If you've ever looked at pictures of American or European kids playing with fancy high-tech equipment, unless your kids go to St Cuthbert's you probably have the same reaction as I do - not here in NZ, matey!

But that's not true.

The Apple advantage seems clear to some - for example, it's clear to teachers who prefer quality over quantity, ease of learning versus learning curve and who value outcomes above input time.

Case in point is the Auckland Kindergarten Association. A few years ago, the AKA went Apple, and it doesn't appear to be regretting it.

If anything, it's even odder to see preschool children in a New Zealand kindergarten using Apple gear.

A good friend of mine says 'give a learning musician the best instrument possible - it's accomplished musicians who can get a tune out of anything'. I think this may be the guiding principle for the AKA.

I recently visited a Decile 1 kindergarten in Otahuhu in Auckland. A Remmers' kindy would be Decile 10, by comparison. It's just across from where a large factory used to assemble thousands of cars, including VW Beetles and Datsuns.

Despite proximity to what's now some kind of vehicle transit centre, the Fort Richard Rd Kindergarten has large fields either side. The centre itself is bright, engaging and well equipped.

The same could be said of the staff - three full-timers and some part-timers, catering to 30 kids per session aged 3-5, and from a variety of interesting backgrounds.

Head Teacher Pulusea Seumanu has been here ten years. He gets job offers, but Seumanu likes his work, despite opportunities for better pay. But it's hard to put a monetary value on something you enjoy, and he and staff members obviously put a lot of extra time into this kindergarten.

Seumanu showed me the 'space alcove' they built, where kids can pretend they're in a space ship, complete with lights, visuals and sound effects.

When the Association went Apple, Seumanu embraced it wholeheartedly. The teachers get MacBooks and the centre has an iMac in the office and another in the centre itself.

This one's used for displaying news and information about the kindy - Seumanu says parents like to look at it when they drop kids off or pick them up, and it's a nice visual counterpart of the paper portfolios the kids produce.

"I like to give every child a DVD when they leave, and we hear of them being viewed by proud family in England, the US, in the Pacific and in Australia."

Movies are shot on compact cameras in movie mode and they are then edited by Seumanu, using just iMovie, which comes on all Macs.

Parents are surprised how slick the results look - thanks to both Apple's ease of use and iMovie's professional templates and, no doubt, thanks to Seumanu's time and ability.

Keynote - Apple's answer to Microsoft's PowerPoint and part of the iWork suite - is used to create the news and info presentations, which can also be played on a large flat screen television.

Seumanu likes the fact that the three-year-lease Macs the AKA sends have everything they require, software-wise, out of the box.

Training is undertaken by the AKA's resident IT guy, Ian Newson, from attendance at seminars and at other events. The AKA is New Zealand's largest kindergarten association, and also the largest education provider outside the tertiary sector.

It caters to over 9000 young children attending 107 public kindergartens throughout Auckland every week - that's up to 14,000 in any year. The kindergarten service has been operating for 100 years in Auckland.

AKA teachers are fully qualified teachers with an early childhood teaching diploma as the minimum qualification. They hold current Teacher Registration Practising Certificates and must be involved in professional development to maintain registration. Professional development influences and supports positive learning outcomes for children and leads to guidance through the kindergartens, although they also have some say over what equipment they get and how much, within limits. A couple of the kindergartens even have PCs.

Seumanu actually attended the CreativeTech conference this year at AUT and found Dorothy Burt's talk extremely helpful, and still has the CT mission statement on his office wall for inspiration.

He really enjoyed the GarageBand session by Leon Dahl and the wrap featuring six New Zealanders who use Macs in widely varying fields.

I asked Seumanu what Apple could do for him. He told me he was a bit surprised when the CreativeTech wrap guest Lewis Gregory, a 17-year-old college student, accomplished digital artist and film maker, said, of Apple, he wanted "More. More of everything!"
"Nothing springs to mind immediately." Wry grin. "Except make the gear more affordable, I guess."

But Fort Richard Rd went a bit further, perhaps, than many centres when it added three iPod touches to the equipment roster a few months ago.

I asked if this resulted in a rush on the devices. "No. The kids pretty much self manage. Ten, 15 or 20 minutes on these, and they want to change to play-dough, or another activity ... or the sun shines, so they head outside."

On the iPods there are apps chosen for their teaching abilities. Currently the kids are learning about France, so there are some language apps installed, too.

I queried both the expense, and if they were strong enough. Turns out they are - they've been constantly handled for over six months with no problems, and the expense is more than justified by the extremely cheap, or free, apps that can be installed.

Seumanu mentioned the ball-bearing roller game Labyrinth. "One dollar-29 cents. Three purchases, $3.87 ... a single, real, wooden labyrinth game would cost $60; they both teach control and hand-eye coordination."

Add ease-of-interface and it was clear the kids at Fort Richard were very happy, and competent, with the iDevices. When I visited, two kids were on two of the three touches while a third was happily using Seumanu's work MacBook Pro. "That's very trusting, isn't it?"

Pulusea laughed. "Not really. The kids are very respectful of equipment."

This kindergarten is part of a continuum, engaged with the backgrounds the kids come from, with the community around the centre and with the school system the kids are destined for.

"We get feedback from the schools that they really like getting our kids, because they're so competent with computers already."

Many other Auckland kindergartens use Macs with children to do stop motion animation, create digital stories, make books, with Skype and more.

The Association says Macintosh is the platform of choice as it stimulates and supports creativity in a simplistic and 'holistic' way. The AKA appreciates how all the programs can 'talk to each other' which is particularly highlighted when using the Macs to integrate iPhoto, iTunes, iMovie and Garage Band to build digital stories.

Good work.

- Mark Webster mac-nz.com