The sun beat down strongly on the group of children and volunteers playing in the grounds. But they were not to be deterred. The fact that it was the hottest summer in 85 years did not seem to bother any of them. When it was time to leave, the children all cried out, “noooooooooooooooo akka (older sister), nooooooooooooooo anna (older brother), please don’t go, let’s play some more”. The volunteers promised to be back the next day and packed up the materials at the summer camp before returning to base. On the way out, they had to wade through the sea of children waiting to say bye or inviting them to visit their homes or just hugging them and giving them one of their favourite crafts which they had made that day as a token of their love.
This was the usual scene which was witnessed in all the five summer camps held during the hottest summer that any of the team members of headstreams had ever experienced in their lives. The day after the last camp, as we sat down to share our memories of the summer camps, everybody was brimming with stories and anecdotes of what had happened during the 20 days of camps when a team consisting of 26 of us had reached out to over 1100 children through play. As we reflected on what we had achieved, the list was endless. Physical development, cognitive development, psycho-social development, relationships built, strengths affirmed and so on. These were points which had convinced us to use play as an approach in our work with children and youth in the first place, but one thing that really stood out for me was the one where we arrived at the fact that what we did actually helped deepen democracy. The reasoning was simple but not simplistic, it was deep and plain for all of us to see.
Our summer camps which were built around the concept of play provided children and the volunteers the opportunity to use different mediums such as art, craft, music, stories, theatre and games to express their thoughts, feelings, ideas and build relationships. Children had the autonomy to choose what medium they wanted to use, the type of expression they wanted to display and how they wanted to do it. There were no competitions in identifying the best artist or musician or actor but each one used the medium that connected to them, to bring out the best in themselves. There were minimal hierarchies in terms of age or skill or position and in play each of us just learnt from each other and supported each other in the various tasks we did throughout the day. Shining examples of spontaneous equity was seen when those who needed more help were eagerly supported by the other children or volunteers who stayed with the child until they had completed the chosen activity. Freedom, autonomy, respect, dignity, equity - these were not mere theoretical concepts but were visible in some form or the other all through the twenty days.
We also reflected on how in our mainstream education system these concepts were often overlooked. A top-down, didactic model of education, where everybody was forced to learn the same things, irrespective of interest, aptitude, context or relevance was what most children experienced. Standardised tests which valued those who could learn by rote and reproduce from memory created a new hierarchy of “good students” which excluded more than it included in its graded system of finding favour with school and society. Any skill other than the one recognised by the mainstream school system was not valued among children. For instance, you could be a great artist, or have an interest in music or the liberal arts or even be a really kind person, but none of these were valued. By the time one navigated through the schooling system, many of them ended up labelled as ‘misfits’, ‘good for nothings’, ‘not much talent to speak of’, and so on, with most of them believing it to be true of themselves. So for most children, the ideals of democracy were only concepts printed on paper in their text-books and not something they experienced until perhaps when they were 18 years old and could begin to vote. The summer camps in contrast turned out to be sandboxes where the children could exercise their notions of freedom, autonomy and choice in an environment which fostered equity, respect and dignity.
As we were winding up our meeting, we received a call from a child who asked for her favourite volunteer. ‘Anuakka’, she complained, ‘why didn’t you conduct the summer camp for a longer time this year. What do you want us to do for the rest of the summer?’