I recall walking into a kindergarten classroom in Solomon Islands where more than 50 children were playing with some paint-worn wooden blocks; in a corner of the room, labeled 'dramatic play', there was but a pile of empty boxes; and on the floor a few tattered books.
The YWCA kindy in Honiara, where I began my Australian Volunteer assignment as a curriculum development advisor, is one of the better resourced Kindies in Solomon Islands.
The kindy had received a large number of donations and the classroom was filled with second-hand books. Some were quite old and many were not entirely age appropriate, not to mention culturally appropriate, and lacking in illustrations. Smimilarly, the only toys were also second-hand, and many were neither durable nor that educational.
We, in the 'western' world, have come to realise how important early childhood education can be as the building blocks of the future. We have recognised that young children learn best through play – even a simple puzzle can teach a child to think critically, to count, and to recognise shapes and colours.
As a literate community, we have been exposed to hundreds of books from a very early age. Age-appropriate picture books with big, bright illustrations, rich vocabulary and a simple style will engage young children, promoting literacy through interest in, and exposure to, the written word
I soon realised that I was sitting on a gold mine of local talent. Not only was there a wealth of local 'Kastom Storis' in the oral tradition told by the teachers at the kindy, passed down from parents and grandparents, but also beautifully crafted artifacts and impressive visual art.
And so a project was born - which I undertook during my assignment - to develop examples of high quality early childhood resources that could be produced using all that was fabulously local from oral stories to wooden toys.
Kekero and Kwadu is a Solomon Islands story about how a parrot and blackbird got their colours. It was told to me by the YWCA hostel supervisor ('matron') and I adapted it in English. To promote not only a local story but also the local vernacular, I had the English text translated into Solomon Islands Pijin. I was fortunate to secure one of Honiara's finest visual artists, Selwyn Palmer, to illustrate the picture book.
Mr Palmer also jumped on board with the production of a carefully selected sample of toys, including simple wooden puzzles, a fishing game, Noah's Ark with wooden animals, and a dolls' house with furniture. These toys were made using readily available, affordable materials and tools.
The project resulted in 2000 copies of Kekero and Kwadu being printed, thanks to support from the expat community, with the majority of copies to be made accessible to Solomon Islands children.
As for the toys, the idea is to expand the production by involving many other artists and carvers through demonstrations and workshops, and liaising with the Ministry of Education's resource development unit.
The ingredients are already there –all that is needed is a good and sustainable recipe for success. Why not make early childhood resource production local and better. After all, young children can relate more to what is familiar and comes from home.
I think the answer to these empty classrooms is not in a constant flow of overseas donations, but it is right in their own backyard – it's just a matter of digging it up.
About Alessandra Perna
Alessandra Perna is an early childhood educator who has worked in the United States, Australian and Solomon Islands education systems over the past 12 years. She holds a BA Hons. in modern languages and a Master of Education with a focus on literacy development.
Alessandra has travelled extensively throughout her life. She has lived in nine countries in four different continents, the ninth being Solomon Islands from where she recently returned to Australia from a volunteer assignment as a curriculum development advisor to an early childhood education centre.
She is currently based in Adelaide and hopes to write and publish children's books in the future.