Smart Steps Preschool: Quality at an affordable price


Having children in the preschool age-group, I have spent a good amount of time in high quality high end private preschools  and have blogged about them too – whether it is By the Sea in Mumbai or Gaia in Bangalore … these are spaces which have met my fairly exacting demands of good ECE provision for my kids. Spaces which are for kids and about kids…happy cheerful spaces that recognize children’s needs and work to meet them, spaces that foster interactions and engaged learning and curiosity…Where the environment is truly a teacher who complements and supplements the class teacher(s).

And then, when I walk into low fee private preschool classrooms, I am upset, depressed and angered by the quality of provision I see there. Here are children whose parents work incredibly hard to send them to “English medium, private preschools” …and in all honesty the schools are failing them.  I don’t want to attribute blame or point fingers…the parents understanding of good learning is based on their understanding (or lack) of what good education is. They want their children to be writing and bringing home pages of homework, they want them to recite inane nursery rhymes and be regularly assessed at school. The low fee schools feel they cannot access fancier products and services at the price point they are able to afford, they struggle to hire good quality teachers or find an appropriate space…

And yet the reality of the low fee private schools is depressing. Small cramped classrooms housed in small cramped buildings, preschool classrooms with rows of long wooden benches seating an inordinately large number of children squashed against each other. The paint peeling, the floor grimy, an occasional nail sticking out somewhere. The walls are bare or have numbers and alphabets and maybe a clock. There is no space to move and 3, 4 and 5 year olds are sitting and copying mindlessly from a blackboard or repeating everything the teacher says. An occasional smack or “tap” with a long wooden ruler helps with discipline (I am serious).  There are pockets of happy activities – saying Jack and Jill in a loud voice with strange actions and even stranger punctuation, going for lunch or play time (if any).

And somewhere one wonders whether it is the affordability that is taking so much away from quality. I know the fancy schools my children go to charge a whole lot more and have so much more access to materials and resources. Does one really need that much to access quality. Does quality always need to mean expensive? I have seen models work with less albeit in the non-profit sector. Could it also work in a low fee private school?

A visit to Smart Steps (an initiative by Pratham) with Smitin Brid helped answer this question and I walked out of there feeling a lot happier. I was a little apprehensive when I first approached one of their centers for a visit. The space looked similar to a typical low fee private school from the outside. But stepping in through the gate, I already began to see the difference. For one, it was clean- of course that matters…how can we imagine creating a nurturing environment for kids minds of we don’t bother with even the basics of safety before that. If you care enough about the child’s well-being and safety, it will be reflected right away in the set up.

I spent some time in 2 Smart Steps schools / centers. Both were clean, safe, cheerfully painted and had a lot of teaching and learning material available and accessible. The material wasn’t fancy or expensive. There were different types of building blocks and connectors, jigsaw puzzles, beads, a book library to name a few. It was a refreshing change to see free play set up and also watch the interactions teachers were trying to have with their children.  Usually teacher student interactions are very transactional in nature and this was a move away from that.

The children seemed happy and confident. The teachers used materials of different kids during activities – so during story time, the teacher read the story from a book and also had stick puppets to go with it. She also encouraged the children to try the stick puppets and was perfectly calm when a child accidentally managed to tear the puppet.

I saw children being given strategies to deal with conflict and teachers would model those when required.

The teachers used a bilingual approach and ensured that the children were comfortable and happy to be in school. Which they were – in their cheerful uniforms, colorful bags and enthusiastic conversations to match they certainly painted a happy picture.

Sure there are still gaps to address – working on an ongoing basic to support them and help them hone their skills, to scaffold their learning, to make them better facilitators – but it is a start in the right direction…a start that shows that quality need not come at a high cost. These centers charge between 300 and 2000 a month depending on location and size and are actually able to bring a lot of learning and experiences to their children!

It was heartening to walk into the Smart Step schools and I was more than pleasantly surprised. You can find out more about them and their work on:

process based art


I have recently found myself in an array of preschools across the country…on a spectrum of affordability and quality. With a few (very few) exceptions, through all the differences of socio-economic backgrounds, space, resources and quality, one feature remained alarmingly constant. Creative art …or rather, the lack thereof. Most preschool classrooms I walked into had cookie cutter art (if at all). 40 similar looking cats stared down at me in one class from the display wall, 35 identical paper plate faces dangled from a string running across the classroom. Green trees with brown barks and red flowers with green stems stood predictably next to square houses with triangular roofs with chimneys (certainly not something a Bombay kid sees outside on the streets). And I am sure next will have diyas with golden cut out paper flames adorning the walls. The work is measured, dictated as a task, the lines too neat to be cut by children, the vision too narrow to have come from a preschoolers imagination.  Where was rthe art of self expression? The splash of color as a child discovers how his brush can glide across a paper? Where are the bold strokes of an artist just finding himself, the smudges as he erases and tries again? Where are the polka dotted tigers and the men with three eyes? Why does art have to end up as a product to be displayed neatly on the wall?

I got talking about this with a friend who has a toddler of her own and she sheepishly admitted that she was guilty of the same thing at home.  Sitting down with her toddler to paint, she wanted something to show for it, something that looked pretty, something that could go onto Facebook or Instagram or the wall. A paper bruised and tearing with watery paint did not make the cut even if the child labored over it. And a crookedly cut greeting card with jagged edges and part of the painting cut off could not be sent to a doting aunt. And so it is that we forget the reason for children doing art and focus on what the adult gets out of it…a product.

I keep saying this on my blog and to people who care to listen…art is a process…there are no samples or instructions for the child to follow – it is an opportunity for toddlers and preschoolers to experiment with materials and media…to watch the ‘magic’ as blue and yellow merge to make green.

There are no mistakes and nothing an adult needs to correct or change. The art is an experience the child chooses and owns.  There is no “color quickly, color within the lines” or “use the correct colors”.

And while it may look like “nothing” it is something the child has created on her own. Process based art helps children relax and enjoy art, it allows them to express themselves and not feel judged.  They move from whole arm movement to finer motor skills as their muscles get ready to do more complex work.  And eventually you will get your masterpiece…but while you wait, allow them to enjoy their million masterpieces – for each one holds meaning of some kind, and even if it does not, it is a free and joyful expression that builds confidence, motor skills, creative thinking and a lot more!

How can you  facilitate process based art at home?

  1. Have materials accessible: paint, markers, crayons, color pencils, stamps, paints, sequins, glue, play dough or clay, collage materials.
  2. Keep a large plastic sheet or old shower curtain handy to spread on the floor for art – protects the carpets and floors and simplifies cleanup
  3. Set up an easel. If that is not possible use tape to put papers up on a plastic cupboard or glass door – painting vertically is important for kids this age.
  4. Allow the child to explore and discover different media
  5. enjoy the process – keep it about the process and not the product




Odd and even

Odd and even

Amu our youngest boy, soon to be four in a few months, loves numbers…counting forwards and backwards, attempting his brothers word problems and making up ones of his own, he generally seems happy in the world of numbers. This morning I set up the felt board for him and gave him felt numbers to play with. He neatly arranged them from 0 – 10. This was actually a great start for our activity. I then gave him colored tokens and asked him to represent the numbers using tokens (under each felt number). As he started out, I requested him to put the token in pairs. He quickly announced that there would be nothing under zero and moved on to 1 and 2 and so on till 10. Soon each number had pairs of tokens lined up below it in two neat columns.
Amu surveyed his work with a sense of pride. Now I gave him a bunch of big black and white buttons. I asked him to put a black button above every number where a token did not have a pair, and a black button where every token had a pair.
And so we started…white above 1, black above 2. I helped him get started and after he caught on and started putting the buttons all the way to 10.
When he was done, I asked him to look at the black and white buttons and tell me if there was a pattern that he could find. He was quick to say “YES!!!! White, black, white, black, white, black”
So then we looked at the numbers, tokens and buttons and established that 2, 4, 6, 8 and 10 all had tokens with pairs while 1, 3, 5, 7 and 9 did not. Now, taking it a step forward, I asked him what came after 10. “11” he answered promptly.
“So”, I said, “if you continue this pattern, what color button would you get on 11?”
“White” was the answer.
Me: And then, do you think all the tokens under 11 would have a pair?
Amu: Nope!
Me: What about 12?
Amu: That would be a black button…so yes it would have a pair.
That was our mini-lesson to introduce the concept of odd and even. We did not get into the terms at all…this was just a starting point for further discoveries. For a few days I will simply set the felt mat out for him with the numbers and tokens and let him continue this journey before taking it further.
This took all of 10 minutes and was fun for both of us. Amu wants the felt board counting when he gets back from school too!

Mirror mirror on the wall


There is something magical about mirrors and little kids. It’s not the vanity of a pouting lady putting on lipstick or a well buffed dude surveying his six pack. It is an innocent and curious discovery of self…a peek at oneself from the outside…a world of exploration that exists for preschoolers and little ones that is fascinating to watch.

Which is why it has always been important for me to have a full size mirror accessible to the boys.

Amu provides us with endless entertainment in front of the mirror on his book cupboard. If one were to peek into the room when he is busy at play, chances are you will spot him making faces at himself in the mirror, or turning himself this way and that to see if he can get a look at his own back.

Today was one such evening. I walked into the room to see him wearing tons and tons of glittering beads and posing away, checking himself out and even kissing his reflection. The expressions were classic!

After a while (thankfully) he moved away from himself and the mirror and spent the next half our decking up his trucks with the beads and having long imaginary conversations! The beads were cords, chains, treads, decoration as he wove his story around them and the trucks.

Mirrors are an important part of the environment for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. They help children develop a concept of self, a construction of one’s own image. They are a great tool for perception too and provide an array of exciting exploratory experiences for children. Mirrors can easily become a center for fantasy play, inquiry, discovery and experimentation! In fact mirrors are an important part of the Reggio environment!

Please don’t tell my child ‘how’ to draw


You know that beautiful beautiful poem called the Hundred Languages of Children? What the Reggio Emilia approach is based on?
About how the child has a hundred languages…a hundred ways of expressing, of being, of looking at the world? And how the school and culture take away ninety nine?

That poem always touches a chord in me…and today as i looked at a couple of “worksheets” in my 5 year old son’s bag, saw the corrections marks on it, his lopsided scrawled words underlined with a bold pen, “aided work” as a comment next to another that labelled him as a slow and hesitant reader, i teared up, thinking how this was already starting to happen. They were taking away the 99..I saw how a picture he had drawn of himself had been reshaped with a pen, detail added in, legs where they should be and hair on the head. There was a prescribed way of being, of writing, reading and seeing. And that was all that mattered here.

This child has just moved cities. He has watched his home disappear into boxes, he has said bye to his friends, his neighbours and teachers…even to the park and his favorite frangipani tree. He has changed homes and schools and not even had the time to settle down or make friends. He has started the in the middle of a term in a school so different from the one he has been in and I find these comments and remarks on his sheets. There are instructions for me to work with him on reading and better writing..sure, all that i can do if i really must. But please, can you let his drawing be? Please don’t tell him to look at the world through your eyes. Ff his person has crooked legs, let that be. he may need to work some more on his motor skills but allow him to express himself as he is able to. And whatever you do, remember he is fragile…do not damage his self esteem. I want him to grow up to be a good human being, comfortable with himself and happy.

Home to house


Just like that…a few hours and a few paintings off the wall and our home starts to transform into a house. it sinks in..we are moving..and what we have been planning and discussing for so long suddenly seems real..right now…it’s happening. This is what it looks like.

Sure, we’ve moved before. But every time it is a different experience. Each place becomes a part of us and it is not easy to just leave it all and move on. And yet we manage. With as simple an action as taking a much loved painting off a wall. The painting that caught the sun’s rays in the morning and cast a warmish orange glow onto the bench below it. The rosewood bench with cane seating that took up that warmish glow and invited me to sit down for another cuppa warm ginger tea.

And the boys with their ‘nice’ and ‘marie’ and ‘parle g’ biscuits, waiting to dip into my tea and drop half the soggy biscuits into it.

The walls look so bare today and our stuff is beginning to occupy the floor of a couple of rooms in neat segregated piles for convenient packing. The art supplies sit perfectly placed in two large plastic tubs, the art papers in envelopes…the kids art is off the walls too…their tell tale fingerprint smudges are being wiped off with soap and sponges like they never were here…like they did not belong.

I sigh as i pluck each glow in the dark star off the wall, thinking of the many nights of excitement when the boys would wait for the lights in the room to go off and the stars would start shining. I watch as the painter quickly plucks the mirrors and sequins off the wall in our reading corner. The turquoise blue tree we had painted there, with brightly colored leaves and funky plumed birds is scraped off and painted over in half an hour and the reading corner makes way for just another corner by a window. Shel Silverstein’s poem ‘Listen to the musn’ts’ that is painted under the tree resists the makeover and the lines peer out faintly from under a hastily applied coat of paint. But i am sure they will disappear tomorrow when the painter comes back.

The boys watch, a little worried, as I create a pile of things to give away – things i feel they are ready to outgrow – but they don’t seem as sure, and every now and then a random baby toy is quickly pulled back from the ‘give-away’ pile. They check and double check that all their books and their lego are making the trip with us and I try to assure them as best as i can. It is less about the object and more about the stories that they hold…even the smudges on the wall have a story to tell and i try to remember them before they get erased and deleted.

I know that we will move into a house and soon it will turn into a home as well…as we put parts of ourselves into it, a painting here, a piece of furniture against a wall, a corner that we will cuddle into to read our favorite books…but a part of us will be left here and a part of this house will forever be a part of our memories and selves.

This home has been wonderful for us..we have loved every part of it and it has loved us back!

Gaia: A school that we will truly miss


Today was the boys’ last day at school…

I still remember when we had moved to Bangalore two years ago and started scouting for a school. We had the bar set very high…after their preschool in Mumbai, we wanted something that would be similar…a place where they could be themselves, where they could be children, discover joy in simple things…a school that was uncomplicated and offered them a chance to discover themselves. it wasn’t easy but after a lot of thinking we decided on Gaia…a small stand alone preschool in RT Nagar, Bangalore. We fell in love the premises when we first walked in with the boys. The gate opened and we stepped into a lovely garden compound with fruit trees, birds, a nice play area, a sandpit, jungle gyms and other cool stuff to climb. There were tyres for children to walk and balance on, a trampoline, a little tree house and a puppet house too.

The classrooms all connected to each other in a lovely house – something i loved straightaway. But yet i was worried…Would the teachers be good? Would they take the time to understand the boys? Would they allow them to learn at their own pace and find themselves in the process? Or would they be swallowed up in the rut of rote learning and piles of homework? Would the teachers compare the twins? Would they judge them or misunderstand them? Would they provide them with the stimulus they were so used to getting at By The Sea? Of course I was worried…who does not want the best for their kids?

And now, two years later, as we get ready to move once again, I cannot thank our stars enough that we discovered Gaia when we did. It met all I wanted it to and more…the children have loved every day there and every person…and have been loved back too. They have spent time watching ants and hammering nails and observing birds and climbing all over the place. They have come home every day with sand in their hair and mud on their feet, with seeds in their pockets and so many stories. They have read so many books, played games and heard songs…they have started to read and write and understand numbers too. They have made friends and memories!

Their teachers have loved hem for who they are, they have washed away boo-boos and comforted them on days when i was traveling and they were low…they have gotten to know my boys for who they are and accepted them for that. They have been open to feedback and always ready to learn from around them.

Every child knows the other, every teacher knows every child and all three of my boys are comfortable with all the adults in the school. The person who runs the school is an incredibly wonderful lady and my boys love her to bits. Sid enjoys sitting down and chatting with her, pulling her leg and running off with her hairclip – and he knows she does not judge him badly for that – for she does not look at it as indiscipline but just a child’s fun way of connecting with her.

Thank you Team Gaia for making the last two years so wonderful, magical and full of love and care for my three boys. We are really really going to miss you! Gaia is such an important integral part of our life in Bangalore…a part that made our stay here even more special!

Working with tantrums…the boys’ and my own


We all have had those mad bad days…a day when a kid has been whiny, annoying, bent on rebelling, bent on fighting and messing things up for you or his siblings…and days when you are stressed and stretched with deadlines to meet and your patience has worn thin. There is something on the kitchen stove, you are at your computer getting a presentation done, and the kids are not doing a single thing you requested them to…And then something snaps and you have one of those evil parent moments you would rather forget. You snap, yell, say something mean, ground the kid or take away something he likes, and something else too because you are on a roll… and threaten to not read any books at bedtime. And then he yells back and runs off to his room while you storm off to yours wondering what had just happened.

Happens to a lot of us…it does…and we are human and allowed to lose it sometimes. But what is more important, now having realized that this really wasn’t how we wanted to deal with things, is what we do after this whole tantrum and meltdown.

Calm down: First of all, calm down, cool off. For some of us that is quick, for some it takes longer. But it is important to give ourselves a little time to simmer down and feel calm. (a follow up conversation when one is mad is probably going to go the same way..again). So finish your work, or take a deep breath, or a walk or shower, or whatever it is that relaxed you.

Reach out: Once you are feeling calmer, go find your kid. He may be upset too and may not want to come running to you and hug you just because you feel ready. Tell him you would like to talk to him. Tell him you are sorry for reacting how you did…explain to him why you got upset and why you are feeling bad for the way you behaved. Do not justify your behavior – it was not the best! Do not defend your actions – simply express what you feel went wrong and how you feel about the way you acted.

Ask your child to talk to you. Ask him how is feeling. Ask him if he felt bad or sad or scared when you got upset. And be okay with his response. He needs to be able to tell you what he felt even though you may not like it. My three year old told me he thought i was an angry mama T-Rex and that he was scared of me. And that I was bad bad bad! It’s fine. Not very flattering but that is probably what I made him feel.

Use his response to apologize again – for the things that you said and the things that he felt. If he does not talk or express himself, then you put down what you felt was wrong and apologize for it anyway.

Give him a hug or a kiss or a cuddle. Communicate that you love him and love him unconditionally, even when you are angry or mad about something. And tell him that mommy makes mistakes too. And then, figure out on your own or with your kids a strategy to ensure that this does not happen again. I have asked mine to tell me when they see me getting upset or building myself into a bit of a frenzy. Just one of them piping in to say “mom – you are getting too upset” or “mom, calm down” helps me stop and rethink my actions. And for myself, somewhere I need to also work out a strategy to slow down when I see myself starting to get upset.

It might help to write down a simple strategy in bold where we can see it regularly – because this will help our kids think about their own behavior too. And perhaps reflect on it every now and then both on my own and together with the kids so we know how we are doing.

(this thought process stems from my meltdown this morning with one of the kids and I really felt like vocalizing it and my thinking would help me as well as others who may be struggling with something similar. WOuld love to hear from other mommies on how to deal with meltdown moments!)

Letter to a teacher


As my boys are getting bigger and now starting big school, i look at them with pride and some trepidation. So much is about to change for them and so quickly. They are going to move from a very informally structured preschool that focused so much on play and interactions and conversations and discoveries to a more structured school that marks the end of the preschool era for them. As they start kindergarten, i worry about how they will cope, how they will perceive this new world around them.

For they have been brought up a little differently. They have barely watched TV, we have no toy guns or swords at home, they have spent hours with cardboard cartons and paints and beads and glitter. We have read and reread a zillion book, spent hours listening to and making music. We have celebrated them for the individuals they are for they are very very different…and that is exactly what worries me as they start formal school. While one of the twins is more conformist to what one would expect in a classroom, the other is a free spirit…for him relationships are really important and he wears his heart on his sleeve. He is naughty, always has a twinkle in his eye and loves to tease. He can think laterally, draw connections, remember all kinds of details about people and places. He takes time to settle down and prefers being asked to being told. As he starts this big journey, a part of me wants to hold him close and protect him for he is incredibly sensitive…and yet i know i need to let him go, because he will find his feet and his own.

Here is a letter I have put down, which is just to put my feelings down:

Note to my child’s teacher

I am entrusting you with something incredibly precious – my child.
He is a free spirit and loves to learn. He has a hundred questions, about the wind and stars and trees and birds and waves and people. He does not ask them to annoy you but because he wants to learn. He loves to touch things, feel them, hold them, smell them, try to turn them upside down or open them to see how they work. He is not being badly behaved or destructive, simply curious about the way the world around him works. He forms close bonds with people and sometimes takes time to settle down … he is not being difficult, simply taking his time for something he knows is important. You can’t hold the wind in your hand or wave in the sand…my boy’s spirit is like that, it aches to roam free. But that does not mean he cannot be still for even the ocean is sometimes calm and the breeze pauses till the air is so still. Let him appropriate and understand what he is doing and he can be focused and calm, content to work on mastering a task. He is a thinker and a person who loves others, who gives of himself more freely that most others. Focus on that side of him that smiles and shares and you will see his other sides blossom too. Don’t compare him to his brother or neighbor who may listen better or do his sums faster. It hurts him and though he does not show it I share his pain when I look at his eyes that reflect the hurt deep within. He is easy to misunderstand if you don’t slow down and take the time to see what he has to offer. Because he is not willing to sit in the box you may want him to.  Don’t label him because you don’t understand him and labels stick much more than you might want them to. Believe in him and he will show you that you were right in doing so. Just because he fidgets does not mean he isn’t listening, just because he not raising his hand all the time does not mean he does not know…he may not feel the need to demonstrate his learning right there just when you want it. I know you feel it is important for him to conform, to do things exactly when you feel he should be doing them, for I understand that as a teacher you have the whole class to manage, to take along with you on this wonderful journey and you don’t want to leave anyone behind. But please make sure that the journey does not imprison this bird or cut his wings, allow him to be the child he is, allow him his speed to learn, his curiosity, his wonder at the world, his slightly messy scribbles, his funny ways of showing affection.  The world is full of high achieving competitive people, the world has so much mistrust and hate and war. I think we need more free spirits who can stand up to wrongs, who can take their time to be happy, who can take the time to hug another or share a cookie.

I am entrusting you with something extremely precious…my child…IMG_8172

Ish by Peter Reynolds


We already had a book by Peter Reynolds – and it is a much loved book in our home – The Dot…which i may have blogged about earlier…about a girl who thought she could not draw and how just a really simple thoughtful interaction with her teacher changed all that…

I came across another book by Reynolds last week when I swung by my favorite bookstore in Bangalore (The Lightroom Bookstore) – Ish.

Intrigued by the title and encouraged by the author, I picked up the book and started to go through it. As I started reading, I could almost picture one of my twins being like the protagonist – Ramon. Here was a boy who liked to draw…Anywhere, anything, anytime…and just a simple thoughtless comment by his older brother makes him question his ability to draw. And so begins a journey of fail.ed attempts and frustration, as each work of art is crumpled up and thrown on the floor because it does not look like what it is supposed to. Suddenly, for Ramon, art is no longer a fun thing and he cannot stand his own own drawings. But there is someone else who has a different lens, someone who loves what Ramon does and sees value in his art. His younger sister Marisol, who quietly picks up the crumpled art to put up in her room. And it is little Marisol who looks at his attempt at a vase and tells him that it is actually ‘vase-ish’! ANd so it is! And as Ramon drops his need for perfect representation, making peace with the ‘ishness’ of his drawings, he lets himself go and starts painting again.

This reminded me so much of one of my twins – who loves to color, but often nowadays lokst at his brothers art and finds his own not quite ‘there’. He tends to get upset and feels like his drawings are not good. At times he winds himself up over this, getting more and more upset if his drawing does not come out ‘right’ and of late I have noticed a hesitation to try to draw something that he feels might be difficult. And so i thought maybe recognizing that ‘ish’ drawings are fun as well, and it is his representation that matters not the perfect image as one would conventionally have it – would help him. I told him that I thought of him when i saw the book but I did not tell him why. However when we were done reading it, he looked at me and said “i know why you thought of me!”

I don’t think that just reading the book is going to help. We will need to work on him and his confidence at various levels. Having twin boys who are so radically different is so many ways is fun, but also challenging..because more often than not, they master different things at different paces, and in our society, unfortunately, academics or lovely art is looked at with more admiration than hanging upside down or turning a somersault (which requires skill, practice, calculated risk taking, etc).

Anyway, as a follow up to our reading, we did a little art where the boys decorated a brown paper envelope to put a gift in for a friend. And the art was lovely…and Sid tried too and produced something pretty gorgeous – which I am sure has helped him feel at least a litle better about his art! This art is inspired by the book Cave Baby by Julia Donaldson – a book the boys used to love and one that their friend now has has his favorite. The first pic is Sid’s version of a fun tiger and the second pic is Nish’s interpretation of woolly mammoth frolicking in the paint!