Emma and Mandy are volunteering at two preschools and one after-school program in the rain forest city of Oxapampa. According to anecdotes from Peruvian teachers and school administrators, the nation’s education system is underfunded, with underpaid teachers, classrooms devoid of basic supplies and a pedagogy that emphasizes rote memory over creativity or critical thinking. Conscious that the system is not preparing students adequately for adult life, the students are pushed harder each year. But the added pressure does little to improve outcomes; it frustrates and discourages the children. One teacher recently quipped, “They are burned out by first grade.” To complete their assignments, students often simply go to the internet cafe, pay the attendant to do a keyword search and print up whatever they find, writing their name on top of the hard copy and taking credit for “doing their homework”.
There are gifted educators, however, with a different vision. Two years ago a Peruvian woman and her American husband moved to Oxapampa with the vision of starting a school based on Waldorf principles. The Waldorf method features a warm environment, like a comforting home decorated with natural materials and soft colors. The focus is less on individual attainment and more on healthy social interactions, featuring structured play time indoors and out. Children are encouraged to be inclusive and creative. They engage in typical daily activities: preparing a snack, setting the table, eating with manners and cleaning up afterward. Learning activities include simple handwork with natural fibers.
Mandy began her service at Los Tres Reyes (Three Kings) Preschool several weeks before the school year began. Her first assignment was to help clean and prepare the learning spaces for the arrival of the children. She did a lot of painting, both to decorate the walls as well as cover up water stains left by recent rains. As the school year approached, something unexpected happened. Finding teachers who were open to alternative pedagogy and willing to learn new methods had been a challenge last year, the opening year of the new school. Several of the new teachers were offered work in the public school system this year, and decided to take it because of the higher pay. This left Three Kings School short of teachers — so Mandy was asked to take on the role of teacher for the three year old class.
Mandy is patient with children. She is kind and thoughtful and — given the need she perceived — agreed to lead the class during her remaining time on service. She attended a Waldorf preschool herself while a child growing up in Arizona, so the environment and approach were familiar enough. She received assistance from Estefani, a young women who is beginning her career in education and is eager to learn. Each day Mandy and Estefani organize a variety of activities — on rainy days they bake bread, on sunny days they play outside. Mandy’s warmth and sensitive nature are comforting to the children and they look up to her as they would an aunt.
Innovative educators within the public school system are trying out new ideas as well. A recent development is called Aprendemos Jugando (“We Learn by Playing”), inspired by several Catholic nuns from France. The idea is to structure the daily routine around play activities rather than filling out workbooks — these are 3, 4 and 5-year-olds, after all. Learning activities involve drawing original pictures and coloring without lines. On a recent day the children learned about drinking water, where it comes from and why it is important to conserve and protect it. The school grounds feature a small playground with seesaws and monkey bars and an open area where they can play with hula hoops and balls. There is also a park nearby where the students are taken to get exercise and fresh air. The curriculum is innovative enough that the teachers and director need to spend considerable time explaining to the parents why their children are not spending the entire morning sitting in a chair at a desk, copying the numbers and words written on the chalkboard.
Emma is a bundle of laughs. Her light-hearted nature and bright smile naturally attract young children, who can always be found at her side. As the school-year began she was given the assignment to take charge of the more difficult children, those who were challenged by the new setting and were having problems following along with the planned activities. This helped the teachers maintain order in the classroom and give attention to the children who were engaged in the learning activities. This is the first experience in school for the three-year old children and Emma’s carefree attitude eased their anxiety. She has spent many hours on a see-saw, sharing snacks, taking children to the restroom, laughing, playing and exchanging smiles.
Two afternoons a week Mandy and Emma work together in an after-school program developed by Compassion International. The program is designed to support children who are growing up in families with very low incomes. Many of the children they serve come from dysfunctional families, troubled by domestic violence, sexual abuse, alcohol and drug use or abandonment. They need a safe place to spend their afternoons, eating a healthy meal, working on homework assignments and playing. Each child is assigned a tutor who, like a case manager, makes home visits, counsels parents and gets to know the children and their families. Emma and Mandy have helped out in the office and assisted the tutors in the classroom. Together, their positive influence on the lives of young children brings love, and hope, to this beautiful part of the world.