The latest from Zimbabwe’s Children’s Corner
Our Head of Programmes, Samantha Thomas-Chuula, was the first Book Aid International staff member to visit the five Zimbabwe libraries which would eventually host Open Doors Children’s Corners. The libraries opened their Children’s Corners in June 2016 and have now been welcoming children into their child-friendly spaces for over nine months.
In January this year, Sam returned to the five libraries where we opened Open Doors Children’s Corners to follow up on their progress and see how the Children’s Corners are impacting their communities. In this blog, she reflects on how much the libraries have changed over the last year and how the changes they make possible stretch far beyond books.
The first thing I remember noticing at all five libraries on my first visit was that the spaces were quite empty and dull. They had great large open spaces, grey unattractive walls and huge potential.
Our intervention was about making those spaces bright, friendly and welcoming to children. The first thing that hit me when I returned was the colour on the walls. All of libraries have had a lick of paint with bright colours – often yellows and oranges – and all of them had traditional artwork on the walls. Many of these murals are from fables and tales that children are familiar with, so the kids find them reassuring. Some even have cartoon characters, others have the alphabet. They’re all now spaces that ignite children’s curiosity.
I was also struck by how the training we provided as part of the Children’s Corner project had helped the librarians be able to focus on things like how to display the books in an attractive way, how to place mats so that children could sit in clusters and pairs and really how to see the libraries from a child’s perspective.
In every library the number of children visiting increased after the launch of the Children’s Corner, and in most cases so did the number of activities being run by the librarians. One of the things that I noticed in particular was the librarians had focused on marketing the library to early readers. They had invited nursery schools, so kindergarten age children who came in classes with their teachers, so the youngest readers were getting a lot of use out of the books.
Of the donated books we provided a set of what are referred to as ‘edutainment’ books. These are books with an additional element to attract young readers such as a puppet inside, textured pages, sounds like a goat or donkey, crayons or activities. We knew these books would be great for children that are just starting out on their reading journeys – but as it turns out all the kids love these books. Even secondary school pupils were sneaking in to use them because they’re just such lovely books!
There are some fantastic biology books in particular. Where you open the pop-up book and there would be a skeleton where you could see all the bones, allowing you to open up the rib cage and see the liver underneath, you explore where the heart is found and see what it looks like in 3D – these are extraordinary and beautiful books sparking curiosity, discovery and conversation amongst peers, like a good book should!
The word has gotten out that there are new books at the library and that people should go. I was fortunate to speak to teachers while I was there, and they were explaining that now they see the library as a resource that they could use, either in teaching English as a subject or using it to support the teaching of other subjects like biology and science. They are also able use the local language books readily to support local language teaching.
The skills that librarians gained during the training we provided are really on show as well. Librarians have become more confident, so they’re more willing to advertise the library and the Children’s Corners. They also report feeling more capable of welcoming, supporting, managing and engaging young readers.
They’ve also seen a difference in the kids. Primary school children don’t often have a wide vocabulary, so it’s often difficult for them to articulate the difference the books have made and how they feel about them, but when you actually see them in the Children’s Corner reading, you can see joy when they engage in reading and exploring, sharing with friends.
I was also struck by the difference the Children’s Corners are making outside of the library walls. Zimbabwe is going through its own economic challenges at the moment, so to have a resource like Children’s Corners is quite important. The Children’s Corner project encourages everyone to engage in reading. The children are encouraged to read because they have a beautiful and modern reading space designed with them in mind.
The librarians who can see and feel the impact of less money in the library system are able to purchase new books and to get new furniture, and they’re encouraged that their libraries are beautiful and attracting the next generation of patrons. Teachers are motivated to use books because they have a resource right down the road that they can use to support learning from the classroom – they start to think ‘I can take the children along and we can spend the afternoon reading and parents can be engaged also’.
And of course, it’s great for parents. Raising a family in a community facing economic hardship is hard and when everyone feels the pinch, it can make you feel despondent. A new, beautiful resource that everyone can access, like a children’s corner, lifts everyone’s spirits. It makes it easier for parents to encourage children to see education as a way out of poverty and toward a better life, not just a chore. Having a new resource to use lifts everyone and I was very inspired to see how the Children’s Corners are being embraced by local communities.
The Five Open Doors Children’s Corners that Sam visited were funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. We would like to thank the players for their support.
We hope to open more Children’s Corners in the months ahead. You can find out more about the programme or get involved using the links below.