Sitting in two long lines on the dusty cement floor, Hamisa and her classmates face one another. Their legs are stretched out in front of them, toes touching the toes of the child sitting across from them, to form what looks like a human ladder. Giggling, the girls and boys wait excitedly for their teacher, Joyce, to call out a letter from the alphabet. "B!" says Joyce.
Hamisa and the young girl sitting across from her jump to their feet; B is their letter! The girls begin leaping over the legs of their classmates in a race down the ladder to the children who have been assigned the letter Z and then back up again to their letter, B. Hamisa reaches her original spot first.
Smiling, Joyce hands Hamisa a piece of chalk. As her reward for winning, Hamisa gets to write the letter B on the blackboard. Then both of the girls take their seats, stretch their legs, toes touching and wait for the next letter to be called. By the end of the game, the children have spelled the words: book, desk, chair, pencil and school on the blackboard and English class is over.
"I love to play and learn," says Hamisa. "Literacy Ladder is my favourite game, because it helped me learn how to read and write."
Hamisa is in Grade 1 at the Mtakuja Primary School in Dar Es Salaam. While primary school education for children living in Tanzania is free, like many girls and boys in the densely populated city Hamisa did not start Grade 1 at the age of six or seven years when most children are first enrolled in school. Her parents could not afford to pay for the necessary supplies, such as her books and school uniform. Concerned for their family's economic survival, Hamisa's parents prioritized work over education, so Hamisa worked with her mother at the street market, instead.
Two years ago however, through door to door campaigning by Right To Play and the Mtakuja Primary School, Joyce discovered Hamisa and persuaded her parents to enroll her in school.
At the age of 11 Hamisa was finally in Grade 1. She is one of 80 girls who have been enrolled in school in Morogoro and Dar Es Salaam as part of Tanzania's catch-up program, Complementary Basic Education, which is supported by the government and gives free accelerated support to children who were out of school so that they can join formal classes. Hamisa and the other children in the program receive their school supplies, including their book bags, uniforms, shoes, exercise books, pencils, pens and erasers for free. They also receive lunch every day. "We want to get all children back into school," explains Joyce. "This program gives them the necessary push to overcome the obstacles of being left behind."
While getting these children into school has been key, keeping them there, says Joyce, is even more important. Trained in Right To Play's play-based teaching approach, Joyce says that utilizing play in the classroom is what makes the difference between these children attending school regularly or dropping out altogether.
"Children like Hamisa have to overcome many psychological challenges when they join the lowest class at an older age," explains Joyce. "If they are also struggling with hunger and lack of school materials, they can become overwhelmed and drop out." Play is part of the Mtakuja Primary School's curriculum. Using games like Literacy Ladder—one of hundreds of activities, songs and games that Joyce uses in her classroom—is teaching her students how to concentrate, how to identify the letters of the alphabet and how to read and write. It's all part of Right to Play's student-centred approach to teaching and learning which capitalizes on the children's full engagement through play-based activities in the classroom to advance learning.
"Ideally, children should start primary school when they are seven years old," says Joyce. "Starting later sets them so far behind their peers and many do not have the courage to join in when they are older." Play is helping to bridge this learning gap and remove some of the barriers for children who start their education late. Classroom lessons involve play to motivate the children and increase their participation, keeping them engaged, attentive and more likely to remember what they have learned. This motivation and reinforcement is crucial, as it develops and grows confidence in the children with each newly learned and remembered skill. By guiding her students through the "Reflect, Connect, Apply" section of Right To Play's methodology before and after each game, Joyce is also fuelling her students with insight, knowledge and resiliency to persevere in school.
When her students "reflect" on the game and what they got out of it, "connect" this information to their own experiences, inside and outside of school and "apply" what they've learned to advance their learning and their lives, it empowers them to better understand themselves and their behaviours, process their lessons and reinforce what they have learned from the activity. This creates an environment of awareness, equality and acceptance in the classroom and helps the children overcome their feelings of stigma and embarrassment at starting school at an older age.
"In the beginning, I was teased for being 12 years old and only in Grade 1, because I didn't know how to read or write like other children my age," says Hamisa. "Teacher Joyce was my friend and helped me focus on what I enjoyed the most at school, which are the games. She told us interesting stories and we played every day."
Now, after only two years in school, Hamisa has caught up with other children her age. Last year, she passed her national exams with high grades and is now being moved from Grade 1 to Grade 4. She will remain in the same school, but will soon have a new teacher; one who hopefully loves Literacy Ladder as much as Hamisa does.
"The happiest day of my life was when I first wore a school uniform, because I could fit in with all other children," says Hamisa. "Being out of school was hard for me. Now, I am happy to be like other school children and I am now good at reading, writing and arithmetic. In the future, I shall be a good teacher who helps children. I want to help other children, just like Teacher Joyce did for me."
We #Play2Learn with The LEGO Foundation to help children build critical life-skills and shape a better future.
Story by Adriana Ermter. With files and
photography by Sarah Bwahama