Story-Time with Auntie Noma

True to its name, The Lighthouse Nursery has been a source of light in the near darkness of pre-school education in Nigeria. Nwachukwu Egbunike sat at the feet of Mrs Noma Sodipo (proprietress of The Lighthouse Nursery) and drank from her wealth of stories. Mrs Sodipo, an Optometrist, asides being Fellow of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health (RSPH) and a member of ARVO (Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology) is the presenter of the popular TV programme for kids – Story-Time with Auntie Noma.

Mrs Noma Sodipo (Presenter of Story-Time with Auntie Noma)

About the Lighthouse Nursery

It started almost 14 years ago – August 1996. Then my oldest child was almost three.  We had just come back to Nigeria. Although I trained as an optometrist, I wanted to be with our very young kids. I had heard all the stories about mothers leaving very early and returning very late from work, and somehow that didn’t appeal to me!  So when the idea to start something like this came up, it just ‘clicked’ as it were; and my husband had the same idea at the same time (laughs).   Prior to that, he had been suggesting other things, like starting an eye clinic.

I had my son as my first pupil and that’s how it started. It was fun and good. He learnt a lot – most things that we had set to cover in a year, he covered in a term!  My daughter was a year old when we started. Other pupils joined us before our third child came along, and we have carried on since.

The challenges of maintaining standards and passing same passion to pupils, staff and parents

One of the greatest challenges really had to do with the spoken language of the children.  What we tried so hard to do seemed to quickly be ‘undone’ by the third party- the home-helps! For instance a child comes back from the long vacation and keeps saying ‘oya now’,’ jo’, ‘o’,and so on(all from our list of Top Ten Unnecessary additions) and you have to keep correcting them, without stifling their efforts at learning to speak. The fun thing though is that the kids quickly correct themselves, and we laugh over it.

We adults often are ‘guilty’ of it. We say these things and the kids hear and emulate us. They, on the other hand, do not know which is proper. Whether we like it or not, we have been colonised by the British and have to speak English. So, as I tell parents, if you’re speaking Yoruba, speak it well; if you’re speaking Hausa, speak it well; if you’re speaking Igbo, speak it well; if you’re speaking English, speak it well! At least in training your young children who don’t know the right way from the wrong way. Having said that, different races do have their various slangs in speaking English – the Jamaicans, South-Africans and of course, us Nigerians.

It is also good to encourage the parents to spend time with their kids regularly. A little reading to a child regularly works better than trying to do everything at weekend. It’s easier to lose their attention that way. It’s best to stop before they ask you to.

For the staff, continuing education is a must.  Even with a master’s degree you may still have to be trained in handling/teaching children. The teacher should also have the passion to take care of pre-school children.  Staff attend certified courses outside. We have regular in-house seminars, as well as encourage staff to go on the internet and research on a topic and then present to the others. They learn and also criticize constructively; in the end the teacher is better for it.

Encouraging the pupils to read

I believe in getting them interested in books early. One way is by reading to them and letting them see that you are interested in books yourself. It’s like read, read, read and they don’t see mummy reading at all! For preschoolers, use a lot of brightly-coloured books, with relatively little text. As they grow older, then less of pictures and more of text. It is important to choose the right time to read to a child – not when the child is tired or hungry. The right place (pointing to a cosy area layered with carpet), or a nice, comfortable corner helps to associate reading with fun and not to see it as a sort of punishment.

It is also good to get them involved by looking at books on their own. The book could be one shared by the teacher earlier, or one chosen by the child from the library or book corner. A school teacher can give them freedom at their silent reading time. Don’t interfere too much here by trying to bring in questions on the subject matter especially when they’re interested in what they are reading.  At home, parents can start a mini-library or stock a  book shelf along with their kids.

We should not make the mistake of seeing reading as an end in itself; reading is a tool, that is, a means to an end. We should not just be content with the ability to read without going on to provide suitable materials for the use of the tool our children have learnt to handle. We should not spend a whole year on a book with a set of pupils and leave them with no desire to read for themselves. Our aim must go beyond a mere ability to read; it should be to cultivate in our children a desire to read for themselves.

Get them to read with a purpose, just as you get them to write with a purpose. There’s so much out there to read – recipes, menus, comic strips, game instructions, bill boards, newspapers, books  and so on. Just like you get them to do after a holiday, when they write about things they did or places they went, and not stopping at only writing: ‘a’ – aunty has an apple; ‘b’ – Bobby has a ball, etc., you also get them to do some purposeful reading.

Synergy between the parents and the teacher

Of course! You find that kids whose parents spend a little bit of time reading regularly with them actually do better. After all the parents are the primary educators of their kids. You know your child so well – when he or she is happy or sad, excited or moody. You also know when to chip in a ‘lesson’ without turning every opportunity into a lesson!  If you follow what they’ve been doing at school, you know how to bring it in at home for reinforcement.

Developing reading culture in kids

It’s all about helping them develop habits. We’ve talked about the importance of having a mini- library or book shelf at home.  A parent’s interest in books also tends to influence a child positively. Reading to your children and looking at books with them (well-illustrated adult reference books as well as children’s picture books) also help. Attending book-reading/storytelling events especially when they’re fun and watching good book-oriented TV programmes are other great ways.

In line with encouraging children to imbibe a good reading culture, we organised a special edition of Story-Time with Auntie Noma, with the First Lady of Lagos State, Mrs Abimbola Fashola, as special guest storyteller. Books by Nigerian authors were read and Nigerian publishers like Evans Brothers supported by generously donating books, which were given to all the children who attended the free event. The participating pupils were drawn from schools all over Lagos State. Several celebrities were present to inspire the kids. Joke Silva read the winning entry of Auntie Noma Stories Competition. Onyeka Onwenu sang with the kids, Tee Mac played his flute and Lagbaja organised a dance competition for the kids. Cash prizes plus fantastic incentives for writing stories such as winning entries being published were all part of the fun-packed events. Plans are under way to take this to other parts of the country.

Though this may seem little, when compared to all that still needs to be done, it a good beginning in igniting the interest in books from a tender age.

How Story-Time with Auntie Noma started

The TV programme started five years ago, really as an extension of what I had been doing for years. I actually started a Bible Club for kids in Ibadan way back in 1987, soon after my youth service. Storytelling and reading naturally were part of that! I also voluntarily ran story time sessions, along with art and craft and song time, for ten years in Ikoyi Club Library, as well as story-telling at the British Council Book Weeks, CORA events, invitations as guest storyteller to schools in the UK, international schools in various parts of Nigeria, Train the Trainer programmes, etc.

It wasn’t such a new thing, although the TV aspect took some getting used to. (laughs).

Why the programme is unique

Story-Time with Auntie Noma, as well as being a fun-filled family programme, reinforces the fact that children learn in a variety of ways. Taking learning outside the four walls of a classroom, it creates a vibrant and refreshing approach to life from a child’s perspective. Rather than being a dull straightforward educational programme, it is entertaining, exciting whist being very educational.

The many opportunities to learn about our varied cultures, portraying the positive aspects in very attractive ways, as well as learn about ways of life outside Nigeria has made Story-Time with Auntie Noma stimulating to both Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike.

The weekly half-hour programme is shot on location and in the studio. In addition to the location segment, Story-Time with Auntie Noma also features storytelling; rhymes and songs; arts and crafts. A theme is chosen for each week, and the above three features are woven around the theme ranging from Waterfalls to Twins in Africa, Dragon Fruit to Slave trade; Counting; Colours and Computers to Taking Turns, Talents and Transportation. Our locations include; animals on safari in Kenya and Yankari Games Reserve, Nigeria; Kayaking on the Indian Ocean; Cricket at the Oval, London; the Delft Pottery works of Holland; Sightseeing in France, South Africa, Zambia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Dubai and even Norway. The crew have also captured locals at work – basket weaving, making garri, etc.

Story-Time with Auntie Noma is aired on Channels TV, Africa Magic, Gateway TV, Desmims TV (Kaduna), EBS (Edo), TVC and BEN TV (Europe).

Feedback from the programme

We get lots of feedback from Nigeria and abroad. For instance, a Nigerian woman whose grand-children live in France was delighted to hear them greet her e ka aro! Although their father is French, they picked up the words from the Good Morning song video during the programme, which they were able to view through Sky network in France. For people in the diaspora, that cultural touch is what really glues them to the programme. I also got an e-mail the other day from a mother who just watched the programme with her kids in the UK. For many abroad it brings back nostalgic feelings too. Many of the kids here in Nigeria call in to be part of the programme; so it looks like we really should get some sort of a club going! At the moment many are calling in to be part of Story time with Auntie Noma’s 5th Anniversary trip to The Gambia this summer.

On quality of teachers in Nigerian nursery schools

It’s unfortunate that teaching in nursery school seems to be reserved for the ‘less successful’. It does not mean that the younger they are the less effort a teacher puts into it. It requires a lot of passion and skill to hold the attention of pre-school kids for thirty minutes. There are people who can handle pre-schoolers and not handle teenagers and vice versa. If you are a person who feels at home with   teenagers, you probably can’t survive five minutes with pre-schoolers; they’ll tear your head apart.

It’s all about identifying your area of interest. It is also a generalisation to say that the worst are going into teaching. Many teachers have always had a passion for it (like my kindergarten teacher), while many are doing post-graduate courses in education; I’m doing one. And you have many other professionals like medical doctors, lawyers, priests, etc taking so too(laughs).

Pillars of support for children’s work

All this has been made possible with the help of God and a very supportive family. My husband, Dr Bankole Sodipo especially has been a great inspiration and support.

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