This summer I travelled to Cambodia with a group of Maclellan Scholars from Covenant College. We partnered with Words of Life Ministries to learn about Cambodia, encourage expat missionaries, and offer our skills to help Imparting Smiles, the branch of Words of Life that reaches out to impoverished children. We flew into Phnom Penh where we met Elisabeth, Dan, and Heidi, American missionaries who live in Cambodia. Dan and Heidi are newlyweds who live at the Krache Children’s Center. We spent a week in Krache working at Orosai House (Bamboo House) and at the Children’s Center. At Orosai House we laid cement, painted, washed mildew off the house, and dug trenches. It was hot, hard, and rewarding work.
We were also blessed to spend six days working at the Children’s Center. The Center is home to about 70 kids—from an infant to young adults in their early twenties. At the Center kids are given a home, clothes, food, the opportunity to go to school, and extracurricular activities that include music, art, computer classes, and English tutoring. Students from our team spent hours doing one-on-one English tutoring as well as teaching piano, guitar, and violin. We also played with the children—on the three story high playground and in soccer, volleyball, and basketball competitions. Every day we were greeted by dozens of excited, affectionate children bearing flowers, grass crowns, and endless supplies of hugs and laughter.
I was blessed with the opportunity to teach nature study for several days while we were there. The first day I arrived to teach, all of the children were buzzing with joy and curiosity. Heidi had been hoping to teach them art, but she was unsure where to begin. She led me to one of the girls’ dormitories where the lower level was both bedroom to four girls and a classroom for all the children at the center. I had begun to dig through the supply cabinet when I heard scrapes, clunks, and Khmer whispers behind me. I turned around to see tiny children, with grins from ear to ear, bringing in heavy tables and plastic chairs. They carried in those tables every day, eager to begin class. Heidi showed me art supplies that an American team had brought: heavy watercolor paper, Blick watercolor brushes, and tube watercolors dried in trays. I could not believe my eyes! Such beautiful supplies in semi-remote Cambodia were an unexpected blessing!
My first nature study class each day was comprised of 7 first grade students. Most of them had never painted before. Heidi translated as I held up a Peacock Flower and explained about observation. (A “Peacock Flower” is a red, lily-like flower that grows on trees. One of the petals has white with red and orange stripes. The children like to eat the petals because they taste sour.) Then I passed out flowers to the students. One girl asked, “Can I eat it?” I told her that we were just going to look for now, but she could pick one to eat after class. During the one minute of observation the students gazed fascinated at their flower. The observations they shared were simple, mostly about color, as observations usually are at the beginning of first grade. Next, I taught the students about keeping their brush at a point, only using a little bit of water, and how to mix green. Each time I asked them to narrate back to me, they did so with near perfection. As the students painted, I was amazed to watch them as they studied the flower then carefully painted the details on their paper. They did phenomenal work! I could hardly believe this was the first time many of them had ever painted! The Peacock Flower is dimensional, like the lilies we usually use to conclude second grade, yet these students painted without fear and with excellence. Their perspective was amazing! Best of all, the students were excited about and proud of their work, and I loved seeing the joy on their faces.
The next day, my first graders returned with equal exuberance. I was planning to have them paint mango leaves so that they could learn how to mix orange. I had cut the 12×12 paper into 4×4 squares in order to conserve paper. One of the little girls came in, looked at the mango leaves and paper, and started gesturing frantically. She pressed the leaf on the paper and pointed at the leaf hanging over the edge while shaking her head. I had not told them that we always paint our specimens the same size as they are in real life, but she did not like that the leaves and paper were not the same size. Smiling at her cleverness, I took her outside, and we picked smaller leaves. That day our lessons were cancelled because of a monsoon. It was too dark to see to paint, so mango leaves were postponed until the next day. Instead, we danced and laughed in the rain!
The rest of the week was a continual delight. When I asked them to narrate about observation, mixing colors, brushes, and water, they did so perfectly. My heart melted when one student read from Psalms in Khmer. I loved watching them discover the details of the flowers they saw everyday: Peacock flowers, mango leaves, bougainvillea, and zinnias. I was amazed at their observation, their awareness of perspective, and the quickness with which they caught on to dry brush techniques and mixing colors. Every day after class the students would carry their paintings around to show everyone. These students reminded me of the value and joy that comes from fostering a child’s curiosity and creativity.
© HollyAnne Dobbins 2011