Why I Know TYO Matters – Final Reflections from my Creative Thinking Class

“The most important thing at TYO is that every child leaves class every day feeling like they can accomplish anything.” – TYO staff member Over the past session, I have been privileged to teach a creative thinking class to children from the four refugee camps and two neighborhoods TYO serves. Filled with laughter, challenges, and breakthroughs, this session solidified for me the importance of TYO’s work – both through better understanding specific needs from community members themselves and from observing the transformation of my own students in the classroom.

Spending the past few months implementing an informal needs assessment has given me an invaluable opportunity to visit diverse homes and schools in the refugee camps and communities TYO serves. I have walked through the narrow one-person wide alleyways between homes in the camps; I have sat through interviews in overcrowded homes where seven or more people live in two rooms; and I have seen the bare and chipping walls of school classrooms that create sterile learning environments.  It is clear to me that this environment doesn’t provide children with safe places or opportunities to play.  Moreover, through focus groups and home visits I have heard children ask for drama, art, sports, and music classes – classes that other children around the world might take for granted.

The need from the community for non-formal education programs and safe areas to play is clear to me; thankfully, TYO is able to provide that space for organized play. Having this basic understanding and appreciation for what TYO offers children helped me to maintain perspective as I worked with forty students over the course of the session.  As they mastered different challenges and games, I watched as my students’ abilities to solve problems increased as did their self-confidence.  Results from my pre- and post-assessment activity, where children built buildings from straws and paper clips, tangibly illustrated just how much this skill had improved over the session.  In my two classes, initially, only 57% and 67% of students could build a structure from straws and paper clips, with only 14% and 17% building structures that could stand upright.  In the final assessment, 100% and 87% successfully built structures, with 47% and 40% building structures that stood upright.  In this final assessment, children proudly presented elaborate castles, stadiums, and domes that spanned the table.

While I saw enormous increases in children’s problem-solving abilities over the session, I was even more impressed by their behavioral changes.  I was thrilled to watch my students create our classroom rules, learn to abide by them, and to help enforce them. By the end of the session, they had assumed complete ownership over them.  I watched as students overflowing with energy would try their hardest to restrain their bodies and to ask for permission before grabbing something off of the shelf. I watched as students would come tell me when someone had said something disrespectful, instead of responding by cursing at them or hitting them. Lastly, I watched as children adopted our positive discipline system– a structure completely foreign to most of them. This was comprised of two main components – a student of the week system and a system of behavioral compliment paper chains. Students would rush to class to see if their picture was pasted on a star outside of the classroom, representing that their behavior had improved in the previous class. They also enthusiastically wrote compliments about the behavior of their classmates at the end of every class.

TYO creates an alternate reality for the children it serves. It provides a reality where any kind of violence is unacceptable; where children have ownership over their classroom; where consequences and rewards for behaviors are understood and expected as opposed to arbitrary; and where respect for one another is the baseline. I am honored that I had the opportunity to contribute directly to that reality.


Clare Herceg is currently a TYO Fellow as a recipient of the Princeton Class of 1956-81 International ReachOut Fellowship.