Students share early-childhood education stories from South Africa program

This summer, when SF State students entered the South African preschools where they would be volunteering for two months, they were initially struck by what they saw: tin buildings, dirt floors, the lack of running water.

Lygia Stebbing, professor of child and adolescent development at SF State, and a group of 11 SF State students and recent graduates that volunteered in South African preschools pose at a playground.

Lygia Stebbing, a program director in child and adolescent development at SF State, organized a group of 11 SF State students and recent graduates to volunteer in preschools in South Africa for two months.

In one preschool (or "crèche," as they are known in South Africa), there was even a rusty car in the garage that served as the infant-care room, parked near the cribs. Lygia Stebbing, a program director in SF State's Child and Adolescent Development (CAD) department and leader of the volunteer trip, found herself answering a question she never thought she would hear: "What should I do when a toddler crawls under the car?"

Stebbing and six of the 11 students and recent graduates who participated in the program shared their experiences modeling best practices and learning new techniques during the Marian Wright Edelman Institute Town Hall on Oct. 16.

In South Africa, according to Stebbing, the importance of elementary schooling is understood. As for knowledge of best practices in early-childhood education, "there are struggles to increase quality when they don't have the infrastructure to support that," she said.

The trip was the CAD department's first long-term, volunteer study-abroad program. Stebbing plans to organize another group to volunteer in South Africa in summer 2015 and hopes to establish the trip as an annual program.

In addition to volunteering in classrooms, the SF State team, whose members had from one to 18 years of experience in early-childhood settings, developed and implemented training for teachers. Their programs were aimed at helping local educators support children's social and emotional development and improving the learning possibilities of "story time." The team also took about 200 children to clinics for health screenings, developed classroom activities and conducted site assessments to ensure that classrooms met established standards.

While the South African educators they worked with had little formal education, the SF State team was impressed by their depth of knowledge and incredible insight about children's needs, Stebbing recalled. They were also inspired by how the teachers were able to make do with limited resources, leading art projects with shoe boxes and cardboard scraps, materials that would likely go into recycling bins in the United States.

The children in the crèches also showed levels of restraint and fine-motor skills that amazed the SF State group. When senior Tonecia Harvey saw a teacher put out a beading activity for a group of 3-year-olds, she was surprised. The activity was far too difficult for them -- and wasn't it a choking hazard? "But they sat there so patiently and put each bead on a string," she said. "Even though we have all this knowledge and expertise, it only pertains to classrooms here in America."

What impressed the SF State group most was the sharing culture. Students needed little encouragement to happily share their lunch with those who had less or nothing at all. "If there was food in the school, everyone would eat," Harvey said.

This focus on community is connected to the African concept of "Ubuntu," which can be translated as, "I am because we are." In the crèches, group activities and team efforts were emphasized, in contrast to the stress on individuality more typical of the preschool environment in the United States. Multiple SF State team members, who all work in early-childhood education, said they hoped to incorporate this philosophy into their classrooms.

"We're more alike than we are different," Harvey commented. "The individualist attitude here focuses more on how you're different from the person next to you. When you focus on the similarities, from there you can celebrate the differences."

The SF State team emphasized that, along with offering their knowledge, they made transformative discoveries of their own. "We realized that we came home with much more than we were leaving behind," Stebbing added.

-- Beth Tagawa