AV1 robots and homeschooling: How they inspired this lockdown children's book

Published on: 08 June 2021 Author: Lisa Thompson

Lisa Thompson's new book, The Small Things, looks at how a little girl uses robot technology to help her learn and connect with her school friends, even though she can't physically be in school. Written last year, as the Covid pandemic took hold, its themes turned out to be relevant...

Illustration from the front cover of Lisa Thompson's book, The Small Things

A few years ago, when I was about to begin an assembly presentation in a primary school, I watched as a teacher came out of a classroom and placed a small, white robot on a seat in the audience. She came over to me and explained that the robot was called “Lily-Bot” and Lily was actually at home, watching the assembly through her laptop.

Throughout my talk, I kept an eye on the little robot as it watched me with glowing-blue eyes in a box-shaped head. I’d never seen anything like it before.

After my talk, Lily-Bot was brought over and I got to “meet” the real Lily (who was at home) and sign a book for her. The other children were so excited to show me how an AV1 worked (the technical name for Lily-Bot). From her home, Lily could control the robot’s head movements, talk through it, make it flash to ask a question and even create expressions on its face.

I went home thinking that, one day, I’d love to write a story about one of these robots being used in a school.

Life-enhancing technology

Sometimes ideas don’t work their way into a book until the time is right. A few years passed before I began thinking about the robot again.

I got in touch with Lily’s family, who were incredibly helpful, and said how much this device had transformed Lily’s school life. They had also used it for social events and family functions to help Lily feel included. It was a truly life-enhancing piece of technology.

I began to write The Small Things just as we were heading into the first lockdown in early 2020. The vast majority of children across the UK were now learning from home. But just like Lily, for a lot of children, not going to school is their “every day” experience. The Norwegian company, No Isolation, are the brains behind AV1s, and they have helped many children continue to attend school, even if they are physically unable to be there.

In The Small Things, Ellie is a child who uses an AV1-style robot to attend school from home due to illness. Anna, the narrator of the story, is in school and feeling the pressure of trying to keep up with her friend’s social lives and out-of-school activities. While they are going horse-riding and having street-dance lessons, Anna’s days out involve picnics in the local park – something that she feels is lame by comparison.

When Anna’s teacher pairs her up with Ellie, much to her dismay, she finds herself telling her new friend (through Ellie-bot) that she goes to amazing clubs and does fun things outside of school all the time. Before long, Anna’s lies spiral into a giant, stressful mess.

Slow down and savour the small things

The lockdown experience has been different for all of us and although there were huge challenges, one of the positive things for me was being forced to slow down and appreciate the things around me. As I wrote, this experience was very much woven into Ellie’s philosophy in the book. While Anna talks about her imaginary ice-skating lessons and evenings in the bowling alley, Ellie is at home joyfully sharing what she enjoys: baking, reading and watching the birds from the window.

By the end of the book, Anna begins to realise that maybe she’s been focusing so much on the things she thinks she should be doing that she has lost sight of the things she does enjoy, like art. During the first lockdown, I rediscovered my passion for researching my family tree and doing jigsaws!

While we edge back to some kind of normality, and life gets busier, it might be a good idea for all of us, young and old, to take time to slow down and savour the small things. You never know what you might discover.

Lisa Thompson

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