Throughout Quintana Roo there are thousands of “latch key” children. Many of these children work with their parents in their family shop, or manually or on farms. Some mind their younger siblings. Some wake extremely early, do a morning’s work and then go off to school. In Mexico, schools operate in two shifts, morning and afternoon, to give children an opportunity to work, rejuvenate and not miss crucial learning  time. It’s an exhausting life, and sometimes children just need to be children. They need a safe space to have fun and learn. A little bit like an after school club. The Ludoteca (toy library) provides that.

The Ludoteca in Playa del Carmen is pretty much a child wonderland. A teacher wonderland too, as I think of my own dilapidated, underfunded school in inner city Dublin and all the resources I am missing in my classroom… *sigh* “Save the Children” is a massive organisation so boxes upon boxes of donations arrive here; toys, games, books, crayons, art supplies, sports supplies… as well as funds from hoity toity galas & dinners plus plenty from GVI charity sponsorships.

This place is a riot of colour, energy and chaos. The sound of giant red and yellow block towers collapsing and clattering in a heap mixes with the builders’ gleeful cackles and animated shouts. Lego pieces skid across the floor as children playing chasing zoom past, screeching and giggling. The quieter, more timid girls sit in the corner reading, colouring in or completing jigsaws. Others cook up a storm in the kitchen and shout orders in rapid Spanish, as the boys crash their trucks into each other or roguishly play at sword fighting with plastic rods. There is always a selection of pop and reggaeton tunes booming from the stereo as the children dance, sing and leap about enthusiastically.

Until recently, it was a free drop in service for all children. Unfortunately, now it requires a small fee. Therefore, many of the neediest children cannot afford to go and numbers have dwindled. I like to think that some of the funds raised will go towards “scholarships” for these children but I amn’t sure…

Due to the “Save the Children” link, there are health & safety requirements, child protection policies, numerous briefings and a rules list the length of my arm. There is a list of topics to be covered weekly in areas like Social, Physical & Health Education, Relationships & Sexuality education as well as Childrens’ Rights. It is crucial for these children, given the background many of them come from, to be aware of these. In theory it’s great, in practice, not so much. With a bit more structure, time tabling and effort from staff, it could go from good to brilliant.

The volunteer’s role in the Ludoteca is to teach a “Green Action” lesson once a week, delivered via Powerpoint through Spanish with an active lesson afterwards. I really enjoyed this part, as it was (semi) structured and I could draw upon my own teaching skills and creativity. We also taught a weekly English lesson through the “Brillkids” computer program. Ideally, this would be a daily lesson for maximum habit/ benefit (and to combat children missing the weekly lesson) but there was a flexibility there to create follow up lessons and worksheets etc. I loved helping with their homework and any opportunity for educational games.

Most of the volunteering week was free time to play with the children. Playing “House”  with my broken Spanish and their lack of English was an experience, but play is an international language and I learned all about gender roles at home and dinner time/ life in a traditional Mexican family, plus never to forget my “llaves” (keys). I also became pretty skilled in the arts of Jenga, Hide & Seek and Lego, not to mention, ‘My Little Pony’ mane braiding.

The children were sweet, inviting and always up for general mischief and devilment, just like back home. I loved that their little personalities shone through despite the language barrier. Though they made themselves  & their needs known, they mysteriously didn’t have a clue what I was trying to say when it came to rules! That said, I learned an awful lot of Spanish in 6 weeks and have a new found understanding of what the EAL children go through in my own school.

I can’t say that I made a huge difference to the lives of the children, and although it as exhausting and at times, ear splitting/ head melting, I met some great little characters and had tons of fun. I hope they did too!