Part of my internship with the ISC has involved participating in community externships with three community organizations affiliated with the ISC. From September – December, I volunteered with each organization one time every month. This experience has been helpful in helping me meet more members of the Korean social movement, to learn more about different sectors of Korean-centered progressive political work (since the ISC’s focus is international solidarity movements), and to above all get a sense of what being in and part of the activist community is like here in Korea.
다같이 놀자 is a daycare center founded by Korean activists with children who wanted to establish an alternative to the mainstream daycare/educational system. The story behind its inception is actually one of the best examples I know of the difference between community organizing in Korea and that in the US. Apparently, there came a time when some Korean activists all started getting married and having kids (which, after having volunteered with them, I now know means a TON more energy). In the US, this kind of thing would usually lead to people ‘taking a step back’ or dropping out of their political involvements entirely. Instead, however, these activists’ response was to ‘take a step forward,’ by which I mean they tried to see how this new development could be negotiated to come together even more closely as a community. So they decided to form a collective, pooled resources, and together started this preschool. The educational mission of the preschool is also very different from that of a typical Korean preschool. The center’s name translates to “Let’s Play!,” which is basically its premise: that young kids need freedom, and creativity, and to play. If, like me, that was what you did in preschool, this might not sound all that impressive, until you realize that some Korean preschools have kids reading, writing, and studying at the age of three… THREE! The daycare center is also intentionally small, with only 6 kids. (ranging from ages 2-6). This, they argue, is in response to the industrialization of childcare (and, later on down the road, education), where the child/student-to-teacher ratio is very high and the profit-to-labor ratio is therefore maximized. The head parent of the cooperative that oversees the daycare made the point that it’s the educational equivalent of what happened with Sewolho, linking the greed of capitalism with the exploitation of Korea’s children… and after hearing about conventional preschool and combining it with my memories of teaching in a conventional Korean high school, I have to agree.
On an operational level, the daycare does function pretty much like a regular daycare: the kids arrive by 10am, play in the morning, have lunch together, have naptime, eat a snack, play some more, and then go home around 6pm when their parents come to pick them up.
Rather, it’s little things that stick out to me as unique about the experience. First is that instead of using names, the children call everyone by nicknames. The reasoning for this was explained to me as being in order to help the children feel comfortable expressing themselves (since generally Korean speech involves calling someone by a specific title and using honorific or casual speech when addressing them depending on their relative position to yours within the social hierarchy) – although I wasn’t sure if it was in opposition to that, or merely delaying their need to use it. In any case, the two teachers’ names are 토끼 (Rabbit) and 딸기(Strawberry). Can you guess mine?! It’s 파프리가 (Paprika! Although I recently learned that in Korean, “paprika” really refers to “bell pepper” – aka my least favorite vegetable >.<. Although being referred to as “bell pepper” by adorable little kids makes it all slightly better I guess).
Another is the level of involvement that the parents have with the preschool. Because it was formed out of their mutual collaboration and continues to be run under their shared vision, they really take ownership of it and are much more involved – for example, one of the parents is always responsible for cleaning up the space at the end of the day. They also seem to have a pretty strong community sense outside of the daily daycare duties – one of my volunteer days was spent with the parents boothing at a local community fair, and I’ve seen them meet with their kids for activities on the weekends as well.
The center also stresses collaboration, sharing, and talking through conflict with the kids, which is something I’m not used to seeing. This part I’m not sure I always get because of the language barrier, but it does seem unique in this aspect. I was struck by the behavior of the teachers and older children and how well they were able to navigate extremely dangerous waters: preschooler conflicts. I don’t think I’ve ever seen kids be so intent on inclusivity, and trying to convince others to share, and saying “let’s do it together!” so often (which is not to say that they don’t have their normal selfish-kid moments and breakdowns – but still, I think it’s impressive). The kids also only eat organic food, which is kinda cool, and is also very much in keeping with the idea that kids should be treasured and we should be actively trying to provide the best for them, not just what is convenient or conventional.
I know you’re really wondering just who these kids are exactly, so… without further ado…
During my time with them, I have volunteered two days at the preschool with the teachers, and attended one community fair, where I helped set up and staffed the booth with their parents, and played traditional Korean games with the kids when they came for their daily outing (usually they plan outings in the morning and/or afternoon during their normal days, but both days I’ve volunteered at the center we’ve been inside all day).
During that time, I would have to say that I’ve come to appreciate children for the wonderful, terrifying, hilarious, anxiety-provoking, invaluable wonder that they are. Having never spent time with young kids, I had no idea what to expect, and at times, I still don’t (really though, with kids, can you ever really completely?), but in the past few months, I have learned a couple things. I’ve realized that education begins not within the classroom but waaaay before that, when kids learn how to relate to others and what modes of interaction are or are not appropriate (playing together: yes – stealing toys/being mean: no). I’ve realized how being a teacher to such young kids requires mindfulness at all times if you want to teach kids to relate to others or behave in a non-hegemonic way. And I’ve (re)realized how crazy the world can when you’re seeing it through new eyes – although it takes a lot to remember this when cheering the kids on when they’ve stacked their 80th consecutive block and look to me expectantly for approval. But, mostly, I’ve realized how lucky I am that they were gracious enough to let me into their community and trust me with their kids, whom they value above all else!