Are your children imaginative? Do they enjoy creative writing? Some of the best stories I've seen lately have been developed from adventure programs - Dragon World being the prime example, so I was more than interested when an attractive black A4 folder with Merlin's Magical Shop emblazoned in silver landed on my desk. Inside were some intriguing bits and pieces: cheques, a grid for map making, a photocopy master certificate, three sets of cards and an A2 poster, a number of badges, together with the program disc and documentation. Fortunately, although there are 12 A4 pages which need to be read carefully before trying out the program, the information is concise and sensibly presented.
Before you get very far with your reading, you'll realise that this is an adventure with a difference. "The single objective of this package is to elicit from the children a wide variety of imaginative work which is of the highest standard they may reasonably be expected to achieve."
Merlin's Magical Shop has been developed to provide a framework for the production of creative written work. The package provides you with the ingredients of a quest. The pupils, preferably working in groups, must invent and describe their quests, which can be accompanied by pictures, models, maps or any additional materials which the pupils use their imaginations to devise. It's your job to set up, monitor, mark and reward the work produced by your pupils. If our little experiment was anything to go by, then you'll need some of Merlin's magic powers to help!
Merlin's Service Counter in the Hall of the Mountain King (oh, that "music") provides the "menu page" from which all the other departments in the shop can be visited. Using the arrow keys, Merlin, complete with magic wand, can be moved up or down the screen until he is positioned opposite the department of your choice. Press Return and a quick wave of the wand transports you to the Stockroom, the Business Department, the Missions Department or Merlin's Hat.
The Stock Room contains 20 items which can be inspected prior to purchase for use on the missions - magic wands, spell books, potions, cloaks, wings, rugs, boots, carpets, shields, etc. "They range in power from the weak to the most awesome and in cost from minimal to frightful." To view the article chosen, the user simply enters the number. The item can be seen through the shop window and three lines of information - qualities, magical potential and general potency, and cost are printed underneath. All these items are described on the stock poster and the three sets of cards. The relevant cards should be kept for reference during the journey.
The Missions Room of the shop gives the choice of 20 completely different missions, each of which has a missions tableaux. These include saving the last remaining dragon in the world, finding the treasure in the Cave of Wonders, exploring the ruined Castle Cadaver by night, and rescuing Princess Zadura from Mount Fire.
The Business Department is the nub of the enterprise: "Here customers may buy, save, grow fabulously wealthy or stay abominably poor, become great wizards or remain frail humans. Much that happens here demands an understanding of the simple monetary system." Each questor opens a wealth account with an initial 50 good pieces and transactions in platinum and gold pieces and groats are added and subtracted from the account. The system is decimal-based, and the purchases and rewards - writing cheques and keeping accounts - give some useful mathematics practice.
Once the questors have chosen a name for their group, it becomes their filename which is stored on disc and enables them to return to the program and gain access to their account. So what's the adventure to be - to discover the lost city of Atlantis or travel through history in a time machine? Which items will help you most, and can you afford them yet?
Unless you've got a number of budding authors, who are sufficiently enthusiastic to spend their space time at home writing, it's unlikely that you'll want to use anything like the 20 missions - don't forget they can always return next year or even in four or five years time. And, once your intrepid adventurers have completed the first mission and produced their pieces of creative writing, models, dramatisation or map, you are then faced with the difficult task of marking and grading.
There are likely to be many primary teachers who might object to the idea of marking a piece of work out of 100 and the whole concept of external rewards - certificates and badges. I've heard two very different stories from colleagues who've used this program with groups of children. One group spent a lot of time "behind the scenes" helping the one member who was getting low marks, while another group insisted that one boy did extra homework every time the work he produced during the day wasn't enough or up to their required standards - they can be very hard taskmasters! When sufficient points have been gained, usually after four or five missions, the group may win Merlin's Hat - Copper, Gold or Platinum Awards.
I read recently about the horrifying creative writing a group of secondary children produced when given the seemingly innocuous theme of the garden shed, so I was pleased to read the piece of Merlin's Morality: "The quests are not excuses for mass destruction, wanton killing and uncontrolled magic. You should take into account acts of virtue more than acts of casual slaughter... the Tree of Wisdom may provide multitudinous benefits to humanity... One altruistic idea is surely worth reams of plunder!"
I began by feeling very unsure about this program - especially the external rewards, does it really need a computer? There's little doubt in my mind that, for better or worse, the micro is a tremendous motivator and, while you certainly could undertake a project of this nature without a computer, it's very doubtful if you'd be able to present it as well. Once the children are conversant with the program, the computer will help the groups to manage much of their work - although not the volumes of marking, unfortunately. At least most of the work has to be undertaken away from the micro, so if you've access to one infrequently then that's no problem, and as long as the points system is used judiciously then I think it could be a useful addition to a school's collection. The price, £25, may seem expensive - I think it is! - but it's the type of program that can be used over and over again by different groups at different times.