Sunday, 5 June 2016

An Honest Review about Monsters Under the Bed

Posters of Monsters Under the Bed holiday creative writing workshops, Singapore.
In the past couple of years, since Isaac was in Primary 1, we've been very fortunate to have attended no less than nine creative writing workshops conducted by Monsters Under the Bed (MUTB) during the school holidays. And I say "we" and not just Isaac, because the MUTB folks are the kind of folks that doesn't mind the parents of their attendees hanging around, observing them carry out their programme. Hence the writer in me jumped at the chance to sit in on every session as I wanted to see what and how they teach, and whether a considerably seasoned writer such as I - could learn anything from them. Thus, I think I am pretty qualified to give a comprehensive review of these Monsters Under the Bed (is that a cool name or what?!) people, and the workshops that they have been organizing. And I guarantee you, by the soles of my kampong slippers, that this will be an honest review.
INKtotheVoid 2015! Scifi adventure theme inspired by Star Wars! The kids get a space blaster each! Spray-painted to space-perfection these water guns look like the genuine space blaster indeed! The hubbs and I couldn't resist playing with the guns before they were sold! Love how innovative these MUTB guys are!

Parents Are Allowed to Sit In the Entire Session
I'm sure all the other enrichment centres have a myriad of reasons why they don't allow parents to observe their going-ons when in session. But I find it telling that MUTB would allow parents to sit in on the sessions - it's like they have nothing to hide, you know what I mean? It's like they know that they have a solid programme that can stand up to scrutiny if the parents so wish to hang around to see what they're teaching their kids, and how it's being done.

Now, by and large, not many parents even choose to hang around. Most just drop their kid/s at the workshop and skip off for work or brunch or something. And for those of us who do hang around, we know we're supposed to sit at the back and not cause any disturbance, of course. But still, you can be there if you wish. And that's saying something.

One trick MUTB applies to keep all the kids in check is to have House Rules. But of course, they sing it in tune to the theme of the workshop! SurviveINK, MUTB 2015.
The Themes of the Workshops
Every workshop is centered around a theme. These themes can be vastly different. And before you can ask me why every workshop has the word INK in it... It's actually an acronym. INK stands for Imagination 'N Knowledge.

Here's a mini brief of the themes of the workshops we have attended 
  • EnchantINK - Fairy Tale themed. But not in the Disney sense. MUTB delves into the history of where fairy tales came from, comparing the original Grimm tales to the modern day happy-ending Disneyfied stories we know today. Kids get to write their own fractured fairy tale to their gruesome end.  Read my full review of this workshop.
  • MonsterHuntINK - Monster themed. Kids get to create their own versions of everything! Their own monsters, their monster's lair, their own hero, deck the hero (or heroine!) out in weapons of their own invention (don't forget the Secret Weapon!)  and finally, write out the story of how their hero went on the monster hunt. Read my full review!!
  • InvestigateINK - Investigator themed. The kids are Reporters of a publication and are thick in the action of a mysterious drama of murder as espionage! Kids write out a report of what actually happened, to have it printed in their publication. Read my full review! 
  • HauntINK - Ghost themed! Very spookily (well) done, the kids are exposed to how good ghost stories are written. How they can up the spook factor of their horror stories. Read this full review by Ch - one of the participants of HauntINK!
  • EpicQuestINK - Percy Jackson inspired theme of a Hero and his journey while on his quest. We are made to realized that actually many stories that we read (kids' genre, that is) consists of a hero on a quest, and the story is all about his journey. Again, the kids invent their own hero and bring him on a journey to fulfill his quest. Read Owl's Well's full review!
  • SurviveINK - Zombie themed!!! Trainers and kids role play as modern day people caught in a major worldwide incident where people are being turned into zombies. The last bastion of refuge in Singapore was there at The Arts House (where the workshop was held). Read Owl's Well's full review!
  • SpellCraftINK - Harry Potter inspired theme of witchcraft and wizardry. Participants are enrolled into the Mundane School of Monsters & Magic and would learn to design their own spells and artefacts, hunt and identify magical beasts, as well as learn how to insert "secrets" into their story to make it interesting and exciting! Each group is a "House" and the kids even get their own wands! I so wanted my own wand too, but there were no extras! sob sob sob!!! Read this full review by Unlikely Lady of Leisure.
In SpellCraftINK 2015, the kids had to participate actively in discussions and brainstorming sessions, to earn tokens to spend on buying themselves a wand! Look at all the lovely wands handmade by the MUTB team! Everyone's pleased with their wands for even though they think they have chosen the wand - it is actually the wand who chose them! :p
  • HowlINK - Werewolves themed. Another murder mystery! One that's set in a lonely village surrounded by woods this time. Participants learn to create tension and suspense in their stories and hone their ability to observe, interview and investigate! Full review by SaysHappyMums.
  • INKtotheVoid - Star Wars inspired Sci-Fi adventure themed! Participants learn how to design their own fun fictional technology (weapons, spaceships, whatever you can think of!), build entire planets & civilisations and of course, create the larger-than-life characters that form the main protagonists in their stories! Full review by Owl's Well!
One of the things I really like about MUTB is how they motivate the kids to participate actively in discussions and whatnot as well as do their work - writing. The more the kids participate and write, the more tokens/credits they earn for redeeming for stuff. Be it weapons, or protection amulets, or safety bracelets - the kids get to spend their tokens the way they want! INKtotheVoid, MUTB 2015
Just see how cool their themes are!!! Every time we marvel at MUTB's themes, Debs of Owls Well and I just look at each other and lament "How come we didn't have such interesting themed creative writing workshops when WE were young!?" After every awesomely done MUTB camp, I wonder to myself what other interesting themes would MUTB be able to come up with for the next camp? But they don't seem to have any trouble coming up with gems! By the way, the workshops usually run for three half days from 10am to 1pm on weekdays. I'm not sure why we call holiday workshops "camps" even though the participants don't stay overnight or do anything remotely like camping - but that's what people call holiday workshops nowadays. Sometimes.

Excellent Execution
Anyone can come up with interesting themes - but not everyone can excute it well. I have attended events/workshops conducted by other parties before that sounded very interesting, but was so dismally executed that we feel very cheated of out time and feelings *sob*. But here is where MUTB shines. The team of trainers have obviously done loads of research and preparation prior to the workshop, and this shows in their execution.
Most workshops have a number of pre-recorded video segments which tie in to the theme of the camp. Very stylishly done. And for the e-generation, definitely a good hook. InvestigateINK, MUTB 2015. 
Firstly, the theme (yes, again). MUTB takes their themes very seriously. The trainers are usually dressed for the theme throughout the workshop, and they really get into it. For most workshops, the trainers usually take on a alter-ego name in line with the theme and ask the kids to call them by that name during the workshop. They then role-play that role that they are playing throughout the whole three half day workshops. There are often videos of them in character, filmed prior to the start of the workshops. Frequently, there would be live drama acted out by the trainers there and then at the session itself. For workshops with a mystery - who was the traitor? killer? spy? infected?! the answer is often revealed as a finale in a short drama acted out by the trainers on the last day. Truly a visual and sensory feast to be savoured and look forward to every camp.
In EpicQuestINK 2015, the participants got to make their own card game and board game in addition to writing their own story. In fact, the card game they made for themselves was a kind of story-generator to help them outline a story by just using the cards! Love it that the kids get to write and create varied stuff like that! 
In line with the theme, the kids often have very apt and cool take home souvenirs. In InvestigateINK, each participant had their own Reporter Staff Pass (was actually their name tag for the camp). In SpellCraftINK - the Harry Potter inspired camp, the kids each had their own wand!!! In INKtotheVoid - the Star Wars inspired camp, the kids got their own laser blasters (water guns spray-painted to perfection!) and got to put together their own half-length light-saber - one that truly lights up! In order to "buy" these items, participants had to earn points or credits by answering questions, or coming up with points/ideas during their writing/brainstorming sessions with their group's tutors. The kids take to this gamification very well and enthusiastically participate to earn more credits for their expenditure. This enthusiasm in a few inevitably spreads to the rest of the kids and that's how you end up with a class full of engaged and participative kids. Bravo.
There may be lots of fun and drama at MUTB camps, but there's lots of serious writing going on too. The one thing that is MISSING is the groaning and moaning of kids not want to write! The kids all delve into writing with gusto!!!  MonsterHuntINK, MUTB 2014.

Using their theme, MUTB selects the type of writing skills they wish to explore, teach and hone in the kids. For example, for InvestigateINK - the kids are taught to write in a third person reportive style. For EpicQuestINK - the kids are taught to outline their story of their hero's journey to make sure it has all the elements of an adventure of a protagonist sort of story. Very clever, and yet very apt for the theme they have chosen.

In their three half days (10am to 1pm for three days), there are segments of "lecture" at the start of each day's session, where the lead trainer teaches. So there are powerpoint slides, some videos etc. The content of the slides is written in simple English, clear and succinct such that even the 7 year olds in the room can understand. Yet, the points they teach are relevant and "deep" - that even I found myself taking notes at times. I like it that they don't "dumb down" the content to cater to the lower primary kids - they just use simple English to explain it. And the kids understand, yes they do.
Lecture powerpoint slides by MUTB - no dumbing down of content! Just written in simple English! InvestigateINK, MUTB 2015.
Passionate Teachers
The best teachers are most often the passionate ones. Oh and how passionate the MUTB trainers are! MUTB lore states that all their trainers are "published authors" (publications/books etc). From what I observe from their mini-lectures and how the trainers tutor the kids in their groups, it certainly does appear that the tutors are qualified and passionate about writing. And they also appear to be quite good with handling kids, being able to lead the kids in discussions and brainstorming. They are also patient yet firm with the kids. I have yet to witness any yelling-at-kids from any of the trainers in all these past camps, and yet, we don't see any madhouse unruliness that you might expect of 30 - 50 kids in a gathering.

These people above are not professional theatre actors - they're just some of the ultra passionate trainers at Monsters Under the Bed! With lots of drama thrown into the creative writing workshops, the air is often rent with infectious laughter! This picture collage hails from EnchantINK,  MUTB 2014.
The passion of the trainers exudes through their brilliant dramatic role-playing of their characters. They all look completely at ease in whatever costume or get-up they have on with not a shred of shyness or paiseh-ness at all. And because they behave so, the kids find themselves having getting into the theme and mood of it all as well. After a few camps, I realised that the trainers take turns to be lead trainers, and it seems that often, theme is usually a passion of the lead trainer. For example, the one in charge of SurviveINK (zombie) was a fan of zombie themed role-playing games. The lead trainer for INKtotheVoid was a Star Wars fan. And the one for SpellCraftINK was a Harry Potter fan. It makes sense, really. For the true fan is often the one with extensive knowledge of the topic, and they are the ones with the appropriate ideas for living the theme out. Very well done. I find myself wondering if I could take on a job with them - for how fun it must be to do this for a job!!!

Look at some of the sporting participants who dressed up for the last day of HauntINK 2014! The best, in my opinion, is the "chinese ghost" Ch of SimplyLambchops! Go read her review of HauntINK!
The Dress Up
It's been a MUTB workshop tradition that on the third and final day of the camp, the kids should all come dressed up in a theme-appropriate way. You may think that the kids of today would balk at that. But no. Thanks to the sporting trainers who have been dressing up since Day 1, the kids usually jump right into it, dressing up with gusto, complete with props and headgear where appropriate!

Pre-Workshop Materials
Before every workshop, the MUTB team would send out an email to the parents of the participants with reminders of the workshop's essential details, along with some reading material for the participants to prep the kids for the upcoming workshop. I thought it was a nice touch to get the kids hyped up about the workshop, and to get them thinking about it even before it starts. Isaac looks forward to these and would ask me before each workshop for the reading materials he's come to expect.

Pre-Workshop Preparation Materials for InvestigateINK, MUTB 2015. In InvestigateINK, the participants are members of the Press - Reporters who need to do a bit of investigation to dig up newsworthy information. As such, they need to have goo interview skills...
How They Cater to Different Ages
Parents who have never witnessed an MUTB creative writing workshop often wonder how MUTB can manage to conduct a workshop that caters from 7 year old to 12 year olds. What they do is that they split the participants into smaller groups - often 3 or 4 groups in total. The kids are split according to writing ability - so don't be surprised if the team requests a writing sample by your child, from you. It's not a test, it is just so they can gauge the level of writing proficiency of your child and place him together with his peers. This way, each group consists of participants with a similar writing proficiency - and this makes it efficient for the trainer in the group to lead. Also, because MUTB does not dumb down the content, the workshop conducts itself at a level which is engaging and informative even for upper primary kids. Heck, I think they should run it for secondary school  kids as well!

My niece Izzy (the one in purple) attended EpicQuestINK 2015. She was 10 and a good writer and was hence grouped into the most advanced writers group of the upper primary kids. And despite being a bit skeptical about attending this course to begin with (she thought it might be childish), she really enjoyed herself very much and thanked me for bringing her.
They Listen to Feedback and Constantly Improve Themselves
Being the kaypoh and opinionated me, I often give feedback to the team. And what I like is, they listen, and take action!

The first two camps we went to, we quickly realised there was no food provided (see point one under What I Don't Like). So I told them that they needed to prep the parents to explicitly tell them to pack snacks for the kids for the workshop. The next pre-workshop email had this advisory in it.

Some of the camps can be realistic to the point of ... scary - for the camps with scary themes. So when I sense some of the kids getting overly spooked or worked up over something, I go give the team a heads-up. (See other point below in What I Don't Like) More often than not, they tell me they're aware of the situation, and they would follow through by making sure to clarify with all the kids and explicitly tell them at the end of the workshop, that everything that happened was fiction.
SurviveINK 2015 - zombies may have infiltrated the safehouse! The participants need to don masks to protect themselves from the virus and be brave enough to search the lab and search for clues! The whole world is counting on them! 
Another time, I reflected to one of the lead trainers that when their camps are fully subscribed, the groups tend to get quite big. So I kinda hinted that more trainers per group would be good so that each kid gets more individual attention and guidance from the trainers. He looked at me shrewdly and said "We realise that too! So we're going to have more trainers per group from now on." I thought he was just paying me lip service until the next camp came around and they DID have more trainers employed and assigned to each group! Well done!

In fact they keep improving and outdoing themselves that I often wonder how they're going to top their current best performance! After every camp, I'd ask Isaac which camp has been his favourite so far, and he'd inevitably name the recent one as one of his top three. And the thing is, I'd totally understand why!

The highlight of INKtotheVoid 2015 was the astounding fact that each participant got to put together their own half-length light saber. No extra cost - all included. *jaw*drop* right?! 

Food, what food?
Okay, I guess it's so typical Singaporean of me to complain about food. But look, a workshop that runs through lunch time (10am to 1pm) and doesn't provide a shred of food?! During my first couple of camps I was like "What?! They should!!!" But then, as we went for more MUTB camps, I decided it was a good decision for them not to provide food.

Firstly, there is no time. There is barely sufficient time for the team to deliver the curriculum as it is, because they actually do teach a fair bit, and the kids need time to have their group discussions and time to write out their stories. So if food was provided, a good half an hour, at least, will be gone.

Secondly, if they provided food, the fees of the workshop was bound to increase. And any kind of price increase is not good, eh. Besides, what kinda food are they going to provide? Would be tough to supply non-junk food that all kids liked - that rules out hotdogs and fried snacks of any kind.

So how do we handle this situation? I try to feed the boy a larger breakfast in the morning, and pack a dry snack (bun or cookies) for him in his bag. Oh and please remember the water bottle too!

In SurviveINK 2015, the participants have to think about their situation - they are hiding out in The Arts House from hordes of rabid zombies outside. They have to think about how they can survive this difficult time. Food? Defence against the zombies? How useful can a common household item like a metal ice bucket be?
The Ultra-Realism of Certain Scary Themes
I'm feeling moronic. Oxymoronic, that is. The thing is, I love it that the MUTB team of trainers are so passionate and enthusiastic about bringing the theme alive, that for many a time, the acting and dramatisation done by this bunch of very talented people tends to be too realistic. I love it. Me, the adult, that is. I know for sure it's just acting and it's not real; it's fake. But for a number of workshops, I do witness kids who were scared by the realism of it all. The acting was so real, that the kids wondered if it was real.

In SurviveINK the zombie themed workshop, the trainers came decked out in combat army wear, carrying fake-yet-realistic looking rifles, and the the sound of a zombie-alert alarm blaring really made it feel as though there was a real threat of zombies just outside the building interesting in eating your brains. Just watch this video below. I heard of a participant (young 7 yr old girl) who refused to attend the workshop after watching this trailer. Another friend brought her daughter (another 7 yr old girl) who was so shell shocked by the alarms blaring and the tension brought about by the realism - that she didn't want to stay for the workshop either. On the other hand, my then 8 year old Isaac, saw the video, looked at me with wide eyes and said "COOL!!!"

In InvestigateINK - a theft-cum-murder mystery, the kids got to interview suspects and act as reporter cum investigators. By and large, it wasn't very scary (see video below), but at the scene where Tai Po - one of the characters were "killed", the trainers carried the man who "died" out of the room and hid him in a dark room. For the rest of the workshop, the kids never saw that character again. This made some of the younger kids wonder if the man really died! When I overheard the kids discussing this in worried tones, I quickly told them it wasn't real, just acting. They looked at me doubtfully, saying "But Tai Po has disappeared. Why did he not come again, if he is alive?" I quickly went over to inform the trainers that it would be good to clarify by the end of the workshop that Tai Po was just acting and still alive and well, and they did - much to the relief of the kids.

The "Murder of Tai Po" !!! There wasn't even any fake blood or a real weapon, but the acting was realistic enough to scare some of the youngest kids. It's fairly obvious to the older kids and adults that it was a faked death though. Some kids scare easily, I guess. InvestigateINK MUTB 2015

Another scary workshop was HauntINK whose focus was on writing scary/spooky stories. The workshop's setting is slightly off-balanced Auntie X inviting everyone to stay in her huge (The Arts House) mansion for a few days in order to attend a dinner party. The MUTB team gathered items to create a spread on a couple of tables at the back of the room that just kept the kids coming back to gawk at. The spook factor was done so well that even I got the creeps just looking at the stuff. Throughout the workshop, there were little dramatisations here and there, and the suspense and thrill factor were kept high and running - that I overheard a few kids declare that they did not want to be in the room alone! The finale drama was quite something to remember as well. Turns out that Auntie X was haunted by the memory of her sister. There was a short duration where her sister possessed someone and spoke through her, you see. So, once again, at the end of this workshop, the trainers had to explicitly tell the kids that it was all fiction and made up, that it was all not true. The team had to consciously shed their persona and speak normally to the kids. I could feel the relief emanating off the kids in droves!!!

So you see, as an adult, I really appreciate how passionate the trainers are, and the amount of work the trainers had to put in to pull off such realistic works of art that is the MUTB workshops. They were truly amazing and seriously awesome - both the workshops AND the trainers, I mean! However, what it means is that: If your child is the squeamish kind, then you should take note of what the theme of the current workshop is on about, before deciding whether it is appropriate for your child. Certainly, if your child is a 7 or 8 year old girl - then this warning should be heeded for I noticed that those young girls tend to be the ones most affected. The older girls, ages 9 and above, seem to be able to hold their own to be spooked yet not scared, but thrilled, by the going-ons. Boys, well, you know boys. They seem to love love love this stuff - regardless of their age. Well perhaps, except for some 7 year old boys. But by and large, the boys lap it.
Hope I haven't scared YOU too much! The MUTB workshops really strike a pretty good balance - just that some kids scare easily. This collage pretty much sums up what Isaac thinks of HauntINK - he's spooked but gleeful about it! I certainly did not have any problems with him being bothered by anything he saw at HauntINK, MUTB 2014. 
So what's the conclusion? Do I recommend these Monsters Under the Bed, or not? Double confirm, chop, stamped, APPROVED! I wholly, truly, definitely, highly recommend the Monsters Under the Bed Imagination 'N Knowledge "INK" holiday writing workshops. And yes, even if you private message me to ask me what I really think about MUTB, I'd refer you to this blog post.

So when's the next camp? There are two coming up this June 2016! KapowINK - Superhero and KapowINK - SuperVillian! Just look at the awesome posters below for the essential details. Click through to the MUTB INK website for more information and to sign up. Your kid/s will thank you for signing them up for this workshop, I assure you!!! And further, we have a discount code for you to use to get 10% off! Just type the promo code "ink01"  in the Additional Comment field when signing up to enjoy the discount! What are you waiting for?! Go sign up now!


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