In many preschools the emphasis is placed on “academic learning” like formal reading and writing. Jane Healy in her book Endangered Minds: Why children don’t think and what we can do about it, that the standard of reading and writing in America have deteriorated in spite of early intervention programmes and emphasis on academic programmes for young children. The tragic irony is that if we do not allow young children to learn through playing, and through playing learn to make choices and assume responsibility for those choices we also inhibit the development of creativity, problem solving skills, development of abstract thought and a rich language environment. All of this happens through playing.
This is a terrible scenario. Can we, here at the bottom end of education do anything about it? Yes, I definitely believe we can. Let me tell you of the incredible experience I had in Mamelodi as proof of my argument. From March to June 2005 I did training in Mamelodi for 16 weeks. Before I started the training I visited a number of centres to familiarise myself with the conditions in these centres. What did I find? Except for one or two centres, all of these little places were teaching their children to read and write (or tried to). I found centres where 30 children were squeezed into a small corrugated iron room in the hot February sun; in another place I saw a little 5 year old boy scratching in the sand with a nail that he must have picked up somewhere.
I trained, I did not say anything different from what I have been saying to each of the teachers who come for training. Sometimes I felt as if I was talking in a vacuum, but we, as a group completed the training. In the beginning of October I went back to assess every teacher in her centre, exactly the same procedure I follow for the Preschool Course. What an exhilarating experience! The empty faces and lethargic children changed into lively, creative, fantastic children. Playing, organising their own games, doing maths with stones in a bottle (a little boy’s face, lighting up like a shining star, telling me that 2 times 5 stones make 10 and 5 times 2 stones also make 10). A picture that will stay with me forever is that of a two-year-old making a scribble on a piece of paper on which her teacher wrote her name while the teacher sounded the name. She scribbled, stopped and looked carefully at her name and then started to make small signs like letters. It is the first time ever that I have seen a two-year-old do that.
In another centre I found a programme and a teacher that could have been in an upper middle class school. She used boxes as building blocks (that was part of the course) and put it out as part of freeplay time. This was a classic, out-of-the-book freeplay; drawing, collage, block play, a sorting game, painting and clay. Her group ranged from 18 months to 6 years old. I had to keep reminding myself that these children were underpriveleged children from a poor squatter area. A group of older children started building a house from the boxes and then proceeded to play. The teacher told how they made a Spaza shop the previous week. The children’s work was more than on standard; the 6-year-olds – based on my assessment that morning – were ready to go to school.
This is the power of a teacher, the power of learning through play, the power of believing in children and expecting them to be absolutely out of the ordinary wonderful!
I always say to myself that I do not primarily sell knowledge and skills when I am training. I sell passion. Those teachers in Mamelodi who bought into my passion, changed the world for those children.
I wish … Maybe I can find someone somewhere who will believe enough to start a primary school where these children can go to, where we will have only passionate extraordinary teachers to teach in an extraordinary way for these extraordinary children.
Are you an extraordinary teacher?