The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South African kids get hands-on experience with democracy

The My Constitution program uses action to help kids understand their rights.

Kids in South Africa show the signs they made stating their rights under the country's constitution. They were taking part in the My Constitution program at Play Africa, a children's museum in Johannesburg. (Gretchen Wilson-Prangley/Play Africa)

Most kids don’t cast votes for political leaders or serve as a judge or witness in a trial. But a program in South Africa has children act out those experiences to understand what it means to live in a democracy.

Children have democratic rights, says Gretchen Wilson-Prangley, the founder and chief executive of Play Africa, a museum in Johannesburg designed to teach kids critical skills and important life-changing lessons in a “playful way,” she said. A Play Africa program called My Constitution aims to empower them to exercise these rights — which means teaching them how to make their voices heard.

Wilson-Prangley, who was born in the United States, said that when she arrived in South Africa 17 years ago she fell in love with the nation’s stories.

“This was shortly after former South African president and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela was released from prison,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of this excitement over what was called the ‘Rainbow Nation’ — a term used to describe the newly established democracy in South Africa, which gave equal rights to people of all cultures, creeds and races … essentially, people of all colors.”

Wanting to share her excitement with the younger generation, she came up with the idea for Play Africa. My Constitution came about as a result of her observations that many children in South Africa didn’t understand their rights guaranteed in the constitution, which became law in 1997.

“I wanted to teach children how to practically voice their rights,” she said.

More than 3,000 children have been taught to speak out about their rights, and Wilson-Prangley’s team has produced a My Constitution package for teachers to use in grades 3 through 6.

The lessons are all about participation. Kids enter a courtroom setting, for example, to learn how to speak as a witness in a trial. Or they will learn to cast their vote in a pretend voting station.

“In one exercise, they write on signs and hold these up so that their voices are clearly stated in bold paint for all to see. This is how others have exercised their rights across the world,” Wilson-Prangley said.

Children come up with powerful issues for the courtroom setting — such as the need for more books in schools and the importance of ending corporal punishment, she said. “They also love the feeling of voting — they take it so seriously — and one of the things that we have noticed is how children get so excited to count the votes at the end of the election!”

Wilson-Prangley said a girl in fifth grade, who had testified in a real court case, was excited when they started the courtroom part of the program. “She pulled our facilitators aside and said, ‘Please can I be the judge? I have been a witness in a case, so I know exactly what to do.’ ”

The program allowed the girl to see herself as a someone who has wisdom and expertise to share.

Play Africa is based in an appropriate part of Johannesburg: Constitution Hill, the hub of South Africa’s democracy.

“The nation’s constitutional court is based here and is made of the bricks of a former prison,” Wilson-Prangley said. “Play Africa is based about 15 [yards] from where Nelson Mandela was [jailed] before trial.”

As a “museum without walls,” Play Africa has about 7,000 square feet of physical exhibits set up at Constitution Hill and in communities, on a rotating basis. These include the children’s rights exhibit, the courtroom, and science-based exhibits.

The material for My Constitution is specific to South Africa, but Wilson-Prangley said she hopes to adapt it for the United States and other countries. “Every democratic nation has its own story of democracy worth protecting.”