in the Too Young to Fail report by Save the Children earlier this week:

• Fewer than one in six children from low-income families who have fallen behind by the age of seven will go on to achieve five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
• Better off children who are behind are more likely to go on to achieve well – but even they only have a one in four chance of getting five good GCSEs, including English and maths.
• If a child from a poor family is already behind with their reading at the age of seven, they have just over a one in five chance of going on to achieve a C in English at GCSE.

Basically if children are achieving at the lower end of the range already at the end of Key Stage 1 (up to 7 years), then they are highly likely to go on to fail when it comes to GCSEs and not get the qualifications they need to enter many forms of employment. Children from poorer backgrounds are at more of a disadvantage in this, and in these stats the problem is particularly highlighted for reading ability.

This made me think about how we have encouraged Andrew with reading. We take it for granted that we have lots of children’s books, most of which have been given to us by family and friends as presents. Just having these around from the beginning of his life has shown him that reading is normal, fun and something we do every day. I can imagine that this is not the case in families that struggle to pay the bills, get food on the table and clothe their children, so books would be much lower on their priority list and the children would not get such an introduction to the concept of reading at a very early age. Also, we take it for granted that our own parents read to us as children, and this means it’s something we have just automatically done with our own children, because we know how much we enjoyed it and how it helped us learn (even if we can’t remember the very beginnings of reading with our parents). I can imagine that parents who themselves struggle to read, maybe because they too had little opportunity to read from an early age, would be less likely to sit down and read with their children, and so it would become a vicious circle from generation to generation. And none of this is fair on the children (who then become adults) involved.

There are people out there trying to help in this situation though, and I have been reading about Save the Children’s Born to Read initiative in partnership with Beanstalk. The aim is to provide many more reading helpers in schools in deprived areas, as well as support parents to help their children’s reading skills develop at home. When I think that there may well be children the same age as Andrew who live just a few streets away who are getting such a different start in life in terms of reading and literacy, it really hits home just how real a problem this is and just how important this kind of work is. I will be following their progress and trying to stay aware of this issue as much as I can.

Baby books

As a child, I remember looking through the baby book that my parents had put together – a collection of photos and words from my early years, a kind of journal to remember things that we’d otherwise forget. I really enjoyed flicking through it, I was so interested in looking at what I was like as a baby.

When I was pregnant with Andrew, I knew that I wanted to do something similar, so that he could look back like I did. That was before I was blogging too, so the book would be the place where I would record facts and happenings from his first few years. We were kindly given a baby journal which had spaces to write specific things and stick pictures in. I was pretty good at remembering to fill it in when there was something interesting happening in his development, though I sometimes just noted it down and then later filled in a whole load of things in one go.

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Joel’s on the left, Andrew’s on the right

A little while ago, Andrew went through a phase of constantly picking his baby book off the shelf and looking through it at the photos. It took us a while to convince him that the baby in the pictures was him and not Joel – an interesting concept for a 2 year old looking at photos of his younger self.  Now he only does it occasionally, but I’m already glad that I started this book for him.

Then I had a second child, and we were given not one but two baby books. We gave the gender-neutral one to my niece who is 4 weeks older than Joel, and kept the blue one for him. The second time around has been different: on the one hand I’ve had less time to write in it and have only sat down a few times in 9 months to fill it in with words and photos, but on the other hand I’ve blogged about Joel’s early months which I didn’t with Andrew.

I like this family tree in pictures idea - I just need to cut out Grandma and Pop from a picture to complete their side of it.
I like this family tree in pictures idea – I just need to cut out Grandma and Pop from a picture to complete their side of it.

This week I’ve had a concerted effort to fill it in up to date. I got some photos printed and made time to write in it, which actually didn’t take too long in the end.

Have you done a baby book like this for your little one(s) if you have any?

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The page with hospital bands and the first ever picture of each of my boys 🙂

Books – #SnapHappyBritMums

books

This is my first blog post for a few days as I’ve been struck down with a horrible bug that’s still not completely gone but is a lot less violent than it was. The other day I was just admiring how colourful our boys’ collection of books is. They are not always this tidy, but one of Daddy and Andrew’s ‘games’ at the weekend whilst I was lying on the sofa under a duvet was tidying the books into a small, medium and large shelf.

BritMums - Leading the Conversation

Trilingual adventures with three mice (not blind) – one mouse, une souris, eine Maus

Last week was an exciting time for me (and Andrew, though perhaps he didn’t feel it as much as me!) because my (no longer) baby suddenly started to show me that he recognised some words. That’s not to say he didn’t recognise them before; it’s hard to know exactly how much babies perceive from speech before they can physically respond to show they know what you’re talking about. It can be done though, in ‘lab’ conditions – experiments with babies have been designed, by getting them to turn their head to stimuli like speech sounds, or to suck on a dummy which is hooked up to computers that work out how fast they’re sucking and how their speed changes with the introduction and exit of stimuli. From these kinds of experiments, researchers have been able to figure out some of the earliest abilities to hear speech, even at just one or two days old. For example, we know that newborns recognise and prefer their mum’s voice to another similar female voice (de Casper 1980), and recognise and prefer listening to their ambient (to-be-native) language from others that are rhythmically different (Mehler et al. 1988, Nazzi et al. 1998). They’re not understanding specific words and their meanings at this age, of course, but rather the overall rhythm and intonation of the speech. They were hearing this for quite a while in the womb you see. This kind of research sounds fascinating to me, but hard work – it must take them ages to collect enough data whilst working with babies! Just think about all the times they’d need to stop for feeds/naps/nappy changes/just wanting to be with mum etc. Respect to those researchers, I say!

This little diversion into infant language recognition research (apart from showing you how cool it is) was to make the point that just because Andrew can’t speak recognisable words at the moment, it doesn’t mean he can’t understand anything. Last week was when this understanding was finally clear for me to see. We were sitting reading some Usborne Touchy-Feely ‘That’s not my…’ books. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of reading these, firstly let me highly recommend them. They’re brilliant for reading with babies and toddlers, as there are ‘touchy-feely’ patches of fabric or other materials for them to explore with their fingers. Secondly, let me tell you that they all have a little mouse on each page, blending in with the pictures (for example, he has a snorkel in one of the Penguin scenes…!) This means you can ask your toddler ‘Where is the mouse?’ each time they turn a page, and it gives a consistent point of reference for them to learn. This is exactly what I’d been doing with Andrew for a while, and pointing to the mouse myself. Last week was the first time that he consistently pointed to the mouse on each page himself! It was a proud moment 🙂

Us reading 'That's not my penguin...' - an Usborne touchy-feely book

Even more so because I’d been doing this with him in three languages, and he not only pointed at the mouse, but also la souris and die Maus on each page. As I studied French and German for my BA, Masters and PhD, I’d always said that I would introduce these languages alongside English to my kids. During the research I did for my Masters dissertation, which was about adult bilinguals living in Switzerland, I learnt that it is easier for young kids to learn multiple languages than it is for adults once a native language is well and truly acquired. Some people do learn other languages to a near-native standard in adulthood, but this is less common than kids who pick up more than one language in childhood and speak them to native standard (for their age at every point).

Andrew pointing to the mouse (in a snorkel) on the bottom left of the left-hand page

As we live in the UK, and Tom only speaks English, of course Andrew is going to get much more exposure to English than he will to French and German. Whenever the two of us are home alone, I speak some French, some German and some English to him. When we’re playing with something, for example the ball, I will say to him things like ‘That’s a ball’, ‘The ball is blue’, ‘Where’s the ball?’, ‘Can you throw me the ball?’ in one of the three languages. I usually concentrate on one language for each period of time that we’re playing, but I do mix them up a bit too. For example, if we’re sitting looking at an animal book, I’ll say the word for the animal in the three languages whilst we’re on that page, and then the same for the animal on the next page.

Andrew's right hand was pointing to the mouse on the penguin's back, but he moved too fast and our camera shutter speed couldn't cope!

Does this confuse him, you might wonder? Well our adult brains might think it’s confusing, as they have been shaped and molded into what they are today over several years; they’ve become set in their ways. The baby and toddler brain, however, is still being shaped and molded into what it will be one day. It has no concept that there is ‘ONE’ language or ‘TWO’ languages or any other specific number of these things we call ‘languages’, but rather it’s hearing all these sounds coming out of people’s mouths, and trying to figure out what it all means; for all it knows there could be a gazillion languages that it has to figure out. Why should a toy have one particular name and not three? That’s a monolingual adult way of thinking, which has been cemented into the brain over years of only knowing one word for that toy.

Listening to some French nursery rhymes on the stereo

Will Andrew be trilingual? Maybe, maybe not – it partly depends what you mean by trilingual (perfect native speech in three languages is one extreme of a continuum of multilingualism). I do not personally claim to be native in 3 languages, so he’ll only be getting native-like input in one, and fluent input in the other two. My main aim is to give him an awareness that there is more than one of these things called languages out there in the world. By the time he gets to school, I hope he will have a more open outlook on languages than the view I was often confronted with at school – ‘Why do you want to study languages when everyone else speaks English?’ (actual comment by my GCSE Maths teacher who wanted me to take his A-level). Yes lots of people in the world speak English, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make an effort to learn other languages too, and shape my brain differently from many native English speakers. In fact from a global perspective, bilingualism is more normal than you might think. There are more bi- and multi-linguals in the world than monolinguals, and many of these will have learnt two or more languages in childhood (another thing I learnt during my Masters research from a book called The Bilingualism Reader).

Most importantly in this language development adventure of Andrew is that I’m making it as fun as possible, as with all areas of development that I can play a part in. He loves singing, clapping and dancing to songs and rhymes, so I bought a CD of French nursery rhymes and kids songs, and we’re about to be given a German one by some friends, though I’ve been using YouTube in the meantime. Just like he can listen to English rhymes and songs at the various music and play groups we go to, he can hear other languages blasting out of the stereo at home. We were also given a bilingual French-English toy piano that plays tunes and talks about colours and shapes when you press the keys. He loves playing with that, especially now he’s really into pressing any button he can lay his fingers on! Another option I have is reading books in French and German to him, which we bought on Amazon, were given, or borrow from the library, for example Monsieur Bavard (Mr Chatterbox from The Mr Men and Little Miss range) and Die Kleine Raupe Nimmersatt (The Very Hungry Caterpillar). His attention span is still quite limited, so at the moment it’s more effective to just read his simple English board books with things like numbers, animals, shapes, toys etc. to him in French and German. My translation skills are good enough for that!

Dancing to some French nursery rhymes, but suddenly spotted the camera and got interested in that

Is anyone out there raising their kids bilingually? Do you find other parents generally view it positively or negatively? I haven’t had much discussion either way with others yet. Apart from with our friends who are Swiss and German living in the UK, so their child (a bit older than Andrew) is in full swing with acquiring three languages: Swiss German and German at home (believe me, they are different languages) and English at nursery and playgroups. We meet each week to speak English and German with our kids. It’s great fun all round, and needless to say we’re all very positive about mixing and matching our languages 🙂