Use Games and Puzzles to teach children Problem Solving: Missionaries and Cannibals

Developing Problem Solving Skills

Thinking logically and independently is a skill that will set kids up for life: these are the skills that cause them to ask ‘Why’, to think critically, to question received wisdom and find solutions to problems for themselves.  Encouraging children out of passively receiving information into a more independent space allows them to unleash their creativity too.

Interestingly, once they have encountered a problem in one context, kids are very able to transfer their solution to different scenarios. You will find classic problems, like the Missionaries and Cannibals below, presented in a range of diffferent guises involving foxes and chickens, bridges and horses etc.

Try puzzles like this one with your kids – get them to try out their ideas using the game in the link below:

Missionaries and Cannibals

In this classic river-crossing problem, three missionaries and three cannibals must cross a river in a boat which can carry two people, but on both banks missionaries cannot be outnumbered by cannibals (if they were, the cannibals would eat them.) The boat cannot cross the river without people on board and all missionaries and cannibals can row.  How can you get all six across the river and how many trips will it take?

In its original state this problem is trivial, however the problem can be elaborated, for example one variation states that three missionaries with a single cannibal can convert him into a missionary;  another shows that when you try to get four missionaries and cannibals across the problem becomes unsolvable.

This problem is a ‘toy problem’, of no intrinsic value but useful to illustrate a facet of a larger problem or explain a problem solving technique. Saul Amarel used it as an example of problem representation in artificial intelligence.  It is also commonly used to demonstrate searching in AI including classic search algorithms such as breadth-first and depth-first.

Click here for a solution and to play the game.

Fun and Games with Computational Thinking: Children Thinking Logically

What is Computational Thinking?

Our brain works in a similar way to a computer storing data, by keeping information in patterns which are recovered when needed. Computers store data in 1s and 0s while brains store information in patterns and sequences.

A foundation stone in ‘computational thinking’ is thinking logically.  Logical thinking means inferring new information from that which you have already, with no guessing: each step must be rationally worked out.    Searching, sequencing, planning, and scheduling are all facets of computational thinking that underpin our daily lives.  These logical skills support many other fields – both for children in tasks like planning the route to school, organizing a game, sequencing the revision planner and for adults in daily lives and in other disciplines like research, engineering, project management

Speaking at Carnegie Mellon Qatar’s Computer Science Distinguished Lecture Series recently, Dr. Jeannette M. Wing, the Head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Science Department said “Computational thinking helps us figure out how to solve problems through reduction, embedding, transformation, decomposition or simulation.” She added “Teaching computational thinking can not only inspire future generations to enter the field of computer science because of its intellectual adventure, but will benefit people in all fields,” Dr Wing went on to say “we should be taking advantage of the tech-savvy generation in order to teach more about computer science. We should try to teach the younger generation the reasons behind new technology.”

So, how can we equip our kids to be creators, not just consumers?

How can we foster computational thinking?

Research shows that games help develop computational thinking abilities in children and logical thinking is challenging and fun. Most newspapers have logical thinking puzzle like Sudoku and Kakuro are great examples of logical thinking exercises. Taking the information given in a few squares of your 9×9 grid, you must deduce the values in all the other cells to solve the puzzle.  A single logical thinking mistake will prevent a solution, but each new cell value can be logically deducted: other possible answers will be excluded by your logic.

Introduce your children to fun puzzles like Sudoku and Kakuro.  Try online thinking games too – is an excellent place to find logic puzzles suitable from about 10 years upwards, with a competitive element if your children are interested in the additional challenge.  These puzzles teach us all to think logically and computationally, increasingly naturally and this skill will quickly translate into real-world problem solving.

Interestingly some computer games, eg Runescape, can also foster this kind of logical thinking with the quests and puzzles which encourage users to break a challenge down into steps, then sequence these steps into a plan, execute the plan, then evaluate to see how effective their planning had been.

Dr. David Anderegg spoke at TEDx Brussels 2010, explaining that we need more creative people who can discover smart long-term solutions to our complicated problems. The future is bright for children who master logic and computational thinking – kids who understand why and how systems work, rather than just accepting that they do.

Facebook and other online data can be legally stored for 7 years: think before you click.

‘Think before you click’ is a standard mantra for teens using social networking. There is even more reason for this now since the US Federal Trade Commission has said that a private company, ‘Social Intelligence Corp’, can legally archive online data for 7 years.

Social Intelligence Corporation have been approved to gather and distribute personal info and images of job applicants that have been trawled from online sources including social networks. Job applicants must acknowledge and approve of a social network search, just like they need to approve criminal and credit history checks. However if you refuse permission will you really get the job?

We know that companies, universities and other organizations sometimes search the web of applicants’ details before offering a place, but this crystalizes the idea for our kids. Imagine what your 15 year old will be doing when they are 22… will they really want someone to search their back-catalogue of posts, images and tweets to find any potential skeletons? The after-party that went a little too far, the trick they played on another student, the cyber-bullying incident, the unfortunate image that their friend posted and tagged?

Seven years is a long time on the Internet, making it increasingly difficult to leave behind a the kind of teenage mistakes that an older generation can simply forget about. However, if a search returns negative information this must be reported to the applicant; the data can then be amended for accuracy.

However, it becomes ever more important to work with your children to protect their online reputation. The standard rules of ‘think before you click’, be paranoid about your security settings, and consider every shred of personal data before allowing it out on the web are even more important. Keep talking with your kids – discover what they know and think about managing their reputation online; they can regularly surprise with both their wisdom and their naivety. Encourage them to keep everything private, to consider whether a form they are completing really needs their compliance, whether the app they are downloading really needs their geo-location data; encourage them to be militant about their personal information: it is theirs and the have a right to privacy.

What your children post today will affect their options later on. Protecting their privacy goes a long way towards protecting their future academic and working life.

Should ISPs filter web sites to protect users?

Telstra, Australia’s largest telecoms firm, has just started filtering its internet traffic implementing a blacklist of sites compiled by Interpol, the international policing organization. This will block access by its users to a list of websites Interpol identify as containing child pornography. This is the first publicly applied voluntary filter in Australia and it is anticipated that other ISPs will adopt it later this year.

Users who try to hit a blacklisted site will encounter an Interpol ‘Stop’ page explaining the content contained on the page is illegal, and with advice to challenge Interpol’s blacklisting. This allows site owner to request a review of the site if they dispute its blacklisting. The blacklist was initially constructed in 2009.

Sites added to this list must have been stipulated as illegal, and containing images of children who either are or can be perceived as under 13, by law enforcement agencies in two or more jurisdictions. It is thought that some ISPs in other countries have been using the Interpol blacklist to block customers from using illegal sites. For some time the European Union has debated enforcing the mandatory implementation of this list by member countries, but has stepped back from this position at present.

The implementation of this blacklist is considered controversial by some, and in Aus was almost derailed, due to concerns about reprisal attacks from hackers and hacktivists who believe any filtering of the internet is a breach of their civil liberties. There are concerns too about the age defined in the list since in some areas a child is defined as under 18 years.

The internet has historically been based on openness and a shared ethos, and the Chinese model of restricting content delivered to those within its borders is seen as diametrically opposed to this openness and an infringement of fundamental liberties.

So, what is your view: should the internet be completely open and unfiltered? Should governments be dictating to their people the nature of content they can recieve, or is this the thin end of the wedge? On the other hand, should we make every conceivable effort to protect our children from abuse by closing down the market and network of people exchanging abusive material?

What do you think?

Grooming – how can I recognise if my child is being groomed?

What is Online Grooming?

A course of conduct enacted by a suspected paedophile, which would give a reasonable person cause for concern that any meeting with a child arising from the conduct would be for unlawful purposes.” From the Sexual Offences Act 2003

Frequently child sex abusers groom their victims in recognised stages. As parents and carers we can learn what signs to look out for in protecting our kids.

In order to recognise a threat to our children we must get beyond the idea that child sex abusers are middle-aged male strangers in trenchcoats.  The reality is very different. A child is more likely to be abused by someone they know and a predator may be male or female and of any age.

Perpetrators go to great lengths to cultivate a relationship with a child to ensure their cooperation.  This cultivation is “grooming” and INTERPOL state that “The majority of sex offenders groom their victims.”

Identifying a Target

Whist predators have different preferences in terms of age, gender and other features, generally search for a child who appears vulnerable in some way.

Be aware of an adult who spends time in places like your local park playground or schools, particularly if they are not with a particular child. Be watchful and do feel able to question anyone to appears to take too close an interest in your child.

Information Gathering

Having identified a possible victim a paedophile will frequently attempt to gather information about the child, possibly through conversation with the child, but sometimes with the parents too.  Online chat rooms, games and virtual worlds allow relatively easy access. A predator will often try to cultivate a relationship whilst distancing a child from it’s parent by being sympathetic or overly complimentary toward the child, whilst reinforcing negative thoughts about their parent.  Some will offer opportunities, eg modelling photo-shoots or soccer trials. Others will quickly identify an insecurity or vulnerability and prey on it eg showering an unconfident child with undue affection and praise.

Be wary if an adult starts asking you or your child intrusive and personal questions. Teach your child that they don’t need to respond with personal data, just because an adult asks; if it feels wrong, it often is. Know which adults take an authoritative part in your child’s life; listen to your child if they talk of a particular adult more than another.

Lowering Inhibitions

With a relationship established a predator will try to introduce sexual context into the relationship, perhaps through increasingly sexual comments or showing film or images. This can initially cause embarrassment and discomfort and again it’s useful to teach children to recognise their discomfort as a warning signal.

Look out for changes in your child’s approach towards an adult in their life, and for inappropriate sexual interest or comments that they clearly must have heard elsewhere.  In terms of online relationships, keep the dialogue going about their interests online, who they meet and talk with.

Some children fear they will be in trouble or will disappoint their parents if they admit to having behaved inappropriately online and this works in an abuser’s favour – try to ensure your kids know that they can tell you without fear of trouble if they have made a mistake and need help. Predators will use this fear and guilt to blackmail a child into doing things they would never normally do.

Initiating the Abuse

Children who are being abused frequently show significant changes in their behavior and character. To protect your child, be informed about the issues, trust your knowledge and intuition and keep the dialogue open with your child. Be aware that the changes in behaviour mentioned may be as a result of other difficulties, eg bullying, but still warrant exploration.

Teach your child to listen to their intuition and act as soon as their alarm bells ring. If online, remind them not to go into private chat rooms with people they don’t know and trust in real life. Ensure they know how to protect their personal information online, eg privacy settings, not publishing personal data, avoiding public chat that gives away their ASL (age, sex and location). If they are approached while gaming or in a virtual world, where possible they should report an inappropriate approach to moderators, and protect themselves by logging out, leaving the world, and certainly not responding.

If you are concerned about an adult your child interacts with, investigate further and, if necessary, act to sever any questionable relationships.

What do you do if your Email provider \ bank \ game host is hacked?

The recent high profile hack attacks on firms like Sony, Citibank, Nintendo, Google et al has caused many to ask what they should do to keep their personal data safe.  How can we avoid identity theft if some of the world’s largest corporates can’t protect our data.  And what about our kids’ data, in the case of PS3 and X-Box hacking?

Recently Sega stated that email addresses, birth dates, and encrypted passwords more than a million customers had been hacked. With those details, how much more information could a potential ID thief clean about you from the internet? We need companies to take our data more seriously and implement technical measures for customer protection, for example not passing unencrypted sensitive data in the browser address bar.  We live in the real world though where our banks and communications are moving into the digital cloud and to ignore this is to lose the ability to function.  For our children this is the norm. Therefore we must take care with what we share.

Keeping your data secure:

Runescape is a excellent MMORPG gaming site where, as part of the interaction, users are coached in good security practice and security breaches are taken seriously. If your kids play Runescape, they will be aware of the problems of insecure passwords, accounts being hacked and GE bank accounts emptied. This can give a useful framework for real-life discussions.

In real life, the following points are essential basics:

Use complex passwords: kids are often very resistant to this – it seems too much like hard work. But with bots available (programs which can try every word in a language in a matter of minutes) you can’t use common words or names. Bots can recognize common number patterns and number substitution (eg s1m0n) too, so birth dates are also a mistake.  Try to use alpha-numeric, upper and lower case and, if allowed, punctuation too eg 1LikeCat5!
Change passwords regularly: Many schools, universities and workplaces now insist that users change passwords regularly, and for good reason. This makes it more difficult for users to remember their passwords (ask any Technical Support team!) but ensures it is far more difficult for a password to be stolen.
Use different passwords for different accounts: If you use a single password for many accounts, then that password is discovered, all your linked accounts are exposed to a hacker too.  If a hacker gets into your email account with mail from EBay, your bank, Paypal etc, they could have access to all those accounts too.

Never share a Password: teens often fall into the trap of sharing a password with a close friend, only to find that being used against them when they fall out.

What to do if your data is exposed:

Remember that, when families share computers, sometimes data loss can affect all the computer’s users.  For this reason, set up individual user accounts on family computers and ensure your children all use their own personal account and password.

Email addresses

Email addresses can give access to personal details sufficient to allow another person to masquerade as you.  This is quite apart from the contents of your inbox including banking, online shopping, purchase history and similar sensitive details.

Financial information

If account details or a debit or credit card are stolen, you should cancel the account straight away.  Remember, debit cards give immediate access to your funds.  Sometimes teens are reluctant to admit to a parent that they have ‘lost’ a card or account details – let your kids know as soon as they are trusted with a card or account of their own that they won’t be in trouble with you for the loss. The longer this kind of loss goes undetected, the greater the problems in cleaning up afterwards so it’s critical that they tell you immediately.

Even after the accounts have been cancelled, monitor activity around your finances to see if anything unexpected arises, eg credit checks you haven’t authorized.

If further personal details have been taken, eg Social Security number, check your credit reports frequently for unauthorized activity.  Do this through a credit reporting agency eg Equifax or Experian, and have a fraud alert added to your credit report. This announces a possible ID theft to potential creditors so they’ll be carefully when running a credit check and authorizing a new financial account.
Hopefully none of this will be necessary, but it’s key to ensure your teen understands that any personal information they share online can expose them, their accounts and even their families’ accounts if a shared computer is compromised.  Get the first steps in security right and hopefully the emergency measures won’t be needed.



School Heads take collective action on cyber-bullying

FIVE head teachers of schools in Sydney have emailed all school parents emphasizing their cyberbullying policies after the local press revealed a website used by 2000 or more students hosted sexual slander.

Typically these school policies stipulate that students will not engage in cyberbullying, the consequences of which can be devastating for the targets. Two of the victims in this case were pupils in one of the five Northern Beaches Secondary College schools.  The head teachers acted to raise awareness of consequences amongst students and their families, giving advice that serious offences will be referred to the head teacher who will take action including “possible notification to the police and\or other appropriate authorities”.

A local spokeswoman referred to measures taken both against the offenders, and in support of the victims, but acknowledged that the schools have limited powers and cannot control Facebook. This is surely an issue for all schools and reinforces the idea of a need for greater parental involvement with children’s social networking, together with a consistent message to kids both in and out of school.

Bullying has always happened but cyberbullying is particularly disturbing in that it allows a degree of anonymity previously unknown, and people are accessible 24 hours a day through the digital cloud making them particularly vulnerable to a bully’s jibes.

In discussing this with our kids it can be helpful to use current news stories to open up the discussion, to encourage empathy and to highlight the consequences for those who overstep boundaries.

Some schools are finding it helpful to get students to develop their own peer support materials, to operate buddy systems, and to promote a communicative environment where nobody covers up for a bully and a trusted adult is made aware if one student is concerned for the wellbeing of another.

When talking with your kids, make sure they have a trusted adult they feel they can speak to… and don’t be offended if it isn’t you.  Some children will avoid speaking with a parent to protect their feelings or because they believe their parent cannot help – but it’s essential they can speak to somebody.

As ever, keep the communication lines open, talking and listening.  It’s important that our kids can take ownership of their part of the internet, creating and shaping the environment in a positive, vibrant and caring way – it’s like the Wild West out there at times and needs a little taming.

Managing your Reputation: Google’s New Gadget

Do you ever wonder how much information about you is available online?  Have you ever come across something you’d rather others didn’t see? We hear more and more about managing your digital footprint, and managing your reputation, but what does this mean and how can you do it?

Your digital footprint is generally understood to mean the trail of information left around the internet in the form of social networking posts, emails, images, forum posts etc.

Today’s children will be the first generation to have their entire life documented online and, whilst the photos taken whilst having fun with friends now may seem fun and evocative, and that joke on your Wall may have been hilarious at the time, in a few years’ time they may become a source of embarrassment or worse. You may also be tagged in other peoples’ images, or mentioned in forum and blog posts. Employers and universities are increasingly checking applicants’ digital footprints to evaluate their integrity.

Google have cottoned on to this need to manage one’s online reputation and have released a tool called ‘Me on the Web‘ – if you have a Google account, go to your Dashboard, you will find it between Account and Profile.

Everyone should regularly search for themselves on Google – use quotation marks around your name to search for it as a phrase eg “Sam Jones”, and remember to search on Google Images too.

However with a Google profile you can manage information eg contact details, etc that people see, and link to other sites about you or created by you like Picasa photos and social networking profiles eg LinkedIn.

You can also be notified when your personal info appears on the web using Me on the Web to set up automatic notification alerts when info relating to you is posted.

Finally, you can have unwanted content and the associated search results removed from Google listings.  First you must work out whether you or somebody else controls the content. If it’s part of information you have published, eg Picasa albums, you can adjust the settings to increase privacy; but if unwanted content is posted on a site you don’t control, you can follow Google’s advice on removing personal information from the web and removing a page from Google’s search results.

Bear in mind this is not always easy or quick – you have to contact the site’s owners first and ask for data to be removed, and some owners may be unwilling to comply.  But at least there is now a tool for finding such information and this puts control back into the user’s hands again.

Always remember though – think before you click – it’s much easier not to post than to try to clean up afterwards.


If you wouldn’t say it face to face, don’t post, text, email, tweet or IM it.

So many children and teens are having arguments online that could be easily avoided if they followed the same social code online that they do IRL (in real life).  It’s been said before, but it’s worth mentioning again: without facial expression, body language and tone, words can take on a whole new meaning. The reader interprets them, often wrongly, and attributes meaning where there may be none; then they respond in kind.  And so the spiral begins, often ending badly for all.

So a conversation that is well worth having with your kids, from an early age, is to think before you click.  Say it often and say it loud “If you wouldn’t say it face to face, don’t post, text, email, tweet or IM it.”  This makes for smoother, kinder relationships all round.

If your children read something unpleasant, encourage them to sort it out face to face with the sender rather than responding digitally.  It’s possible they have misunderstood the sender’s intent. If need be, get a trusted adult to mediate, but don’t carry an argument on online and in public.  It never ends well.