I wrote this post for the Fund for Teachers blog at the end of the summer. I’m reposting it now as we begin our work with play this week. It was my fourth school visit to a rural government school in Tanzania while on my Fund for Teachers fellowship. My host’s 21-year-old niece acted as an interpreter as we walked through the school, introducing me to teachers and students in each classroom. “She teaches kids who are seven just like you!” Most of the students were in the schoolyard, waiting for the timekeeper to ring the bell that urged them to hurry back to their classrooms. Many organized games of football, fashioning balls from socks and rubber sandals. Others huddled together chatting. Still others played imaginative games, adopting and assigning roles to each other. As I walked, I came across a group of students huddled around two boys. At the center of the circle, the two boys grabbing handfuls of rocks and dropped them one-by-one into small holes that they had dug in the dust. I grabbed my host’s arm. “That’s it! How do you play this? I have to learn!” In Kimaasai, she turned to them, asking them to explain the game. Finally, she turned to me and said, “Oh, my cousin can teach you tonight.”
For the past two years, our second graders at Capital City Public Charter School have studied the Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania as a part of their expedition on how children meet their needs for food, shelter, clothing and play. Much of that work focused on the culture of adult life. They learned about cooking, music and dance rituals, and building mud huts. But an important part was missing: childhood and its essential element – play.
My colleague and I scoured books, journals, magazines and videos to learn about games. In one picture, we saw men playing a game that looked similar to mancala. When the Maasai group that I eventually visited in Kenya as a part of my Fund for Teachers project came to our class last spring, I asked them about the game. They looked at me, puzzled. “Maybe people don’t play it anymore,” we figured.
That evening, when my 11-year-old host brother came home from school, he got right to work digging holes in the hard-packed yard. Taking my notebook, he drew pictures showing how to play the game, telling me the rules step-by-step. “First, you can watch us play. Then, we play together so you can learn. Finally, we play the game.” I do, we do, you do. “He will be your teacher,” his cousin told me. And so every afternoon when we came home from visiting schools and Maasai bomas, he greeted me. “It’s time for your lessons.” Soon he added five Swahili words per day, on which he quizzed me as we played. On the last night as we said good bye, he reminded me, “And now you know this game and do not forget to teach your children. And if you do, just look into your diary and you will remember me and how to play this game.” I’m certain I will.