The Importance of Child Development

by j.moretti / 24. June 2012 03:36

For the past five months of living in South Africa, I have found many differences between living in the United States and here.  In the United States, we drive on the right hand side of the road and the driver sits on the right side of the car; in South Africa it is completely opposite.  On the side of the road here you will find monkeys, instead of squirrels.  These differences are apparent to anyone who comes here, but a less obvious difference is the discrepancy in beliefs about child rearing.  It is common knowledge for most Americans that between the ages of 0 to 5 years old, children's brains are like sponges.  This is a crucial stage in a child's life where they to learn how to speak, interact, and explore at that young age.  Since serving at 1000 Hills Community Helpers in the toddler room, I have learned that the Zulu women believe that you should not interact with any child until they are of school age and their baby teeth have fallen out.  This statement has baffled me and may be a cultural difference I will never fully understand.  On my first day my co-worker Julie showed me the toddler room and explained to me these Zulu beliefs in child rearing.  Since we agreed that child development at this young age is essential, she asked me to help explain to the Zulu teachers in my classroom how to interact with the children through the use of puzzles, games, drawings, and other activities.  At first, I was hesitant to step in and restructure the entire classroom for fear that I would be overtaking the role of Fikile, the main teacher, and the other Zulu women in the classroom who have been there for years.  The language barrier prevented me from clearly communicating my task in a way that helped the teachers realize the importance of interacting with the toddlers without potentially offending their cultural beliefs. 


On a typical day there is a two hour time period used for singing songs, playing with puzzles and other educational toys, and playing outside.  While I would prefer to have each teacher sit at a table with 4-5 toddlers and do a specific activity, the Zulu teachers would prefer to let the kids play on the veranda with little toys or run around on the playground while they sit and talk amongst themselves.  It is frustrating for me to see this passive behavior, or their indifference to the children hitting each other with toys, but then I remember the cultural differences and how they are not educated to be teachers.  Many of them are working at the center because it pays well and they need the money to support their families.  Their main focus is not on the toddlers’ development but on making sure there is food on the table and clothes for their children to wear.  What right do I have to come into their classroom with my American education and restructure their routine?  The challenge comes in finding a balance between my ideas on child development and the inborn cultural beliefs of the Zulus.  It is completely natural for me to sit on floor with the kids or help them down the slide, but for the Zulu teachers this is not the norm.  


It has not been easy balancing my thoughts and actions as a volunteer with the Zulu culture of education, but my communication with the teachers has been more open and they have started to see the importance of structured activities.  Whether it is their joking about me being the main teacher or looking to me for the next song to sing, the Zulu teachers and I have established a mutual respect for each other and our mission to help these precious toddlers.  The smiles on their faces and the energy they have every day is what inspires me to push for a structured environment.  I truly believe that these children are the future of South Africa and deserve to have someone who pays attention to them and cares about their development.  At home, these toddlers may not have enough food to eat or clean clothes to wear, but at school those worries should be put on hold so they so they can be happy little smiling toddlers who hold the future of this country in their hands.  


Janine Moretti

South Africa, 2012


Internationals 2012

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