Beans & Rice for the Soul

teaching, learning and living around the world

Coloring Books Just Won’t Do.

I know that it’s only Day 5 of studying and observing- so I’ve tried to focus on positives. But I want to spend this post expressing my serious concern with IICBs… which seem to be a very popular donation for the Tungane School.

In college, it was always irritating when I moved into a new apartment and found lots of random junk all over the house.  Why do people leave their old junk? Why would I want this?  And after sharing this frustration with several friends, a few of them said, “Sometimes when I move out, I don’t want to take certain things with me but I don’t want to throw them away either… so I figure that the next person who comes along might want it!”  But ten times out of ten I’m sure the new person does not in fact want it and throws it away. Why doesn’t the new person want the old gum ball machine, or the Janet Jackson poster, or the purple captain’s chair? First- because they have no meaning to the new person. They’re irrelevant.  Second- chances are the gum balls are stale, the poster is outdated and the chair is half broken. So there are two factors here: irrelevance and ineffectiveness.

So what are IICBs? They are Irrelevant and Ineffective Coloring Books.  I know that I am not an early childhood specialist- my training was in secondary education.  Therefore, I am not an expert in early childhood resources. Additionally, my friend Colleen advised me to “Be gentle with donors,” which I think is generally great advice. So this rant stems from my gut and is far from gentle.

Can someone please explain to me what a Swahili and French speaking student will learn from coloring in outlines of Western style houses? North American forests? Buildings Labeled Town Hall? With a whole book’s themes being “Autumn!” Not only are the pictures completely irrelevant, but what are they supposed to learn from coloring them in?!! Nothing. Nothing nothing nothing nothing. Zero. Why would we want to use these? All they do is waste time.  And no, the kids do not need them to have a good time. And they don’t need your CANDY either!!!! They have plenty of games and shananigans of their own to spark smiles and laughter and have fun. They do not in fact need crappy outlines of John and Mary in Autumn playing hopscotch. Or lollipops.

I tried for a few minutes to justify it all by saying, maybe coloring is a good way to learn fine motor skills… but then again the children that these coloring books are FOR already KNOW how to hold a freakin PENCIL.

This is all equally as outrageous as someone from China visiting some inner city school in Detroit and giving them coloring books of culturally Chinese things, labeled in Chinese. The American teachers would say, “What the hell are we going to do with this?”

Maybe I’ll learn how to say “What the hell are we going to do with this?” in Swahili so I can EXPRESS myself to well-intentioned western donors without them understanding. Hmmf.

So, if you’ve ever considered donating coloring books to a school abroad, please take the time to consider- will this be relevant to their lives? will this be effective as a learning tool? And if either answer is no, please figure out a more sensible way to “help schools in Africa.” The coloring books just won’t do.


5 comments on “Coloring Books Just Won’t Do.

  1. Mom
    August 21, 2010

    Hey now, that is not too positive – i get what you’re saying. Don’t send western stuff. But i guess one could think they might learn about the western world, and what autumn is, and why people in some places have town halls, assuming someone explains it to them (i guess that’s where you would come in handy). And they learn about colors, for example red and yellow mixed together make orange etc.

    It would be fun to hear about what their games and shinnanigans are that spark smiles and laughter! Haha

  2. Monique
    August 21, 2010

    So what could school kids use in Congo?

    I keep hearing that only the teachers have text books, and they spend most of class time transcribing the text on the chalkboard so that students can then transcribe into their cahiers. This is sort of a giant waste of time, no?

    I get that full-color, hard-bound textbooks are expensive and that it’s hard to find curriculum written by Congolese teachers. But there’s gotta be a cheap(ish) market-driven way to get Swahili & French curriculum into the hands of school kids.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on proposed solutions.

  3. Michelle DeJardine
    August 23, 2010

    When you get more familiar with that school and what you feel kids do need in their classrooms in DRC (i am sure it varies from different areas in DRC) please let us all know…
    I have heard this argument before “why would starving kids in an orphanage need an izzy doll when they don’t even have food to eat” but the people making these dolls think “all children deserve the comfort of having a toy”…when i was donating to an orphanage in Costa Rica i was told to get the kids school supplies…and these were young kids…so i trotted off to try to find relevant colouring books only to be told that the orphanage was filled with colouring books and the kids actually really needed socks….for me..colouring books seemed so much more fun…and i want kids to have fun….but socks were what was needed…A kid isn’t going to care about colouring if he/she is freezing, or has no shoes, etc….I think it is difficult for people in the western world to draw a line…and give kids what they need, what is useful to them, what will help them become happy healthy kids…..while also wanting these children to have things they assume all kids should have…a doll for instance…a toy truck….
    A lot of western people are trying to do their best…but people also need to be informed on what they SHOULD be doing to help…so their efforts are not useless or wasteful or in a sense, insulting to the very people they want to help….
    it is great you are there to see all of this and let us all know what we CAN do…and what is useful and relevant to these kids.

  4. sararich
    August 25, 2010

    I’m enjoying these thoughts and questions. Balancing needs and wants is important. I think that my frustration only comes when seeing coloring books through my teacher lens. Yes, they are fun. Yes, kids love them.

    But… my teacher side continues to think that there are also fun and lovable things to do that are both enjoyable AND effective teaching tools. For example, a blank notebook. Instead of the kids spending 25 minutes each morning coloring in a random picture of Billy Boy eating apple pie, the teacher could choose a topic, theme, or question that connected to the day’s lessons… and the kids could create either a literal or metaphorical representation of that topic/theme/question. So they would still spend the same amount of time coloring each morning- but it would actually require some THINKING. It would be constructive and engaging rather than an enjoyable-but-kids-don’t-actually-learn-anything-activity.

    As for sending resources, as Monique you have said before- it makes more sense to stimulate the local economy and buy materials here in Congo. If notebooks and crayons are purchased locally, they support a local shop owner rather than Walmart. This is a concept that is EXTREMELY important yet is often not considered by donors.

    So the big question still remains. (I will steal a phrase from The Help here… great book by Kathryn Stockett) If generous folks in the west want to help the “Poor Starving Children of Africa,” what can they give? I think Michelle- your story of coloring books vs. socks is excellent. It’s important to ask, and to listen to what people on the ground want/need. A lot of donors send stuff not only without thinking too much, but also without asking!! As for me- I’m still learning, so I have zero requests just yet!!

    Additionally I would say- whatever your profession or area of expertise is- ask yourself how you might collaborate with fellow professionals in the developing world. How could you share ideas to develop something brilliant together? I think having this strategy at the heart of whatever you are trying to accomplish is critical. Although you might be used to being an expert doctor, expert teacher, expert seamstress, expert engineer- you probably are not an expert in local needs, local wants, local culture, local economy, local politics… so putting people’s heads together really makes sense.

    Thanks for the comments- you’re really keeping me on my toes!

  5. Lisa
    August 27, 2010

    I share your thoughts on spending money and energy sending stuff to underprivileged kids anywhere in the world. There are guidelines for managing donations and both donors and the organizations that are accepting the donations need to get stricter about how donations are managed.
    Last year HEAL Africa opened up a container that had come from Canada several years earlier filled with medical supplies. Not only did it take years to finally get around to it but then lots of things were thrown out. Dealing with medical waste is a big problem here too.
    I blogged more about this last november.

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This entry was posted on August 20, 2010 by in humanities, teaching.
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