Adding sparkle to young lives

2008-11-12 00:00

SUCCESSFULLY introduced in a number of Pietermaritzburg pre-schools, psychomotor education is now starting to reach young children in some of the poorest parts of the province.

In the Pinetown area, this is thanks to Phakamisa, a multifaceted upliftment project run by and out of the Pinetown Methodist Church.

Three times a week, groups of mainly orphaned children between the ages of three and six are taken from informal settlements or impoverished communities to the church where an undercover parking area serves as a cheerful preschool staffed by volunteers, a qualified psychomotor trainer and an assistant. A morning of play with water, sand, books and puzzles, play dough, crayons and paint is interrupted only by a nutritious snack, an hour-long psychomotor session and story time.

Leading the psychomotor education programme is retired preschool teacher Elaine Osborn who completed her psychomotor training last year. With the help of Lindiwe Mkhize, who translates her words into Zulu, Osborn facilitates two classes on the days the children visit.

Taking the children safely to the church costs R600 a day. And while it’s a hefty amount, Osborn and her colleagues think it’s worth it.

While Phakamisa is involved in improving the preschool experience for thousands of children through its Educare teacher training programme, facilities in the township schools are limited.

“The children at these schools don’t even have trees to climb,” says Osborn. “All of them are exposed to severe poverty and many to violence and abuse.”

Thus the weekly outing to the church is a treat during which they have fun while learning and they are affirmed through the concerted attentions of Phakamisa staffers.

And it’s paying off. Now in their fourth term of visits to the church, the children are evidently blossoming. “When they first arrived here, their eyes were glazed,” says Osborn. “They were withdrawn, inhibited and had no sparkle. Now look at them. You can see they feel happy and secure.”

What is psychomotor?

Psychomotor is an educational philosophy that links the motor activities of young children at play to their academic and psychological development. It aims to instil values of non-violence, independence, self-discipline and self-motivation in preschool children.

Developed by André Lapierre and Bernard Aucouturier, psychomotor is part of preschool curricula in most European countries and has been introduced into a number of Pietermaritzburg preschools by Michele Kocheleff and Rossella Meusel.

It is founded on the understanding that children have an innate developmental programme and need to experience and master four sequential phases before they are ready for more formal learning.

Osborn says her role is to “observe and facilitate”, rather than teach. “You’ve got to be patient. It’s about the child’s time, not that of the teacher.”

With two rules in mind — “We do not hurt ourselves; we do not hurt others” — the children have free rein to play with the equipment, which includes wall ladders, balance beams, body balls and smaller items such as hoops, percussion instruments and fabric. Music is an important part of the class and children are encouraged to communicate constructively and non-aggressively.

Research shows that the varied experiences promote development of the neurons in the brain, particularly during the early years.

On the day I visit, the focus is on gross motor skills (running, climbing and jumping) and emotional tone (creeping, crawling, rolling, withdrawing, building and rebuilding). Gross motor play helps a child develop body control and discover boundaries. It also helps them explore time, space, direction and creativity. Emotional tone gives the child an “inner view” of him or herself and relates to feelings of safety, comfort, pleasure and peer relationships. Afterwards, children get a chance to talk about their experiences. “This helps to build confidence, creativity and emotional skills,” says Osborn.

What is Phakamisa?

Phakamisa — meaning to lift up — is a ministry of the Pinetown Methodist Church. What used to be a school building alongside the church is used for programmes including preschool teacher training, caregiver support, and economic empowerment initiatives.

At the end of each year, Phakamisa will have touched the lives of over 15 000 children.

To an outsider like me, it runs like a well-oiled machine under the energetic co-ordination of Glenda Howieson who is assisted by a group of passionate and skilled women motivated by their faith and their interest in helping others.

“We give people a hand up, not a hand out,” says Howieson.

The organisation reaches out through 150 teacher trainer and 165 caregiver groups who attend workshops at the church premises on a two-week rotational basis.

Trainee teachers are put through a programme called Educare, currently being accredited, which gives practical teaching skills to 150 preschool teachers. “I can now deal with the children without stress,” is how one teacher describes its benefits. The students also learn how to make teaching aids and toys from waste such as cereal boxes and toilet roll cores.

Caregivers — mainly elderly grandmothers — are taught to grow food gardens and hone skills such as sewing, cooking and beading in order to generate income through markets identified by Phakamisa.

Working under the co-ordination of Hilary Coombe, Alexia Zuma and Zola Masikane, the women make anything from food warmers, marmalade and beaded Christmas cards, to fantasy costumes for children.

Back home, they share their knowledge through groups monitored by Phakamisa staffers. All the women arrive home with bread for their families or their preschoolers from the Phakamisa soup kitchen run by Marie Roberts.

Worship is compulsory for Phakamisa participants, but it’s clear that it is also an opportunity to refuel emotionally. Invited to make devotions, the women come up one-by-one to the front of the church. The stories they tell are consistently about crime, illness and death. Candles are lit for those who have died and their names are entered in a book. In the space of three weeks, there are 10 pages of names.

“What they learn is often less important than the process of coming to share their joys, sorrows and anxieties,” says Glenda Howieson who is “passionate” about keeping her “grannies” feeling loved and secure. “That way, they’re in a better position to nurture the orphans at home,” she says.

Phakamisa monitor and former bead worker Magugu Mbanjwa says the workshops give the women a chance to relax.

“Here, the stress drops,” she says. Mbanjwa put her own daughter through tertiary education from the proceeds of her beading. “We are changing lives here,” she says, reaching out to give Howieson a hug.

Psychomotor education training in PMB

The Psychomotor Education Institute of South Africa (PEISA) invites applications for the year-long psychomotor education training course at Varsity College for 2009.

• Candidates should have completed or be studying towards an educational qualification.

• Application forms are available at reception, Varsity College, Harwin Road, Pietermaritzburg.

• Orientation day on November 20 between 10 am and 5 pm, will allow interested candidates to find out more details about the course.

• Training starts in February.

• Inquiries: Michele Kocheleff at 033 347 1496 or Rossella Meusel at 082 757 7070 or Nicky Taylor at 082 927 7670.

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