Domů Překlady Mensanthropist: Michaela Drahoňovská

Mensanthropist: Michaela Drahoňovská

Od HOnza Koudelka

mensanthropist [ men-san-thruh-pist ] noun
a person, who actively participates in fulfilling one of Mensa’s objectives by fostering and utilizing intelligence for the benefit of humanity

This time I talked with Michaela Drahoňovská, author of educational games for children. Michaela is not a Mensan herself (perhaps not yet), but her daughter is a member of the Czech Children’s Mensa and she herself, although she doubts her intelligence, feels better in the company of intelligent people. Most of all, though, she is very inspiring and has an incredible elan that has driven her all her life.


Michaela, you do very interesting things for children, but how did you get into them in the first place? You left high school just before the end of the totalitarianism and decided to go straight into work. Was it mainly because of the regime in our country?

I remember that exactly. I told my mother that I would not go to university because I refused to learn Marxism and Leninism. So that settled it. Unfortunately, after the revolution, it still took time for Marxism and Leninism to get out of the curriculum of Czech schools. Moreover, I confess that although I found myself quite a technical kind, I was never good at mathematics. So I think I’d probably have struggled in college or university anyway. And because I jumped almost immediately into British Airways as an assistant, I actually got a five-year head start on my smarter classmates from business school who did go to a university. I still don’t regret it. I think it was the right decision at that time.

So you were actually lucky with a good timing.

I really jumped in headfirst. I was in my early 20s at the time, everything was new and I was soaking it up like a sponge. The history of British Airways was actually being written here, it was an irreplaceable and amazing experience. Great people around me, and such a natural way up.

I could actually choose what I wanted to do. They said, „if you want to do marketing, do marketing,“ and then suddenly I found myself doing a bit of sales. Then the branch in Bratislava started to open. I wanted to go there, so they let me in. I was working 300 percent everywhere, driving to Bratislava from Prague at night, I didn’t even know how I got there. I just suddenly looked around and I was in Bratislava. I had one job in Prague and another in Bratislava. I was doing everything and having a lot of fun. It was fantastic 16 years.

You studied foreign trade at the business school. Did you benefit from that, or was the practice completely different?

We were learning different things. What I did use from the high school, the biggest blast that they taught us and we hated it, was typing with all ten fingers. My whole life I’m always typing some reports somewhere, I have to portray something somewhere, and more or less everything gets typed. When I see these people typing with two, four fingers, I see that it saves me an awful lot of time when I’m typing 250 strokes a minute. So that’s what I’ve used the most.

You mentioned getting a head start on smarter classmates. Isn’t that a bit of an understatement? You have a kid in Children’s Mensa. Do you know your IQ?

I don’t know, I’m not even going to find out. [Laughs] I have to get my daughter retested because she’s 15, and I’m thinking if we go there, my son Jurášek could come with us and try it as well, just for fun…

You know what, I got more like B’s and C’s in high school, and when they taught us the COBOL programming language, that was a regular B. I think I have more willpower than anything else. When I do something, I get straight into it. Even if I don’t know what it’s going to be, I just have to finish it somehow. I have more of a life energy that has helped me tremendously, but I’m sure I had smarter classmates.

I definitely wouldn’t underestimate it, I have a classmate who got B’s in elementary school and now has two PhDs. Your daughter may have inherited her IQ from you. What role does intelligence actually play in your life and family? Does it help or hinder your daughter?

I feel it depends more on the kind of society one is in. At some point it may look like she is a nuisance to someone, but it turns out she is not a nuisance to that person, she is a nuisance to the environment. They’ll just say „she’s weird, everybody’s got to have one two three and she’s got to have four five.“ I can’t say what my intellect is, I’m relatively comfortable with that. But I do feel it can be a problem in some company. Sometimes it’s better to stay quiet.

If we had stayed in Prague, I would have seriously considered Nikitka going to Mensa gymnázium. I loved it there, the teachers were amazing, I felt that the attitude was different. Now she goes to an eight-year grammar school in Uherské Hradiště, which has a very good reputation.

How did you actually come to take your daughter’s test and have her become a member of the Children’s Mensa?

As a mom, I wanted to find out if my child should stay in elementary school. At that time, children could already go to an eight-year grammar school, although it was not that common yet. So Nikitka started going to an entrance exam preparation course run by two great husbands, the Fořtíks, who said it would be a good idea to take an IQ test. A psychologist was there and spent two and a half hours with Nikitka individually. She told me unequivocally that the child was unfit, that it was absolutely necessary to give her a raise and let her go to the grammar school.

What was it like for her to be among gifted children and in a company that she might get along with better?

There were about 12 children in the Fořtíks‘ prep school, and she was very happy there because they were all gifted in some way. But I don’t think she cared much. She was just a little girl, so maybe she didn’t even realize it.

Back to your journey, how did you get from a management career to an entrepreneurship?

I had a baby girl. And because everyone’s commitment there was so high, and I was a renowned workaholic, everyone expected me to put the baby in a nursery somewhere three weeks after the birth, and be back sitting at my desk. But for me, when Nikita was born, I knew straight away that there was absolutely no way for me to go back to British, because I had to spend time with the baby. I’ve been reading books to her since she was three months old and I’ve been very dedicated to her. And today I can see how it’s paid off. I stayed at home with her for two and a half years and British didn’t want to wait any longer. Even some of my colleagues sensed a chance, so we split up.

It wasn’t entirely pleasant after all those years and all I’d done for them, but they in turn had done an awful lot for me. So in the end it was fifty-fifty. And for me, the choice to stay with my daughter was the obvious one. Maybe even the only one, because if I hadn’t had those children, I would definitely be still in Britain now. I’m so glad my daughter opened my eyes to the fact that there are other things in the world than that job and the huge corporation that can squeeze every last drop out of you. Everything was up to time and it all worked out perfectly. I’m so glad for that.

You give the impression that when you start something you really go all in.

Sometimes it’s really a problem because I’m a true Capricorn who goes head to head, even repeatedly.

Your LinkedIn profile also mentions a company called IQ Steps. What place does it have in your life?

A huge one. When I was working at British Airways, I met the father of my children. He was just finishing up a job and I introduced him to some friends in Slovakia who were working with wood. That’s how his career in staircases started. When I left British, I helped him. We started out as a franchise of the Slovakian company, but we wanted our own company. And since I had marketing under my skin, I came up with a logo, a name and a slogan with a friend. The slogan was „IQ Steps, your smart staircase,“ because we were very keen that the staircase was made really safely.

We were making really beautiful staircases and that’s where my great passion for wood and different finishes started. Unfortunately, after I split up with my children’s father, that company ended. For my children I had to make the hard decidion what to do again. All that was left was my love for wood. And then a friend came up with an idea for a game that later got the name Wigglyworm.

I don’t even know how the name came about. I guess I said earthworm something, and suddenly the kids remembered it and started calling me Mrs. Earthworm. That started a whole different phase of my life. It was again conditioned by a fundamental decision to put myself on the right path, and again it was those children who helped me tremendously. I would never have closed the company otherwise. I lost all the money I had put into it, in the range of millions of crowns. But today I’m not sorry at all.

So I started making toys. Next I think I’d like to have a chocolate factory. I don’t know if I can do that in this lifetime, but that’s my plan. I’ve always enjoyed the manufacturing process.

So the game itself was created somewhere else, but you brought it to a workable state and turned it into a product?

Exactly, the idea was my friend’s. I then took it to the point where it started to have some variations, not only the board has 11 colors to choose from, but also a lot of game components. The Wigglyworm board measures 50 x 50 centimeters, it has 484 pegs on it, with special „Wigglyworms“ intertwined between them to draw on the board. I had to find someone to make it for decent money, so that it was really good quality and that the pegs would stick. Then I had to get someone to make the Wigglyworms so that they were colourful, flexible and had no memory. I found amazing people to do everything and they just came my way.

I then started going around with the game and showing it to different people. For example, I was even lucky enough to come across a lady who told me she worked with disabled children and what it did for them. So that opened up avenues into the homes for the elderly, where actually playing the Wigglyworm improves fine and gross motor skills and the connection between the brain, eyes and hands. Another example was occupational therapy centres, where people get after some kind of brain injury. Or a psychologist who approached me about working with kids with ADHD or some kind of disability.

It was very encouraging to me to find out that you can make something and it can do a lot of good things besides being just a kind of game. Then we started selling to nurseries. Thousands were sold and to this day more and more new components are being sold.

When the Wigglyworm started selling and I was able to calm down a bit financially and breathe, I started looking around to see what else I could come up with. I just needed some momentum. That came quickly and the game Wigglytalk was born, which can be played by up to twenty-five children at a time and has different themes. Or the game Little Musicians, where children learn to identify 36 musical instruments. They are mostly wooden games or I at least try to make sure there are some materials that are pleasant to the hand. I also try to make the games so that the kids always learn as much as possible.

There are some relatively complex topics that can be beautifully understood and learned through game play, even by young children. For example, the Lifeguard Case in the game „Tell me about it“. There, children learn emergency phone numbers with the help of these big XXL wooden numbers. Kids learn to know the emergency lines even if they don’t know the numbers yet. And I bet they’ll remember them for the rest of their lives.

With each of those games, can you remember what was the main impetus that inspired you to get that particular game into what form? I read in an interview with you that, for example, the time you spent with your son in hospitals helped you to come up with Wigglyworm.

My son stopped gaining weight at four months old and to this day suffers from unjustified malnutrition. At that time I didn’t want to let it go, so I went to a lot of appointments with him, like in the Motol hospital. It’s typical with long corridors and nothing there. Then suddenly we found the children’s corner, but mostly everything there was for very small children. Wigglyworm has one huge advantage. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you just create something different at a different age. One 17 year old girl made a beautiful horse head on that board.

Except I haven’t yet been able to get hospitals to want to use the coloured boards to their corridors and do something for the children. So it then curled up to the nurseries where it’s particularly helpful for preschoolers to loosen up their wrists. But the original idea was to put it into hospitals.

n terms of the other games, might they have a connection to how your kids were growing up? Did they need more entertainment and you came up with more ideas, or where did the other impulses come from?

You know, I have to make one big revelation. I’m actually a person who really doesn’t like to play with my kids. I’m not a play type at all, so I’m actually a kind of goat gardener. I guess I’ve become more open to those sort of random impulses. Like, I went to the FOR TOYS exhibition, and there was this little booth, and there was this cute blonde girl with a game called Talks. Perfect for a parent like me to play with the kids. So I bought it and we played it a lot at home after that, until I got the idea to bring it in a larger format for the nursery kids. Mrs. Andrea and I got together and the game „Wigglytalk“ was born.

It seems like you have a knack for seeing opportunities and gaps in the market. Which brings me to your latest game, the Cybernet Town. You’ve focused that one on cyber safety, on teaching kids how to behave properly and safely online. But you targeted it on the 5 to 9 years old. That makes it quite unique. Why this age group?

t was again about the opportunities and the impulses. I found myself at a cybersecurity conference that a friend brought me to. And that’s definitely a conference I would never have gone to on my own in my life. We got to talking to the speakers during the break and I was saying how fun it was that somehow everyone there was hooked up to these computers and I was making toys and games for kids that had no chip in them at all and didn’t even run on electricity. As we were talking over sandwiches and coffee, among other things, with the lady from NÚKIB (National Cyber and Information Security Agency) who was in charge of prevention, we came to the conclusion that prevention is needed earlier because the kids in school have bad habits already.

Then they put out a tender and approached me and x other entities. They gave a range of about twelve topics from which at least three were supposed to be addressed. One of the conditions was that it had to be for a larger group of children in that age range of 5 to 9.

When I started working on it, I found that I didn’t know anything about the topic and I had an awful lot to study. I even got to the stage where I gave up on doing it. But then one night I had this idea that it was going to be a small town. So I returned back to it that morning.

I went to the library with my son and checked out all sorts of books for kids. And that’s where I started to figure out what it was all about, what the main issues were. I got a lot of help from research at Palacký University in Olomouc, where Mr. Kopecký did one of the largest surveys of children aged 7 to 17 in 2019, with about 27,000 respondents. The results were so alarming. I realized that this is a huge mess and I just have to finish the game.

I did a little drawing contest over Facebook and had my kids rate what they saw in the pictures. That was terribly important, because when you tell someone to draw a cyberbully on this house here, it’s not easy to express.

I was even able to add a subliminal joke in there. The answer cards and the houses have magnets in them, so if you get the answer right the card and the house are drawn together, but if it’s the wrong answer the card is repelled from the house because of the reversed poles of the magnets. So the children are actually checking themselves.

It was terribly difficult to choose 4 phenomena and manifestations for each topic that are the most definite YES, and 4 that are definite NO, the ones that occur the most. But we managed to do it and there is a manual with information for parents and teachers. This is important because the results of the study are really alarming. For me cyberbullying was probably the worst part because that one is really life threatening. And most people don’t know what’s going on. That’s why education is very important. I tried to explain the topic in the adult manual. And then for the kids‘ parents we created our „Replug Me Challenge for Parents“.

I see it as one of the strongest manifestations of high intelligence when a person can present something complex in a simple way… So are you fully immersed in the Cybernet Town now, or do you have something else in mind?

I have a debt to Wigglyworm, a new component called „Worm Paths“ that is in the near-final stage. A week of intensive work and it will be ready. My problem is that I have a lot of ideas and I have to slow myself down. But I definitely think Cybernet Town deserves support, and I’m looking forward to kids getting back together in schools and nurseries to play it.

Links:

Žížalice (Wigglyworm): zizalice.cz
Povídej žížalo (Wigglytalk): www.povidejzizalo.cz
Městečko Kybernetov (Cybernet Town): zizalice.cz/kybernetov

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