For the past few months I have been involved in an educational project initiated by dedicated professionals from the school of education at the university of Cape Town and PRAESA an organisation dedicated to raising educational achievement through reading and storytelling. The project is co-funded by the Douglas Murray Trust who are committed to transforming lives of young children through educational change.
The project wanted to look at the role of storytelling and the philosophy for children approach of teaching and learning through picture books and play and the impact it could have on practitioners working in Early Childcare settings and institutions. Participants in the project included those on the coalface, Educare Principals and teachers without teaching degrees, as well as those training and supporting these current and future teachers. It also involved charitable organisation leaders and workers from reading clubs, homeworkers and other educational trusts committed to raising educational knowledge, expertise and standards in the settings they support.
At the end of November I was invited by the wonderful ECD project coordinator and Thinking project member from SAEP to come and watch the children at one of their Educare centres in the township of Philippi receive and open their donated Christmas gift boxes. These boxes are donated through the Kidz2Kidz Santa Shoebox initiative. Santa Shoebox is a non-profit organisation that coordinates the donation, collection and distribution of personalized Christmas gifts to underprivileged children in South Africa and Namibia.
Every child at every Educare centre is given an age appropriate gift in a handmade box. Shoeboxes are filled with sweets, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, clothes, stationary and toys.
Similar initiatives are now worldwide and I expect most readers of this will have contributed to something similar.
As you can imagine the distribution process requires organisation and patience. I have never seen such patience and anticipation as filled those rooms. The Educare setting was a small brick building containing 4 or 5 rooms over two floors. The children involved were aged between around 18 months and 5 and all children without exception sat silently in their rows on the floor in one big room awaiting their gift.
As the gifts were given out lids remained firmly closed, no peeping, a discipline already instilled by their formal education so far.
When all but a few boxes remained to be distributed the children were sent back to their classrooms. Many needed help they didn’t ask for to carry their boxes, almost as big and as heavy as themselves, up the flight of concrete stairs. We counted 3, 2, 1 Go! And the children’s faces broke from stoical into pure joy. The noise levels rose through the roof and the children were transformed back into children. The youngest looked on in bemusement and had to be shown that these were boxes to open and the contents were for them. Mingling amongst the excited children, we were shown toys and sweets, made to smell soap and shown toothbrushes held up with pure joy. New clothes were put on over their existing clothes and as much energy was put into peeping into their friends boxes as their own. Singing, laughter and the excited babble of pure childhood in at least three different African languages and then I looked out of the window. …..
Two blocks away thick black smoke was billowing, flames as high as the smoke and spreading rapidly in the early summer Cape wind. I alerted members of staff who merely shrugged. I looked out again, young people, mothers and workers all carried on with their daily business, no one seemed concerned. I asked a father who had arrived to collect his child if he knew what the fire might be. He replied that it was shacks and the owners were probably out at work. He explained that although the owners were absent there is always a risk that there are unattended children home alone. Although we were only a 15 minute drive down the highway from the suburban offices of SAEP he told me that the fire brigade could take up to 3 hours to arrive. Shack fires are not a priority despite the fact that fatalities are not uncommon. In fact the previous week in nearby Lavender Hill a preschool child was found dead in the burnt out remains of the family shack. In the context of this watching those children squealing with excitement seemed so much more poignant.
Since my return to the UK I have been writing materials for practitioners in Early Childcare settings to help them incorporate freeplay, creative and philosophical thinking and stories into their rigid formal timetables. Small steps but already creating small ripples of excitement and possibilities for change based on evidence that this can work in the seemingly archaic African education system.
But I have been thinking, reflecting and planning too. My thoughts are many but what if those shoe boxes also contained good quality, thoughtful, beautifully illustrated books? What if they contained little toys and objects to recreate, retell and reimagine new stories? What if children from other worlds and lives wrote their own little books and provided blank books and pens for them to create their own. What if each box contained questions for the children to think about and ideas that encouraged them to share their voices with their teachers, parents, siblings and friends? What if they contained pegs and string and sheets of thin material to create dens and story tents?
These are the tools of my trade as an Early Years Philosophy for Children Educator. British customs inspectors open my hand luggage full of fairy tale characters, Wild Things and big bad wolf puppets and declare it’s like Christmas… And that is exactly what I want 365 days a year for those children in the townships and settlements of the Western Cape and beyond.
But I also want it for the teachers. These practitioners who have overcome adversity to get as qualified as they have but who often cannot afford to take up places at universities to gain degree status. I have witnessed transformations not just in the children I have worked with over there but in the teachers. They begin to see that they too can have fun and build relationships based not just on authority and power but on genuine understanding of childhood and the role that play has in learning.
I think these teachers need shoeboxes too. A toolbox for teachers that includes practical tools for free play. Ideas for creating resource boxes with objects that don’t cost money. Picture books with ideas on how to generate play, critical thinking and language. Photographs showing children at play enjoying purposeful learning activities and personal treats that show that teaching is a job that is appreciated.
I have written lists of low cost or free resources but what if we could implement with the help of companies and manufacturers a scheme where all teachers in areas of deprivation were given the tools they need for creative play? We could continue to make a real difference to the empowerment of teachers who work daily with numerous challenges. These challenges include working with unmanageable class sizes in cramped basic buildings or structures. Trying to meet standards needed to receive government funding. Raising money from the parent’s small, but unaffordable fees to provide a hot meal . And the biggest challenge, to provide a safe, exciting, playful start to the education for children up against many odds, including having to be instructed in a language other than their mother tongue.
I have witnessed the battles these practitioners face in areas where poverty and violence are what exist on the streets outside the childcare setting.
Over the next year I will be working with a new set of practitioners on the project. I am very optimistic that the future of the next generation is in good hands with the organisations who are working so hard on this initiative and many more. I will continue to take suitcases of toys that I buy from car boot sales and Ikea and return home minus sheets of material, pens, playdough ingredients and picture books. But if you know anyone who might be able to help get the teachers shoebox idea off the ground please let me know and we can talk to people with the expertise to organise it properly.
Education is a right not a privilege, as is play and pride and ambition for children and teachers alike.
If you are interested in finding out more about the organisations involved in the Early thinking Project the following websites will be helpful.
Founders of the project
Karin Murris- A/Prof School of Education – University of Cape Town
Carole Bloch – Director; PRAESA , UCT
Other organisations participating in the project