The start of October marked the anniversary of a monumental trip. This time last year, with no sign on a worldwide pandemic, I travelled to the continent of Africa.
The first moment I felt alive after the 24-hour journey from London to Lilongwe (and a surprise stop in the Congo) was meeting the local children at Mphatso – seeing their excitable, smiling faces and hearing their raucous laughter as the ‘muzungu’ visitors arrived in a uniform of black Love Specs Tshirts and colourful heart glasses.
I immediately felt a connection and a surge of love for these children wearing torn, dirty, ragged clothes and wearing odd shoes.
A language was created between us through humour, singing, tickling and movement, these beautiful kids didn’t leave us alone.
Two days previous to our arrival in Kande, a sweeping white sandy lakeside village, a freak out-of-season rainstorm devastated local buildings including our designated training centre. At last minute, Robyn at Mphatso offered their classroom.
Mpatso provides feeding programmes, education and a safe haven for people living with HIV and aids, or the other tropical diseases that take young lives. This was their home and community centre that we were wholeheartedly welcomed into.
Love Specs Heart glasses
I had arrived in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world. The warm heat, blue skies and dusty tracks instantly contrasted against my known western world living in a materialistic, concrete society. Yet here in this distant nation I was comforted by the feeling of life being truly cherished and celebrated along every step of my 5 week adventure.
Kande Horse Ranch – our accommodation for the training programme.
It is hard to comprehend the poverty that this country faces is hard from a white ‘privileged’ upbringing.. What is stopping us learn the real facts behind why social, economic, and political elements affect this nation?
I learned fast that Malawi was the happiest country I had ever been to despite many people speaking stories of death due to disease or being savaged by famine.
The woman from an adult literacy group singing a welcome song to their village
The challenges this nation faced seemed underpinned by the lack of access to EDUCATION, followed by access to health care and food. The cycle of poverty spirals without the intervention of government support or international aid. I felt so proud to be on the Love Support Unite programme who championed a 360° holistic approach to make sustainable change and a step up out (rather than a hand out) of poverty, empowering people to become self-sufficient.
A stick it notes asking “Are children with a disability allowed to associate with other kids during play?”
Love Support Unite (LSU) began out of it’s sister charity Tilinanu Orphanage. Founded by Mercy Mkandawire, Alice met Mercy volunteering in Malawi in 2009, and became the founder of the UK side of Tilinanu, helping to build a loving home for the girls. Nina, her sister joined her in supporting Tilinanu the same year. Through this work, they became aware of the urgent needs of wider communities in Malawi, and so, Love Support Unite was born. Gayle Berry joined Love Support Unite as a volunteer in 2014 to share her knowledge of mother and infant health and quickly became a co-founder of the mother and infant health initiative (lovesupportunite.org).
Love Support unite support communities with 360° holistic model
I met Nina under a tree at a UK festival in 2012, totally fascinated by Love Specs glasses – when worn heart shapes shimmer on every point of light… and when someone made BUBBLES- the hearts magically danced across each spherical orb. Joy is felt, and wearing them was deeply satisfying. Little did I know that this conversation would shape my journey in life… 8 years later, I would be singing and dancing with community projects established from the proceeds of these glasses..
I reconnected with Nina after being commissioned by Bournemouth Emerging Arts Fringe to bring my new theatre show “Bubble Bo Peep” to life… I wanted to make sheep appear in the bubbles just like the hearts magically appeared… Alas, this link did not manifest in this strange sheep request but I did follow Nina on her next volunteer programme to Malawi.
If pictures could play sound…
An outreach visit to the adult literacy group and nursery supported by LSU
It was as if there was guidance on this journey… I landed on the Early Years Education Programme in collaboration with Learn To Play Botswana, Ripple Africa and Butterfly Space. The four day comprehensive training programme educated 82 women and men on the importance of play and how play is the most effective way of learning in the first crucial 2000 days of life. The Rainbow Play approach gave a framework and methodology to educate in all areas of learning, wellbeing and physical development.
My adult life has been driven by encouraging people playing more… connecting people of all ages and abilities to their ‘inner child’ and creative opportunities to support wellbeing through multi-sensory environments and Squidge and Pop workshops.
I certainly had a preconception before I arrived about play… I assumed all educators especially in early years education understood the importance of providing a variety of opportunities to allow each child to thrive, flourish and reach their full potential.
Throughout our lives especially in early childhood we need to explore and be curious through our senses- entertaining and developing knowledge through time spent on an activity. By playing, children can practise all the skills they’ll need as they grow up.
But the reason why this training programme was launched in 2019 was to change an attitude and belief system that this country was in regarding the theory of education in the early years curriculum. Four charities for the first time joined in collaboration in Malawi to train early years educators in PLAY.
As a volunteer for LSU, my skills and knowledge were shared within multi-sensory education for healthy and continuing development. Teaching movement and breathing techniques in the classroom to support physical, emotional and intellectual development and wellbeing was highly rewarding.
Following the training programme with LSU, I saw why this education was necessary to make lasting change. I witnessed the culture of strict behaviour control in classrooms (hitting, belittling, shouting) and heavy repeat-repeat-repeat learning styles. Children were not given the freedom to learn through their senses in the classroom. Why? BIG classes and hungry children. Discipline was used as a method to control, when basic human needs could not be met by the teachers. Each of the four collaborating charities share the same values and missions supporting communities in need by introducing feeding programmes and access to clean water, providing education buildings and access to health care.
Statistics show with education, there can be enterprise, nutrition and health. 92% of teenagers and adults in Malawi didn’t complete secondary education. The average school leaving age is 11 years old. With less than 1% achieving education after secondary school. 26% of children are engaged in child labor, varying season to season, dropping out after school (CIA World Factbook)
A typical meal of Nsima and sardines. All children eat a meal a day as part of their education.
The children happily eat Nsima at nursery
School built and supported by Love Support Unite
It was certainly exciting to witness this movement of change happening within the Malawian curriculum. Watching and listening to these teachers gain confidence and understanding that play is not only fun, it is inherently one of the most important actions they can implement within their educational role. A relaxed, happy learning environment impacts on individual social, emotional, cognitive and motor development. Positive early education and good nutrition gives the best possible chance to break the cycle of poverty and make positive change for the next generation.
With little trade available and a reliance on donations for educational resources, we had to get creative with the resources available around us. We made teaching equipment out of objects found in the environment to enable lessons to more engaging and meaningful through tactile, visual and audible sensory input. Wonderful games and activities were invented and shared with a demonstration to the other groups. We were all truly inspired by how with seemingly nothing, we could all make a classroom rich in learning opportunities.
Maths ideas – colour and shape recognition and sequencing whilst developing fine motor control through threading and pegging
Priyanka shares a handmade blanket to support fine motor skill development and problem-solving including threading, zipping, pressure popping and pulling
As part of the Love Support Unite volunteer trip we visited some of the rural schools and nurseries that they had built in previous years – simple red brick buildings with tin roofs, with hand painted murals. We met local teachers employed by LSU, and helped them to implement sensory play activities into their classrooms. We played games such as hop-scotch, obstacle races and a culturally appropriate Duck-duck-goose as ‘chicken, chicken, hyena’ for physical education and literacy. For maths and literacy, we found materials and objects from the glorious local environment to make a fun colour sorting game with petals, leaves and sticks.
My favourite activity was writing a letter in the dusty soil, and decorating it with everything green whilst singing a new local Malawian song and making hilarious movements with our bodies. The learning was FUN and memorable. We could see the teachers get enthusiastic and inspired by this new way of teaching. It was lovely to see their understanding of how they could teach in this more relaxed method (even with huge class sizes).
Colour and letter recognition activity as a group
After the 7 day programme of training and visits to the schools, nurseries and adult literacy programmes, I solo visited Butterflyspace in Nkhata Bay, North Malawi.
This is when I fully recognised the depth of this project. I witnessed the challenges faced in each setting. More support is needed to make sustainable change. Because the teaching resources in each educational setting are extremely limited, teachers feel stressed and restricted in their teaching abilities. Donated plastic toys from western countries are sparsely available, and when the toys are brought out, the children turn wild- pushing, shoving, grabbing to get their toy. To remain calm, creative and ready to adapt the classroom to meet the needs of the children is certainly hard and demanding.
I was invited to demonstrate and support the teachers to create stimulating classroom environments. We made the classrooms into a sensory playroom. An example of an activity I set was to learn letters through dry sand and wet sand. One teacher commented on how quiet the children were for the messy play, so engaged for a sustained amount of time.
I tried to leave handouts of the Rainbow Play framework, but to find a printer in the town of Nkhata bay took (no joke) 4 hours – an hour walk to town, luckily the power was on (load shedding for electricity meant that power was not on 24 hours a day), use an old computer in a mini printing shop (a tin roofed hut) to email a document… Wait for the slow upload, print the teaching resource in dull colour and walk back to the nursery. This is all in the hot heatwave. After all this, I still had to source some paper and hand-write the framework and some play ideas as the printed document wasn’t very readable.
The teachers I met were certainly happy and eager to learn and improve their teaching practises. I felt quite helpless because my time was so limited, yet I hope that my knowledge was valuable and the ideas shared will support their continuing professional development. Without the training and methodology with Learn to Play Botswana, I would have struggled to find a structure to share information that was meaningful and adaptable with such diverse cultural differences.
Throughout my career supporting students in special educational settings and entertainment as a ‘Bubbleologist’, I have worked in a variety of settings including summer camps, schools, army barracks, hospices and care homes in USA, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and the UK. My love to explore purposeful play through different cultures in varied socio-economic backgrounds has broadened my knowledge and influences my shows and workshops. I hope that this work sparks creativity in others and to deepen their sense of curiosity in our world.