The Korea Herald


Making child’s play of life’s work

By Hannah Stuart Leach

Published : July 3, 2011 - 19:44

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Longest-resident British woman reflects on early learning achievements

In February 1969 a young English woman arrived to a barren, snow-laden country, stripped of trees by the ravages of the Korean War and intercepted by narrow and dangerous roads.

Cold and a little nervous, she boarded a rickety bamboo raft which would transport her and her husband-to-be, the future Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Korea, across the sea to his ancestral home on Ganghwa Island.

On their first evening together there, Kim Soung-soo told her that if she wanted to marry him, she must also marry his country.

Now the longest-resident British woman in Korea, Freda Kim lives surrounded by trees and lush vegetation on that same island northwest of Seoul, with half a decade of achievement as pioneer of the “toy library” movement in Korea behind her.

But despite all she has done, the boundaries she has broken, Kim never had wanderlust and plays down her boldness. “I wasn’t born to go overseas. I’m not an adventurous person,” she insisted during an interview with The Korea Herald at her home.

“I’m kind of unconscious of new situations, but when I look back I think ‘God, did I do that, that was really difficult.’ But that helps in a way.”

Aged 78, the mother of two finally has time to relax and reflect on the changes she was too busy to see happening. “It’s (Korea) changed without us noticing, I suppose because we’ve been working. And we’ve been part of the change.”

The couple met and fell in love in Japan, where Kim was working as a missionary at the time. Having spent just two days together they kept in touch through letters after he went home, written in Japanese as it was the only language they shared, and soon decided to start a life together.

Under Anglican Missionary Society rules then, Kim had to give up her work but she felt this was a sacrifice worth making for the young-looking priest. Three months after her first visit, the pair wed in a simple, modest ceremony in Korea ― her new home.

Today, mixed-race relationships remain a source of some curiosity and stigma. But Kim, a British woman married to a Korean man at the end of the ‘60s, said she slipped into her new role without difficulty.

“I didn’t think much about it ... of course you get stared at, but that hasn’t changed.”

In fact Kim, a former university professor and authority on the subject, believes attitudes may not have changed for the better.

“I would say it’s difficult now ... as difficult or more difficult than it was then,” she said, explaining that due to the sheer lack of foreign wives then ― she knew of seven in the Seoul area when she was first married ― it was more a source of intrigue than a problem, which she feels it can be perceived as now.

“We (foreign wives) were, for better or worse, treated as on some kind of elite plain. We were very well-treated. But of course, just generally it was still unusual.”
Freda Kim at her home on Ganghwa Island. (Kim Myung-sup/The Korea Herald) Freda Kim at her home on Ganghwa Island. (Kim Myung-sup/The Korea Herald)

Ultimately, she feels it comes down to the relationship between a husband and a wife ― race is irrelevant if both partners are committed.

“I do think I made a great effort to make the marriage work. I wanted it to work,” she said, adding that although she talks too much, him not enough, they have reached a comfortable point together in maturity.

The role of Archbishop’s wife must have required significant effort, with many engagements, appearances and expectations to be met ― all conducted in a different language and culture. But Kim said that although it was sometimes tiring, she loved working with her husband.

There were many trying times, however: financially, as she came from humble beginnings and her husband’s excess earnings often went to the Church; personally, as she adapted to her new life and raised children as Koreans whilst remaining a British citizen and with her work, which was sometimes met with resistance.

As an outsider, striving for ideals that at times jarred with the conservative nature of the country, in gender equality and multi-cultural relationships but most of all in child development, Kim has often had to battle for what she believes in.

“The thing that has not been so easy is to persuade people in Korea that playing is good,” she said.

“It’s very sad because Korea used to play. People played,” she said, explaining that the shift from an agricultural to an urban society has been the primary reason for this, and not just due to the diminishing availability of safe open spaces.

“People functioned as a family and this is why the play was so good because they were together.

“Now, you have the nuclear family of course, and this real emphasis, I mean hysteria, on education. Every minute of the day the child has to be scheduled. They go from cram schools (academies), from one to the other.

“So the idea of play has become a bad thing, it’s (seen as) a waste of time.”

Kim explained that the consequences of this ― which she said concerns all developed societies, not just Korea ― include delayed language, poor communication skills, and physical weakness and obesity from lack of exercise.

After a study trip to England in 1972 Kim, who had been a teacher in the U.K., was inspired to introduce toy libraries to Korea. One school they visited had a cupboard, supposedly filled with toys but the school declined to show her. Regardless, she liked the practice of using toys rather than books to aid early development.

“It’s a nice concept and I could see that it could be developed. Every toy library in the world starts with somebody’s idea.

“I had this very strong feeling that I was meant to start toy libraries. You know, there are people in the church who say that they felt God called them to be a priest or to be a nun, well, I wouldn’t go as far as to say God called me to make toy libraries but it did become my work here for almost 40 years, so it was very, very strong.”

On her return she began creating Korea’s first toy library, which opened in 1983 at St Peter’s School of the Anglican Church of Korea in Seoul.

After a program for disabled children she had set up ended with the advent of more equipped international schools, she took the opportunity to use the leftover resources.

“I had all this stuff left, and it wasn’t new ― a lot was handmade ― so I converted it into different things that could be lent to any children. We took things apart and made it all into a toy library.

“At that stage it was only 360 toys whereas when we’d finished we’d got 3000, I mean it just grows. But that’s how I started and it was a totally new concept in Korea.”

A testament to Kim’s legacy, around 100 toy libraries (now government-backed) can be found all over the country in schools and educational centers offering services ranging from baby massage to parent counseling.

The success of the initiative led to her and her husband realizing their next vision: a school for disabled children. Huimang School was opened in 2001. Developed from the St. Peter’s play rooms, it blossomed into a comprehensive facility providing therapies and inclusive education.

As president of the International Toy Library Association (she now serves only on the Asia Toy Library Association) she founded World Play Day (May 28), which she is working to encourage the U.N. to adopt. After retiring, she also founded PLAYWAY in 1998, which is a play facility for children aged from birth to 3 years to attend with a parent.

With so much under her belt ― including a Ph.D. from Yonsei University, a series of books and an MBE from Queen Elizabeth for her lifetime’s work with children ― Kim remains passionate about introducing the value of play in early learning and considers the success of toy libraries in Korea her greatest achievement.

And as for her husband’s request, does she feel she really did marry his country?

“I did, absolutely,” she said, with the only hint of her English heritage in her surroundings being a jar of Marmite, a popular British sandwich spread, visible behind her on the work surface.

Although most of her time here she has lived only in Korean society, speaking the native language ― to the extent that she says her English has suffered ― and eating local food, she is able at this stage of her life to reconnect with her British roots.

She visits the U.K. about once every two years as most of her family and friends she has lost contact with or have passed away, but she meets with members of the British Association of Seoul regularly.

“I realized that (a foreigner) can never be Korean ... and that’s okay. But you have to be someone, or otherwise you end up as something rather odd.”

By Hannah Stuart-Leach  (

Freda Kim

• 1953 — Certificate in Education at the University of Leeds, U.K.

• 1961-62 — Missionary training with the Church Missionary Society

• 1978 — MSc in Education at University of Southern California, U.S.A.

• 1983 — Founded Korea’s first toy library

• 1984 — Ph.D. in Education at Yonsei University

• 1984 — Founder of Association for pre-school special education teachers

• 1979-1986 — Part time lecturer in social welfare at Seoul National University, in psychology at St. Michael’s Theological College and in parent
education at Song Shim Women’s University 

• 1989 — Wrote (in Korean) “The Story of Korea’s First Toy Library”

• 1993 — Co-wrote “Children’s Concept of PLAY”

• 1996-2002 — World President of International Toy Library Association

• 1998 — Founded PLAYWAY (play facility for children from birth to 3),
Board member of International Toy Library Association

• 1998-2007 — Chairperson of Korea Toy Library Association

• 1999 — Awarded MBE from Queen Elizabeth for lifetime’s work with children

• 2007 — “My PLAYWAY” book series published