Teaching Teachers to Play


Janet Gaukroger has been working with our partner network CRANE in Uganda for over 10 years. On her most recent visit last month, she helped lead a learning retreat for ten young women who are training to be early childhood teachers. She tells of her experience meeting the group of soon-to-be teachers and sharing with them the art of play:

“The trainee teachers, all from difficult backgrounds, are being given the opportunity to have a radically different future, so they can go on to positively influence the lives of other marginalised girls.

For all of the trainees, going on this retreat was the first time they had stayed in a hotel. ‘The African Village’ we stayed in was nothing like a hotel by our standards, but it was still a lovely place. The food was plenteous and tasty and they loved it!

Most of these women’s homes don’t have running hot water or a flush toilet. It was wonderful to see them enjoy what we’d consider basic comforts – Annie, a bubbly, vivacious character, described a hot shower as one of her highlights!

I was there to teach a module on Child Development and Perspectives on Play, which also encompassed cognitive and social development. I was aware from the beginning that this could be a challenge, knowing that many of them would not have played as children.

Play is the missing link in many Ugandan’s childhood, and therefore explains a lot about how the young women thought, and their education. So one of the musts was to give these young women a practical, hands-on experience of what I was talking about!

On the first afternoon, I took five bowls and filled two with sand, two with water and the last with water and liquid soap.  The water and sand bowls had funnels and plastic cups with punched holes in and the soapy water had straws for them to blow bubbles with.

I could have left them for three hours and they would still have been playing!

Creativity is so important in education – we talked about this and how doing fun activities teaches a variety of life and educational skills. For instance, because puzzles are a normal part of a child’s play here in the UK, we forget that puzzles naturally teach problem-solving skills.   

This demonstrated to them that you can be creative with next to nothing, which is essential to understand given the lack of resources available in many of the schools the trainees will be teaching in.

It was exciting to see the lights go on as these young women began to understand. We talked about how engaging the physical senses, play, curiosity and repetition are all important parts of learning.

It was great to hear the plans of one trainee, Esther, to use what she had learnt when playing with her little niece and nephew!

One of the most interesting things I picked up from our time together was learning about the young women’s perspectives on discipline and punishment.

I asked the trainees, “How many of you were beaten at school?” My question was met with laughter until someone replied, “All of us, of course.” For children in Uganda, discipline often means punishment – they call it beating. Frequently it is more serious than what we would consider a smack.

I talked about how young children need to feel love, acceptance and security along with discipline and guidance. It was a revelation to the trainees that love and discipline are not opposites.

We talked about discipline coming from the word disciple; one who follows, one who learns. So the role of discipline is for a child to learn how they’re supposed to act and live in the world.

It was clearly a revelation that discipline and punishment weren’t the same thing, and that love and discipline are true partners – both are essential.  This subject came up again and again.

The issue of corporal punishment is one which Viva works on and challenges in most of their partner networks worldwide; it was great to feel as though together, we have played a small part in breaking down this cycle of abuse in schools.

On the last morning we made play-dough. I have the feeling that none of the women had ever played with it before and they were so excited when we made different colours!

Next door to us there was a seating area where a mother and some small children had been spending time together. Whilst we had been there, they had spent most of their time just watching the TV. It was wonderful to see the trainees begin to interact with these children using the playdough and starting to practice all they had learnt!

My hope is that the fun and creativity experienced on the retreat will help shape these young women’s teaching styles, which in turn will change the educational experience of their future students.”

Janet Gaukroger is married to Stephen, who is Viva’s patron.