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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Parenting

Cleopatra holds court in Sunway

Posted: 30 May 2014 07:25 PM PDT

Experience family-friendly edutainment during the school holidays at Sunway Lagoon.

THE last "queen" of Egypt and daredevil performances are bound to provide both young and old a thrilling experience at Sunway Lagoon in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.

A collaboration with The Sudden Impact! Entertainment Company, "Cleopatra – Myths.Mystery.Mummies" is the theme park's very first edutainment attraction that combines entertainment and historical education for audiences of all ages.

The theme park had previously worked with the New York-based company on Scream Park.

"This year, we want to step out of our 'scary' zone and further entertain guests of all ages with an educational family-friendly walk-through experience," said The Sudden Impact! Entertainment Company chairman Lynton V. Harris.

Witness daredevils plunge from a great height at Sunway Lagoon.

Witness daredevils plunge from a great height at Sunway Lagoon.

The new attraction features six interactive scenarios which include a theatre, 3D light art, falling beams walkway, mummy embalming and a glamorous throne display. Visitors will also be acquainted with the various "incarnations" of the famed "queen" in pop culture throughout the years.

Another new attraction is the Hi-Dive, a show that revolves around professional divers plunging from heights as high as 24m. The divers' stint at Sunway Lagoon follows the troupe's successful performances in other countries such as China, Japan and Hong Kong.

Be prepared to get spooked, and educated

Be prepared to get spooked, and educated.

The daredevil show will run at the theme park until Aug 3.

Located at the Wild Wild West area, the Cleopatra attraction will open daily from 11am to 6pm. As for the Hi-Dive show, it will be staged at the Surf Beach area on weekdays at 1.30pm and 3pm while the three sessions on weekends are at 1.30pm, 3pm and 5pm. – By Chester Chin

Old-fashioned toys rule

Posted: 29 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

We are living in the digital age, but some families still prefer traditional toys rather than high-tech ones.

What (do) you want?" asks Jared Teoh as he dashes back and forth between serving demanding "customers" and tending to the "boiling" pot on his stove.

Jared is the chef of the day, and in the three-year-old's realm of pretend play his kitchen is churning out pizza and steak. He loves cooking up a storm in his battery-operated kitchenette, complete with whooshing sound effects, but he also enjoys coaxing Thomas the Tank Engine to choo-choo down the railway tracks and is ever-willing to whip out his miniature pirate ship to role-play a scene from Disney's Jack And The Neverland Pirates.

While the Teoh family is very much connected to the digital age – Jared and his brother Joshua, 12, have a tablet each – the children are encouraged to play with traditional toys. The boys' mother, Grace Ng, 38, believes physical toys are better for brain development.

"Joshua grew up at a time when smart devices hadn't yet made it big. He loved his blocks and transportation toys, and would spend hours constructing things with paper, scissors and cellophane tape.

"Physical play encourages imagination and creativity. We've noticed this with Jared as well, especially when he engages in individual play. That's when he gets a chance to figure things out on his own, without having the adults, or a computer, to tell him what to do," shares the homemaker.

Grace Ng (above) believes physical toys are more conducive for developing the minds of her sons Jared, 3 (left) and Joshua, 12. - AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

Grace Ng believes physical toys are more conducive for developing the minds of her sons Jared,
3, and Joshua (not pictured), 12. –AZHAR MAHFOF/The Star

In the Teoh home, floor-to-ceiling cupboards are filled with Lego sets, play dough contraptions, board games, more pretend food and boxes of puzzles.

Joshua has outgrown some of the toys but will willingly participate in a game of racing trucks to keep his younger brother company. The boys are never spoilt for choice as Ng has practised the rotating rule: only a few toys are introduced at a time to avoid toy overload.

Nevertheless, their toyland has been invaded by tablets and gadgets.

While Ng is happy that her children are adept at using touch screens and are naturals at navigating the Internet, she is concerned about technology taking over their playtime.

"The boys would never give up their toys for the iPad, but once they get their hands on a digital device, they get sucked in and will just be in the virtual zone for hours on end unless we stop them," she says.

Ng was quick to set clear boundaries right from the start: electronic gadgets are allowed on weekends and holidays, but only for an hour a day. The boys will forfeit their turn if they do not keep to the time limit.

Even then, kids are kids, and Ng once caught her older son stealing some quality time with the tablet when everyone was supposed to be fast asleep.

"It's a good thing we had rules in place from the start – can you imagine if we hadn't? Gadgets are an everyday thing for a lot of families, just not in this one," Ng says.

The great divide

According to child developmental psychologist Woo Pei Jun, 37, caution must be exercised when exposing children to digital devices. While they are excellent learning tools for young minds, an apps-dominated playtime is not in the child's best interest.

"When it comes to playtime, traditional toys are still the best. Most playsets stimulate creativity and imaginative play. Children get to explore and create different scenarios – there isn't one button that does everything for you.

Studies show that children who have spent a lot of time on gadgets are less likely to keep eye contact due to a lack of communication with people," explains Woo, who is also a senior lecturer at Sunway University in Selangor.

Tech-focused play also does not stimulate cognitive development as interactions with the virtual world require very little activity but the flicking of the wrist in most cases. Striking a balance is key and parents need to set some ground rules.

If you suspect that your child is fast becoming a gadget addict, start limiting his "screen time" and encourage him to play the traditional way, Woo suggests.

"Children want to play; they can't just sit still, so if you start taking away their gadgets, they will find things to do and naturally fall back on traditional play. I have two boys and they do love their tablets but once I limited their access to only weekends for a certain number of hours, they started racing with their toy cars and building stuff out of cardboard.

"In minutes, they had created a world of their own. I didn't know they had it in them to create such fantastic play with just a few boxes, chairs and Hot Wheels cars," Woo shares.

Toys like Barbie dolls are more than just playthings. Children learn when they play, and just through interacting with Barbie the astronaut or Woody the Toy Story action figure, they are picking up skills that will prepare them for the real world.

"With apps and computer games, children become passive receivers – imaginative input just isn't needed sometimes. The same can be said of watching TV. While modern children's programmes are designed to be interactive – cartoons that ask a question and pause to wait for the child's answer – the desired reaction just becomes lost on some children because watching TV is, after all, a passive activity.

"On the other hand, children can learn important values from interacting with traditional toys," says Woo.

For instance, children can indirectly learn about responsibility, such as from spending an afternoon with Barbie the vet and her pet shop set of furry wards. Such pretend play could gently ease children into the responsibilities of owning a pet.

"Problem-solving skills will also come into play, like when Barbie's clothes get stuck or when something comes apart," Woo adds.

Dealing with emotions

Nadia Zeehan Abdul Aziz Romano is all for adding to her four children's collection of Barbies, spooky Monster High girls and colourful My Little Pony Equestria dolls. Based on her observation, the interactive figurines have been great in teaching her three older girls, aged four to nine, how to play well with one another.

"I grew up playing with Barbie dolls so I am really delighted that my children are equally fascinated with them. They love all that's pretty and pink and girly-girl about Barbie, and I really love watching how they interact with the dolls and with each other – playtime really helps develop their characters," says the sales trainer, 37.

Woo encourages playdates, where children get to invite their friends over and learn how to play together.

Role playing with her dolls helps Wan Zara Sophyia, nine, express her hopes and dreams, as well as her anxieties and fears. - AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star

Role playing with her dolls helps Wan Zara Sophyia, 9, express her hopes and dreams, as well as her anxietiesand fears. -AZLINA ABDULLAH/The Star

"Playdates present opportunities to solve conflict and children can learn a lot when they are given the chance to iron things out on their own. They get to experience first-hand how to negotiate and socialise – invaluable skills you probably can't get from a digital device," says Woo.

There is also the benefit of emotion-regulation, where children learn to be aware of other people's feelings and also their own.

"There may be situations where a child gets angry or fearful and it is important that they understand and learn how to control those feelings so that they can become more confident. Traditional toys facilitate self-expression. When there's make-believe play, the child is in control – he or she can use the time to revisit fears or worries or explore their hopes and dreams and in a very safe environment," adds Woo.

Nadia's eldest daughter has since matured into a collector's phase and prefers to keep all nine of her Monster High dolls, a line-up of fashion dolls inspired by monster movies and sci-fi horror, in mint condition – a message that is undoubtedly challenging to convey to her younger sisters.

To Nadia, that shows responsibility and ownership; values that children can acquire from playing with traditional toys.

Like Ng's children, Nadia's are also skillful with digital devices. Yet, it is tangible play that takes a front seat in the household.

"Technology will never be a substitute for toys. Rather, it's more of a complementary device," says Nadia.

Striking a balance

For engineer Daniel Tan's family of five, playtime is bonding time, usually led by his "princesses" – Faith, nine, and Sarah, five. Tan and his wife Marlene Khor also have a two-month old baby girl.

"Sarah loves playing 'picnic'. She'd spread out the quilt and lay out the masak-masak (cooking) utensils and make you sit with her for a tea party with her bears and stuffed toys. That's her form of learning, so we try to join in as much as we can," says Tan, 37.

His children have so far been given limited exposure to the smartphone, but they prefer pretend play sessions.

Sarah (right) enjoying a 'picnic' with her sister Faith. She likes to insist the whole family join in. (Inset) Daniel Tan 'playing along'. - SAM THAM/The Star

Sarah enjoying a picnic with her sister Faith. She likes to insist the whole family join in. So Daniel Tan plays along. –SAM THAM/The Star

"We don't have a tablet, but we are thinking of buying one soon. Even then, we will still prioritise traditional play. We like that physical playtime teaches the children to be sociable and independent. My girls can play on their own but they are also good at playing together and with others.

"The concept of sharing is still a challenge to teach, but it won't be long before they master it. Playing gives them a chance to fight and to make up," adds Tan.

Woo says interactive play sessions are also good opportunities for parents to interact with their children.

"With gadgets, the children are often left on their own. But with dolls and toys, children would sometimes initiate conversation and indirectly invite parents to join in for some quality play time because they have questions or need help with something."

During one of these co-playing sessions, it is essential for parents to let their children take the lead, Woo advises.

"Let your child decide the storyline. If she wants Barbie to fly, Barbie flies. There's no right or wrong when it comes to play. Refrain from teaching your child how to play. When you consciously make everything about learning, playing ceases to be fun and your child may not want to play with you anymore.

"Young children are in the care of adults 90% of the time. For the most part, they have no control over any situation. It can get quite stressful. Playtime is the only time where they can have full control over what happens.

"A little guidance is good, but leave the structured play out of it. That's what's so great about traditional toys – learning doesn't have to be obvious. There isn't a script; it all boils down to imagination and we all know that the sky is the limit when it comes to that."

More than autism

Posted: 29 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A mother sets up a support group for girls with autism to inspire other parents to be hopeful.

Maybe the therapist was just trying to be nice.

"She's not going to be a person you'd want to have coffee with," the therapist had explained when she told Dawn Dudley her daughter had autism.

At the time, about three years ago, Dudley didn't know what to say. Her daughter, Trinity, had just turned two.

"It's not as easy as you think," she said. "People start rattling things off, and you're left in the dark."

As Dudley speaks on a Sunday afternoon, a handful of parents and children begin filing into the room behind her for My Circle of Girls, a new group she has formed for families like hers, with girls ages two to six on the autism spectrum.

Inside, dance teacher Carlita Victoria turns up the music and turns to the girls, some holding their mothers' hands or straddling their feet, one girl wildly running and jumping across the floor.

In the back corner of the room, Dudley's daughter stands alone by the window and stares up at the sky.

Never alone: My goal of this is that Trinity will have a friend, says group founder Dawn Dudley. - Photos: Mark Schultz/MCT

Never alone: My goal of this is that Trinity will have a friend, says group founder Dawn Dudley. –Mark Schultz/MCT

In March, the US federal Centres for Disease Control and Prevention announced that one in 68 children now has autism, up from the previous estimate of one in 88.

The numbers, based on health and education records for eight-year-olds in 11 states, show the disorder is four and a half times more prevalent among boys (one in 42) than girls (one in 198).

Experts think girls' two x chromosomes helps protect them against autism and/or the environmental factors that might trigger it, said Dr Rachel Bowman, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural science and of pediatrics at Duke University.

But detecting autism in girls can be difficult because most of the research involves boys, she said. If girls with autism do obsess over things, one of the disorder's warning signs, it's often over things like princesses and ponies that typical girls also like.

"A lot of times (girls) are overlooked," Bowman said. "I'm used to it because I deal with it all day, but a lot of professionals have difficulty recognising it."

Autism ranges from mild to severe. Experts look for deficits in communication – verbal and non-verbal – and social interaction. Children with autism may not speak or may stop speaking. They may not make eye contact or make eye contact when listening but not when responding.

Experts also look for patterns: hand flapping, body rocking, lining up objects or repetitive language or rituals like Dustin Hoffman's character counting toothpicks in Rain Man.

In one in four cases, children with autism also have an intellectual disability, what Bowman said used to be called mental retardation. This has come down from 75% as more and less severely affected children are diagnosed, she said.

But just why autism is rising, no one knows.

"That's the big question," Bowman said. "A lot of it has to do with our ability to diagnose it. I don't know that we really have a true answer."

Tamara Hicks of Durham, North Carolina, cried for three days after her daughter was diagnosed.

"I didn't know much about autism," she said. "I was like, 'What does that mean? Will she have children? Will she get married?'"

Dawn Dudley was hesitant about opening up to people that her daughter Trinity (seen here) has autism.

Dawn Dudley was hesitant about opening up to people that her daughter Trinity (seen here) has autism.

Hicks, a single mother, didn't know anyone with an autistic child, and she couldn't leave work to take her daughter, Skylar, to day programmes like the TEACHH autism programme. So she turned to websites like Autism Speaks and Facebook, where she found mothers in the United Kingdom facing the same challenges she was.

And she works at it. When she smiles at Skylar, or hugs and kisses her daughter, she gets a blank look back – and keeps smiling.

When Hicks hands her daughter a juice box in the My Circle of Girls group, she sucks the juice up the straw and then lets it dribble out her mouth and onto the floor. Hicks wipes it up.

Skylar, four, doesn't speak. But she does sing, and she plays the ABCs song and Wheels On The Bus videos she finds by herself on her mother's iPad over and over.

One day, Hicks said they were out somewhere and Skylar saw a baby, she ran over to the infant and started singing, "Baby on the bus goes, 'Wa, wa, wa.'"

"I was like 'Yes! Yes!'"

The most important thing, Bowman said, is to start therapy early.

"You figure out what things matter the most to the child, then reward appropriate behaviours like making eye contact with small treats, toys or games."

Results vary widely, but studies show that when intervention occurs between ages two and five, children with milder autism show significantly fewer symptoms by age 10 or 11, Bowman said. In some cases, they no longer even meet the autism criteria.

The numbers keep changing with the disorder, but studies suggest that between 5% to 15% of children with autism have "very good" outcomes, living independently as adults, she said.

"My approach is to present information in an objective, compassionate manner, and inspire parents to be hopeful," Bowman said.

"A lot of parents have said to me, 'We saw this expert, and he said our child would never talk,'"she continued. "What's the point if we can't offer hope? I call it realistic hope."

Dudley started My Circle of Girls because she had looked for a group for Trinity and couldn't find one.

"We're just here to have a good time," she tells the other mothers and a couple of fathers as she cradles her daughter in her lap on the meeting-room floor. "That's what this is about."

She hopes that Trinity will find a friend. But the group also gives Dudley, an information specialist for Durham County government, a chance to share what she's learned and find support for herself.

"It's exhausting," she said. "My daughter's four years old. She's just started sleeping through the night. I go to work. I'm trying to stay on top of my game. But I'm exhausted."

The little girl with her arms around her mother's neck and the far-away look in her eyes keeps her going.

"I am more educated now about what autism is," Dudley said. "I know my daughter more and what her needs are. I am more aware of resources, and I want to share. ... If this group here is a stepping stone (to helping her daughter), if it takes every Sunday for me, if it takes more phone calls, I'm going to do it." And that therapist three years ago?

"Today I'd say, 'No'," Dudley said. "My daughter is someone you should be honored to have coffee with, because maybe she'll teach you something about life."

"She's more than autism. She's Trinity first." – The News & Observer/McClatchy Tribune Information Services


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