Why don’t children go outside anymore?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mobile devices have become many preschoolers’ new best friends. “One of the knock-on effects of staying indoors due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the ‘massive increase in the use of gadgets and screen time among children’,” said Associate Prof Dr. Nora Mat Zin, the consultant psychiatrist of International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM) on an article in The Sun Daily. Even though these gadgets are able to provide education and entertainment to children, they also effectively isolate many of them from the outside world.
With the increased usage of mobile devices, children suffer from numerous side effects detrimental to their physical and mental health, such as short attention spans, loss of basic skills, and bad eyesight, among many others. “Due to excessive screen exposure, children are prone to develop computer vision syndrome, also known as digital eye strain,” stated Dr. Tan Jin Poi, an eye surgeon at Pantai Hospital Penang in a MalaysiaNow article. The proliferation of technology has changed children’s reading habits as they are now attached to their mobile devices.
In order to understand the magnitude of the issue at hand, I conducted an online interview about the relationship between four things — preschool children, the pandemic, mobile devices, and children’s books — with five Malaysian parents. I received interesting information and feedback from the interviewees.
- During the lockdown, a six-year-old child developed a phone addiction and performed poorly when classes resumed in person. He was found to stay away from studying, resulting in slower academic development among his peers.
- A 5-year-old child showed behavioral changes, for instance, becoming angry when he was not allowed to use his mobile phone as well as becoming quieter in online lessons.
- A 45-year-old Kuala Lumpur-based housewife noticed that before the pandemic, her 6-year-old child would enjoy reading books whenever they visited bookstores. However, during the post-pandemic, her child preferred to remain at home so he could play mobile games.
Based on the above observations, it is evident that mobile device addiction among children is a serious issue that should be urgently addressed. Furthermore, I personally believe that we need to instill the habit of reading among children, particularly those of preschool age. Reading develops early literacy skills crucial to a child’s development, as stated in an article on Raising Children Network. Not only does it spark their imaginations and curiosity, but it also enhances their vocabulary and understanding of the world.
Fortunately, my childhood was blessed with many children’s books, all bought for me by my parents. I enjoyed reading about the values of our ancestors, the mythologies of our motherland, and the wonders of the world.
Reading even led me to where I am right now — inspiring me to become a children’s book illustrator. Hence my heart aches when I see children nowadays prefer to spend their time on mobile phones instead of books. It is now the time to instill the culture of reading among children. Like a door, a book opens up the world to its reader, and there is just so much to see!
To begin, I started browsing the internet for interesting ways of presenting children’s books, and that is when Where’s Waldo came to my attention.
As stated in an article in Smithsonian Magazine, Where’s Waldo is a seek-and-find children’s book that challenges readers to search for the main character, Waldo, in a two-page spread of many other characters doing quirky activities. This interactive book can train the readers’ patience, visual searching skills, and eye coordination, all in a fun way. Waldo travels to many different countries in this lovely series but Malaysia is not on his list. That was when I came up with the idea of creating a Malaysia-themed Where’s Waldo children’s book, catering to our kids.
The idea was also encouraged by the five interviewees in the same interview mentioned above. When asked about the five parents’ perceptions of Malaysian-published children’s books, they made some suggestions (below):
- To increase the quantity and variety of Malaysian-published children’s books since not many Malaysian parents are aware of the existence/availability of such books.
- To have more Malaysian-themed based books to introduce local cultures to children since they are not very familiar with Malaysian cultures.
- To have more variety of Malaysian-published books with an interesting storyline to keep children’s interest.
Based on the responses above, it is evident that more Malaysia-themed books should be published. When asked about the purchasing intention of the Malaysia-themed Where’s Waldo children’s book, the intention of the five Malaysian parents buying this book for their children amounts to 92%. They believe their children would be able to learn about Malaysia and enhance their understanding of the local culture. Meanwhile, this interactive book also helps to reignite children’s passion for reading.
With the research completed and the findings collected, A Wahhh Rectangle: A Seek-and-Find in Malaysia was born. A Wahhh Rectangle is a Malaysian-themed interactive children’s book that aims to address phone addiction among preschoolers by bringing them on a journey to explore what is beyond their screens.
Figure 5. A Wahhh Rectangle: A Seek-and-Find in Malaysia — E-book © See Zi Yi, 2023
“Explore the world through doors instead of screens” is the main message A Wahhh Rectangle wishes to deliver. Parents are encouraged to read along with their children, using the book to inspire them to explore the world out there. Thus, the book is made interactive through seek-and-find spreads and an in-book board game! Aligned with UNSDG 4: Quality Education, A Wahhh Rectangle aims to reignite the interest of preschoolers aged 4 to 6 in reading physical books, showing them that there is fun outside of their phones.
To maintain the readers’ interest, the book features a series of Malaysia-related content in a form of seek-and-find. In the first spread of the seek-and-find shown above, readers are given the task to search for important ingredients of six well-known Malaysian cuisines in Food Paradise. Fun facts about the ingredients are included for a more engaging reading experience!
In the second spread of the seek-and-find, readers will enter Animal Wonderland where they are challenged to find six Malaysian wildlife species. This spread is more challenging compared to the Food Wonderland spread, in hopes of further training the readers’ visual searching skills.
Moreover, it comes with an in-book paper board game, serving as a knowledge recap for the readers to play with their parents and friends. Characters of the book are created into game standees to be used for the board game. These two aspects are incorporated to encourage a play-based approach in the preschoolers’ learning journey.
As seen in Figure 11, the board game is stapled-bound in the middle of the book prototype with the game instructions printed (left image). This page arrangement then enables the pages to be flipped out, displaying a double two-page spread/ a full view of the board game (right image). Parents are recommended to play this game with their children on the floor for a better reading and gaming experience.
The story begins when the main character, a Malaysian girl named Soya, seems to have lost her phone charger, and accidentally embarks on an outdoor trip with her companion, Icie. Along the way, they get to know new friends such as Yoyo, Kool, and Bogo. All the side characters are inspired by Malaysia’s favorite childhood snacks such as ice gem cookies in order to stay relevant to the target readers. Soya discovers the beauty of being outside of her house that she would have missed if she was on her phone all day. At the end of the story, the young readers are given a chance to choose a “rectangle” which implies that they have the freedom to choose the life they will live.
Ever wonder why the book is named A Wahhh Rectangle? Not only is a rectangle a common shape used for both phones and doors, but shapes are also one of the fundamental learning topics for preschool kids. Hence I chose to incorporate this word throughout the book and also the book title. As for “Wahhh”, this is a typical expression used by Malaysians to express awe. In the book, Soya is in awe when she opens the door that leads her to the real-life wonders of her country.
However, you may ask: can this book inspire children to put down their phones and instead see the world with their own eyes? My answer is no, it cannot. In the world we live in today, a mobile phone is an inseparable component of our life. As for children, it takes time for parents to raise awareness of the issue of phone addiction and make kids understand what they are missing out on in the real world. Some parents might even get frustrated and go about it in a much more aggressive way.
But instead of yelling, awareness can be raised through storytelling; let us start with A Wahhh Rectangle: A Seek-and-Find in Malaysia.
You may view the full project on my Behance.