A missionary who teaches us to play

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A missionary who teaches us to play

The stains on the walls of her basement office, caused by all the rain this summer, fail to dampen Freda Kim's spirits as she talks about the plan to open up a new preschool facility. "I am not too concerned about the water damage; that's only temporary," says Mrs. Kim, looking around her small office in the new center.

On the walls are colorful laminated letters that spell out Playway, the name of her center, which is designed to enable tots up to 3 years old and their parents to play together effectively. After nearly three decades of working with young children, including the mentally and physically handicapped, Mrs. Kim, 69, the wife of The Right Reverend Dr. Kim Soung-soo, president of Seoul's SungKongHoe University, is still all enthusiasm when she talks about the need for children to be able to learn through play.

Mrs. Kim was born Freda Cowdray in 1933 in Whitchurch, southern England. With a certificate in education from Leeds University and a diploma in sociology from the University of London, she taught middle school music and dance, and served as a youth worker.

Then, in 1962, she set sail for Japan as a missionary for the Anglican Church's missionary society. It was a natural decision for her. She had been brought up in the church and does not even recall making a conscious decision to become a missionary. "It is a calling," she says. "And back then, being a missionary was a much stronger commitment than it is today. You were expected to stay in your field for the rest of your life."

As a youth adviser to the Anglican Diocese of Tokyo, she worked with disadvantaged youths in Fukugawa, a poor part of Tokyo known for its lumber mills. At the time, many young people were flocking to Tokyo from the countryside, looking for jobs. Mrs. Kim organized sports and leisure activities for them, such as ping-pong games.

She spent two years studying the Japanese language, but judging by her charisma you get the feeling that she could have carried on her work just as well even if she had not mastered the language. The very first Sunday after her arrival, she went to a church in the countryside, taking the train by herself ?no small feat for someone who neither spoke nor read Japanese. "I was young, 29, and quite resilient," Mrs. Kim says.

In November 1968, she met the future Bishop Kim, then an Anglican priest from Korea. The two got acquainted by going sightseeing around Japan for two days. "At first, I thought he was about 25," she explains. "It turned out he was 38 years old. I was 35." Even today he still looks young for his age, she adds. Although he did not make a formal proposal of marriage at the time, both of them knew that their encounter was nothing ordinary.

On a February day in 1969, Mrs. Kim came to Seoul to be with Mr. Kim, and the two had begun planning for their wedding by the very next day. She also resigned from her missionary society. She would have liked to have continued her work, but was told by the society that it would not be good if a wife were to earn more than her husband. It sounds archaic by today's standards, but Mrs. Kim accepted it.

Although she had resigned as a missionary, she continued to work, founding a school for mentally disabled children, St. Peter's School in Seoul, together with her husband in 1973. "We were asked by the bishop to work with the disabled children," she says. "I felt I couldn't do it because I was ignorant." But if you are ignorant, you can learn, she adds.

She served as the school's social worker until 1983, when she started a preschool for disabled children and their families and what turned out to be the country's first toy library, in Jeong-dong, downtown Seoul, near the Seoul Anglican Cathedral. Although she had heard of toy libraries before, she had never seen one, so she set about starting hers pretty much on her own. Only later was she told by her colleague who had visited the United States about an identical program called Lekotek. So that became the name of her preschool.

"A toy library is not just a collection of toys," she says. "It is a human relations-oriented concept and a child-growth concept." A child not only picks out his toy, but also comes up with myriad ways of playing with it, sharing it with his friends and asking the parents to play along ?all the while learning.

In 1993, she opened a Lekotek in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, after purchasing a private house with help from the Anglican Church of Korea and Lekotek sponsors. When the government the following year enacted a law governing special education, she applied for a government license for a preschool for special-needs children. "That would have enabled our students to attend the school for free," Mrs. Kim says.

However, the school's application was turned down for an unexpected reason, and the project lost its funding. Because it was a converted private house, it did not meet the building requirements of the new law. "We were denied the license because our rooms did not have the right dimensions," she says.

Determined to provide free education for disabled children, whose families usually shoulder heavy medical costs, Mrs. Kim sold the house and bought a parcel of land in Uijeong-bu, Gyeonggi Province, in 1999. The preschool and kindergarten reopened its doors in 2001 with a new name, Huimang School.

"Mrs. Kim really pioneered the field of early education of disabled children in Korea," says Kang Eui-joong, the principal of Huimang School, who has known Mrs. Kim since 1978 when they were both at St. Peter's School. "It is only in the last three years that programs for special-needs children in the preschool age group came within the formal education system in this country. There was virtually no financial backing when she first began her work with young disabled children. She and the bishop have been very generous, always wanting to give more."

Although the original Lekotek in Jeong-dong eventually closed its doors, it has spun off a number of other Lekotek schools. The first school's closure provided a bounty of equipment for other schools. "We had to dispose of our vast collection of toys very quickly and invited anyone who needed them to come and take them," Mrs. Kim says. Most of the original center's 3,000 toys, both ordinary toys and special toys for the disabled, ended up going to a preschool in southeastern Seoul which has since added the word Lekotek to its name.

Based on Mrs. Kim's toy library model, the Seoul city government has also started a free toy library by taking in toy donations from city employees. The library, located near the Euljiro 2-ga subway station, is probably one of the best of its kind in the world, Mrs. Kim says.

In 1998, Mrs. Kim retired as the head of Lekotek Korea. Wanting to be in touch with children, she started a Lekotek-like program for ordinary children in Jeong-dong that same year. She spent all of 1 million won ($850) to start Playway, a play center designed for parents to play with their toddlers. Once again, she began from scratch, with mostly donated equipment.

In 2000, another Playway was set up, in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province. The center was a hit with the tots but a dud with the folks. "It was a love-hate relationship," Mrs. Kim says. "The moms didn't understand it but the children loved it."

More often than not, it is not the children who need to be taught how to play, but the grown-ups. "How often do parents sit their children next to them, giving them a toy, and then go on watching TV or reading?" Mrs. Kim says. "What matters is what you do with the children when you are with them." And what you do with them is vitally important when they are young because they learn most basic things before the age of 3. "It is about building a stable base. It is very important to form good relationships within the family."

The Bundang operation is now closed but the new one, where Mrs. Kim has the damp office, will open soon in Sinsa-dong. The new center will include a consultation program for parents who are expecting or those who have just had their first child. "The idea is that the parents will be able to choose what they want for their children," Mrs. Kim says.

Still very much involved in working with children, she does not foresee retirement anytime soon. "I supposedly retired in 1998 but this is where I am today," she says, adding that she would like to write a memoir if she could find the time.

The proudest moment in her life? She mentions having presented her mother-in-law to Queen Elizabeth in 1999 during a ceremony in Seoul, in which Mrs. Kim was awarded the honor of Member of the British Empire in recognition of her lifetime work with children. "Of course, a proper Korean wife would have said, 'when my husband became the archbishop of the Anglican Church in Korea in 1993,'" she says smiling.

by Kim Hoo-ran

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