Volunteering abroad – how to teach children

Volunteering abroad – how to teach young children

Here’s a grab-and-go guide for anyone about to work with young children for the first time on a volunteer project abroad.

Teenagers and adults are generally happy to spend a lesson slouching and chatting with volunteers when learning informal English. They will be more than be happy to spend a whole hour listening to your favourite tune on your phone and copying out the song lyrics.

When working with very young children, things could not be more different for the volunteer! Be prepared to become entertainer/mum and dad/educator/supervisor all in one!

And last not least, have a bottle of water handy if you are in a hot country because you will be running up and down to maintain their interest and keep them all in one place!

15 minute attention span

Young children’s attention span can be just 15 minutes. Yes 15 minutes! Now you know this you can plan activities in advance based around 15 minute time slots. It also means you will not now be disappointed when they start fidgeting as you will now know why.

If there are other volunteers, do try to divide the group up and concentrate on separate mini activities. This will take a lot of the pressure off and help keep the children’s interest.

Make sure every volunteer going to your school/community centre has a bag with materials/toys/games equipment or a good idea to keep young children occupied for at least 15 minutes.





How to calculate average attention span in young children

On average allow 3-5 minutes per age. So a 4 year old will have an attention span of between 12 and 25 minutes. Because of the differences between individual children, 15 minutes would be the safest margin to work with if working with 4 year olds.

For more information on developmental stages at each age  including ideas for age-specific activities it’s well worth a visit to the website www.pbs.org

Are there any exceptions to the 15 minute rule?

Children in poorer parts of Africa may already have been trained to sit passively for authority figures or been told by their parents to be good for the teacher. This can lead to making the assumption that the children’s quiet and still body language over an hour means they are somehow ahead of their more expressive British peers. Do not be fooled. They may have sat still but they probably lost the thread and interest 45 minutes ago!

Change the momentum every 15 minutes

To keep the children on your page, you need to grab their attention. Keep them physically and mentally occupied, immersed as much as possible in the situation through visual and physical stimulation.

For an informal class with young children a good rule of thumb is to keep changing the momentum, for example:

Something physically active for 15 minutes – standing up/running around/actions/sitting on the floor

Followed by

Quiet work for 15 minutes –creative/writing/drawing/making something

Then repeat.




An example lesson plan for very young children on a volunteer project

I’ve put together below a way to organise a session when faced with young children and no additional help from local teachers, although it assumes you have some other volunteers to share the children with.

Divide the space and hour into different activity areas and activities

Divide the space up according to the number of volunteers and the resources or ideas each volunteer has. If you are faced with a mixed age group, it can be useful to divide the children in their smaller groups by age. If you cannot ask their age, lining the children up in height order can be a way round this.

Each activity should last no more than 15 minutes to maintain the children’s interest.

The children will move from one activity/volunteer to the next during the hour. Each volunteer repeats their activity with different children.

Alternatively you could move round with your own group. From my experience, for volunteers abroad who are new to teaching, repetition is the fastest way to gain confidence. You can learn more about yourself, your potential and you will make less mistakes when repeating the same activity 3 or 4 times than doing something new every 15 minutes.

For example, with your second group of children you might know which actions worked best, which song to leave out and you might be more confident to express yourself and get into a ‘teacher’ role faster.


Worked example of activities

Here is how I have organised classes of thirty 3 – 7yr olds with volunteer help.

Activity A Volunteers Ann and John spend 15 minutes on singing and miming 2- 3 nursery rhymes. They have coloured pencils and paper ready for drawing pictures of the songs in case the children finish quickly.

Nursery rhyme ideas: Head shoulders knees and toes, Londons Burning, Incy Wincy Spider, Wind the Bobbin up, Row Row the Boat, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Ring a Ring O’ Roses, I’m a Little Teapot, Wheels On The Bus, Zoom zoom zoom, Grand ol’ Duke of York, Humpty Dumpty, If You Are Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands.

Activity B Volunteer Sara has a big bag of Lego for a small group to play with.

Sara puts everything on the table/ mat on the floor and encourages the oldest child to start making something. The others follow their lead. She looks out for the weakest or youngest and assists where needed. She is careful to offer praise and attention to everyone. It is easy as a new volunteer teacher to get wrapped up in making your own house and not notice that one of the children has no bricks or is crying quietly in the corner.

Activity C Jim and Ayesha have a bag of picture books.

Jim and Ayesha deliberately lay the books out for the children to look by themselves. When the group start fidgeting, Jim and Ayesha move the books around so everyone can reach and look at every book on the table. They both keep an eye on children not engaged and read or show the pictures. With this type of activity it is easy for a child to get distracted and want to see what the other children in the other groups are doing so they both also need to keep an eye on anyone wandering off.

Activity D Volunteers Millie and James will do some general running around with the children and ball games

Millie and James gather the children into a circle for Hokey Cokey, then they play hide and seek followed by what’s the time Mr Wolf? James also sets up a little game where the children in two teams of 3 have to run to a chair to collect part of a picture he has ripped up, then running back to complete the picture. They like this competition so they do this a few times.

When you have extra time to fill

If you don’t know how long you have the children for, try to save the physical games in case you need them. You might discover you have the children for an hour more than you expected and need them to fill the time. This works well to bring everyone together and play until the end of the session. In this session Millie and James told the others that What’s the Time Mr Wolf was a great hit so everyone played this together again to end the session.


Teaching students with learning difficulties and weaker students

You may come across children who have not attended school before and may be behind developmentally. In many countries children do not start school until 7 years old so a 5 year old may never have held a pencil before. There may also be children with learning difficulties.

Even in the UK experienced teachers will find tailoring activities for a group whilst keeping in mind individual children’s needs is a challenge. So do not be  too hard on yourself if some of the children are left behind.

As a novice volunteer teacher who does not speak the local language, weak students and children with learning difficulties can actually be easy to miss. I remember thinking a young lad Javier was a model student because of his positive body language and impeccable manners. He always nodded along with every instruction as if he understood and joined in enthusiastically with all oral work.

I could not have been more wrong when I gave the class a written test and Javier’s paper came back blank. Worried that I had missed other students, I quickly organised a one to one test. I called each student on their own outside of the class, leaving my colleague teaching. I was not convinced it was  the best use of the limited time available but if it worked I would know how to pitch the rest of my classes to their ability rather than teaching what I believed was interesting or what I felt comfortable presenting.

The one to one test revealed that about a third of the class had were far behind the others, but they deserved five stars for lip-synching through all the chorus repetition we had done in class and getting their class mate to do their drawings for them!

How to assess a class ability

Here are the things I either tested by my own observation in the class or one to one

Can they?

· Sit still if occupied with an activity for 15 minutes?

· Be creative and expressive with art and craft materials you bring to class?

· Understand “what’s your name?”

· Respond to “what’s your name?”

· Hold a pencil?

· Write in their own language?

· Read their own language?

· Copy English words?

I discovered there were 3 children who were having difficulty in the classes and for whom I would need to offer a bit more support at some point in the lesson. I then changed my lesson aims for my newly discovered skill set of the children and made sure that during the quiet times when the children worked unaided, that I made time for the children who were struggling. It was very rewarding knowing that now at least everyone had a chance to keep up.

I would love to hear your own ideas and experiences of working with young children, especially any games which worked particularly well.

And if you would like to work specifically with younger children, our following programmes will be ideal starting points: Malawi, India and Ghana.