And it all comes together…

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In a lot of earlier blogposts, i have stressed on how, for me, the process is more important than the product. Whenever we set up things for the kids to do, I try to keep the focus on the process…the thinking involved, the experimentation, allowing kids to try things out, ask questions, work at a pace and in a manner that they are comfortable with (and as long as they respect their siblings who are also engaged in the activity).

These past few weeks have been rewarding for me, in that I am seeing how the focus on the process has culminated in my kids taking ownership of their work, enjoying the process and demanding more.

We tend to do a lot of art at home. Every day sees us dabbling with paints or crayons or markers or another medium. I usually set stuff up and let the kids be. While Nish always has been into drawing that tries to represent specific forms (he started out with a car when he was about 2 – a curved line with 4 wheels under it) Sid has been more of a scribbler. He has always steered clear of form, preferring instead to do broad, dark strokes on the paper, and if it is paint then on his body – generally his canvas of choice. He went went through a phase of not doing art at all (or very little of it) after a trainee teacher at his school openly remarked that his art was not the greatest (kaccha puccha – or half baked if you please).

However, i continued to put stuff out for him, not forcing him but asking him to make a card, or color something for me. I rarely praised it with a simple – wow that looks great…instead, i asked him to describe what he was doing, what he was thinking of and it became a great opportunity for a dialogue that involved very creative thinking and verbal expression.

The past month, he has been regularly asking for paper and crayons and likes to spend time drawing and coloring. He finishes and proudly comes up with his work. Sometimes it still looks like scribbles, but sometimes (more often than not) there is little ambiguity about the crux of his art. And he continues to have a narrative with every piece! Today he spent close to an hour making multiple pictures for different people, including a mixed media project with sequins.

Amu, not to be left behind, spent an equally large chunk of time sticking mirrors and small sequins to make bright circles on a paper.

Similarly with music…all that singing and listening to music has now suddenly led to bursts of spontaneous singing by the kids – ranging from old hindi numbers to the carpenters to new hindi movie songs. Amu loves pretending to sing into a mike as does Sid.

It feels nice…satisfying to see that it helps to believe that this approach does work…that you don’t need every one to be in boxes doing the same thing at the same time whether they want to or can.  Now can some of our preschools recognize this and start thinking about what this means to their classrooms?

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many a slip twixt cup and lip

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The title of the post pretty much sums up what i observed in one of the early childhood centers i visited earlier this week.  The center, a part of a larger chain of preschools, boasts of a standard curriculum that has been tested. it claims to draw from various philosophies and pedagogies…talks about the importance of focusing on the child, keeping a good child-teacher ratio…the coordinator at the center definitely spoke the talk, used the right terms and displayed a fairly good understanding of early childhood, developmental benchmarks and appropriate practice, the need for the right kind of program etc.

The center was well set up. There was enough space, the furniture was child friendly, the class had a ton of displays on the walls, there were 2 teachers per class and each of them had a maximum of 4 kids (per teacher).

And yet, somewhere between the very wonderful ed-speak, the seemingly well thought through setup and the actual implementation and delivery there seemed to be a deep incomprehensible chasm.

The class functioned entirely on rote learning, constant repetition of every piece of information. The children had absolutely no opportunity to talk or respond, let alone to process or question. The group i was with were all 3 yr old and throughout the session the only movement i found them allowed to do was a trip to the washroom before and after lunch.

There was no art, no craft, no work with gross motor skills. There was a decent and well equipped play space outside but i was told that they got to use it only twice a week. The remaining days were for “music and movement” which as my observation showed translated into everyone sitting in their places and listening to two teachers singing (droning monotonously) repeating everything twice. That was certainly not music and there was absolutely no movement.

Surprisingly even lunch was an extremely quiet affair. The kids barely tried to interact. If they did they were asked to be quiet and quickly finish their food.

They did writing (yes- at age 3) using chalk and a slate. The teacher basically held each child’s hand and had him write alphabets.

I walked out depressed…i was clearly part of a system that is failing our kids…badly. I agree that most of the population cannot access resource rich school because of financial considerations, i recognize that the gaps are huge, the road looks and is bumpy, that there is so much work to do to prepare the child for grade school. Yet, the only thing i see us doing is completely stealing their childhood, depriving them of the right and the ability to think, process, assimilate and grow. The industrial revolution has come and gone and we are still struggling with the aftermath…struggling so much that we see this approach as the only way to help our kids!?

And I feel that the system, the parents..we are all to blame. I see parents pushing kids into classes, parents demanding teachers to get their 3-4 year olds to do formal writing … i see preschools not thinking twice about their fancy philosophies and pedagogies and they do rapid turnarounds to have children start reading and writing as early as they possibly can…even if that means holding their little fingers and forcing them to do it. Plato would shudder, Rousseau too…and i am certain that Dewey, Montessori, J.Krishnamurthy (who everyone is happy to call their inspirations) would be aghast at what their philosophies not look like. Reggio Emilia is an approach – not just a room called an atelier, there is much more to Montessori than the learning aids..and don’t even get me started on project based learning, inquiry or experiential learning.

It’s time for us to take a step back…all of us – parents, teachers, school leaders, educators and policy makers…what do we really want for our children? Because it really fails to make sense right now. And it all starts in the early childhood years…that’s the crucial foundation. Let’s give ourselves and our kids a chance. Let’s allow them to be kids while we are at it. And let us make ourselves and the system accountable to our children – we need to recognize and demand much better and more meaningful early childhood care and education…because we can make that change if we really want to. DSC02670

Sad and happy biscuits

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My boys love Oreos…the whole opn them, lick them, dunk them in milk routine is something they totally enjoy. The last time we were with my in-laws for a holiday, my father in law picked up a local variant of the Oreo cookie – something called Happy Happy. (very similar in concept, looks and taste to the Oreo…only difference being the design on the outside of the cookies).
The boys like Happy Happy too and so when i recently picked up cookies i got a packet of Happy Happy with the Oreos.
The three boys came home from school and I gave them the Happy happy with their glass of milk. Amu looked at the biscuit and turned to me and said “I want sad happy please…not this one” It took me a minute to realize that he meant he wanted the original oreos and not the local take on it :)

The importance of free play in early childhood

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I have been spending time visiting preschools and thinking about / talking about preschools…observing schools, debriefing, thinking about the different factors that go into making a preschool a center for good quality early childhood care and education.

One of the factors that i find really really important but seem to see a frighteningly less proportion of is free play. Play is such an integral part of (early) childhood…an organic and experiential learning experience that is by nature tailor made, learner specific, continuous and ongoing…one that places significant agency in the hands of the learner and in all honesty, not so complicated to set up! And yet, there seems to be a significant dearth of free play time in a lot of preschools around us today. (my context for observations is more urban india – specific to larger metros where I have had some opportunity to observe classrooms looking at a range of populations…also, this is just my reaction to the few that i have seen. on no way does this conversation mean that free play does not exist in preschools – but more that i seem to be observing very few instances of it).

Play has been such a pivotal and important part of learning …whether it has been Plato’s observation of young children as unable to be still; in the Republic he recommends replacing enforced learning with lessons in the form of play, or Rousseau in Emile where he stresses the importance of play as a means to develop the senses:
‘Let all the lessons of young children take the form of doing rather than talking, let them learn nothing from books that they can learn from experience’ (Rousseau 1762/1963: 101).

Which takes us to the concept of Free play:
Free play is described by Play England as:
… children choosing what they want to do, how they want to do it and when to stop and try something else. Free play has no external goals set by adults and has no adult imposed
curriculum. Although adults usually provide the space and resources for free play and might be involved, the child takes the lead and the adults respond to cues from the child. (http://www.playengland.org.uk/media/120426/free-play-in-early-childhood.pdf)

Ideally, every preschool classroom should have at least a third of the day set up for free play – thereby providing children the opportunity to engage with each other and materials of their choice, to hone their skills, to practice a task…to assimilate their learning and accommodate new phenomenon into their schemas of understanding. It provides them with space for real, natural conversations, turn taking, understanding and sharing perspectives, working independently, in pairs or groups. It allows them to experiment, to question things and try out theories in a safe manner. It is their quest for learning that they set for themselves. they learn from themselves, the environment and each other, scaffolding each other as they participate in play.

One of the preschools i visited does the free play set up beautifully. I was at By the Sea last week and had a chance to be a fly on the wall for the day (and it was indeed an enriching experience so i was one lucky fly). The first hour was set up for free play. The centers and areas were set up well before the kids came in. Kids walked in, greeted the teachers and put away their bags. Then looking around they slowly (or very quickly) gravitated towards activities of their choice. Here is what was set up for the day:
1. water play – a water play table with inviting purple colored water. There were plastic bottles and cups (all reused/upcycled) to pour, transfer, etc
2. Sand pit with a few sand toys
3. Trikes and scooters
4. Swings (part of infrastructure)
5. Jungle gym for climbing (part of infrastructure)
6. Wooden board with papers and 3 bowls of paint with brushes
7. puzzles
8. blocks
9. A guided art/craft activity
10. Home corner – with hats, coats, dress up clothes, dolls, kitchen toys, baskets, etc.

The place was abuzz and pretty much every single child was engaged in something or the other. There were kids playing by themselves with a dollhouse or in the sandpit, a group of children busy with the home corner with elaborate conversations in progress. Two girls made detailed shopping lists and planned out their day with their “babies” while another boy played at being a ‘policeman’.

Kids whizzed around on their trikes and scooters, while others chose to work on making structures with the large wooden blocks laid out.

It was a busy busy hour but honestly, it was simply incredible to see the amount of learning and processing going on. I could hear the minds whirring, imaginations stretching, scientists testing theories, artists creating and discussing, and children being children and learning in a manner that was like second nature to them.

The teachers were there – around but taking a back seat, allowing the learning to happen as organically as it could. They stepped in when there was a conflict, to model behavior, to help when it was really really required..but this was more about the child and his space and ownership of learning.

Take away the fact that this was a more ‘privileged’ preschool…and look more closely at the philosophy at play. This is something that can be so easily replicated in so many preschools. The materials do not need to be fancy or expensive. The focus needs to be on the child, and he needs to be given the space and materials to truly develop and learn.
Changing larger curriculum structures and bad early childhood education will take time (3 yr olds writing, rote learning and memorization, teaching for school interviews amongst a ton of other things) but maybe play is a good place to start improving the very first exposure our little ones (and future generations) have to formal school!

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Music and movement…and a lot of fun!

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Kids in general are action oriented…they love moving, shaking, dancing to music…they enjoy fingerplays and action songs and use their bodies without inhibitions in such creative ways.
Music helps children develop in a variety of ways…language and communication, self expression, imagination, pre-math skills through rhythms…it help develop concepts, evolve language…it is a fun, safe and natural form of self expression. Children enjoy music and movement and that ties so closely to their language development as well (Linda Carol Edwards).

I have been thinking about music and movement with preschoolers …. more because in recent classroom observations I found a very basic minimal use of music and this bothered me. And since it was on my mind i thought about getting my boys to interact a little differently with music just for fun and to see how it could also be used in a classroom. we do a lot of singing at home but i wanted to try something else today.

When they got back from school today i asked them to sit down on the floor and close their eyes. They obliged. Then, i talked to them about imagining that they were in a forest with the wind blowing through the trees, the leaves rustling, butterflies flitting about, birds chirping and different animals sitting or moving around. I asked them to choose to be something in the forest…a plant, a bird..whatever they felt like being. Then i put on some nice instrumental music (i used Kenny G). It was really wonderful to watch them…Sid became a tree and Nish decided to be a spotted hyena. Amu was just amu…running around to the music! The tree soon became a baby hyena and the two hyena boys crept through the forest doing a most rhythmic and graceful frolicky chase to the music.
For the next song we mirrored each other and for the third song each person came to the center and danced while the other three watched him/her (this was Sid’s idea). we danced slowly, fast, shaing a lot, swaying gently, gliding, jumping, sitting, rolling…exploring space, rhythm, force and emotions through the music and our actions…this activity lasted for a little over 30 minutes and we all had a lovely time.

Something one can do in a preschool classroom quite easily…it required very little set up, was not very noisy and taught the boys to listen, appreciate, express themselves creatively. They also had to respect each others space in the process and learn to wathc and observe each other and learn from that.

The boys enjoyed it…and i did too! Will be doing more stuff with music and movement and will keep you posted!

A mermaid, some shells and a whole lot of questions

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We were at a friend’s place for dinner last week. Her daughter’s room is done up in an underwater theme…manta rays and octopuses and shells and …a big life size mermaid on the wall behind her bed. The twins have always been most fascinated with the room and love to ask K (my friend’s daughter) about the different fish on the wall.

Last week however, they were more interested in the mermaid. Sid stared at her for a bit and then placing his palms on his chest he looked at K and asked…”Why does she have those shells on her chest?” (His hands on his chest indicated exactly what he was asking…no room for any doubt). K’s jaw dropped as she racked her brains for how best to address that question. But Nish jumped in promptly “That is her bra!”
Sid: But there are no strings or straps. How can it stay there like that without anything holding it?
Nish: I’m telling you it’s a bra
By now K was looking at me for some help. I kept a straight face and told Sid that it was probably a fancy bra with transparent straps that were camouflaged in the picture. He fortunately seemed quite satisfied with that answer and so we moved on to other pieces of perhaps less interesting conversations :)

Fossil Cookies…yummy recipe!

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Cars, trucks, constructions toys and now Dinosaurs…the current thing my boys seem to be into. As we were reading about dinosaurs last month we came across a whole section on fossils and that was another thing that caught the twins’ fancy.

So, i decided to make hem fossil cookies. We played with some playdough and they loved putting their plastic bugs on it to make ‘fossils’. taking this one stwp further i googled for fossil cookie recipes and came across a really nice one by Martha Stewart:
http://www.marthastewart.com/345396/fossil-cookies

They were pretty simple to make (the only part that really took a little time was toasting the walnuts in a pan and then putting them into a mixie to get a powder. But that walnut meal packed a lot of taste and texture into the cookies and generally made them more nutritious for the boys as well. The recipe is on the Martha Stewart site of you just click on the link.

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making the most of cardboard cartons

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we had 3 cardboard cartons (all intact) at our place last month (it just so happened that we had 3..which was indeed lucky)…i asked the boys if they would like to make something with the boxes. I sat with Sid and Nish, my four yr old twins, and we checked out options on pinterest…naturally they gravitated towards cars (though nish quite interestedly said we could work on a doll house next time).

Before getting started I asked the boys to think about what they wanted their car/vehicle to be like. We had very different approaches to the whole process. Nish sat and planned out exactly what he wanted ..the color, the kind of car (it needs to be like McQueen), what he would paint…what he would stick, what he may need help with. he thought long and hard about whether he wanted a car he could sit in on the floor or whether he wanted one that he cold carry and run about in (he opted for the latter). Sid on the other hand just decided he would do a ‘blue car’ (“it’s a friend of mcqueen” he explained). He was pretty clear he would work through the thinking part as we went along and was categorical that he wanted no help whatsoever. Amu generally joined in the action, more interested in what was happening than actually trying to plan anything or do much.

Nish chose his red paint and went about making neat strokes to cover the carton completely while Sid used a combination of a shaving brush and a sponge to cover his carton. Amu also chose a sponge and really enjoyed squeezing the paint out and spreading it with large smooth strokes (all over the carton and himself). he intermittently dabbed some blue on Nish’s pristine red mcqueen and we almost had a couple of meltdowns. Fortunately once i showed Nish how to paint over the intruding blue paint he was back in control. Nish asked me to cut out specific stuff that he stuck and decorated his car with while Sid was focused on doing things himself. it was evident he did not have a plan but he enjoyed gluing lots of stuff onto his ‘funky dashboard” of his “super cool car”. AMu basically painted his in patches, stuck a couple of things and then moved onto other stuff.

The boys were so proud of their cars when they got done and i finished up for them by putting ribbons for shoulder straps so they could pretty much ‘wear the cars’. Then we had McQueen and his blue friend zipping all over the family room with little Amu in tow.

Really a lot of fun…the process and the product…i feel like pushing the boys to think was nice – it allowed Nish to conceptualize,imagine.. create a plan of action to get to the finished product. With Sid, it was lovely watching him come up with ideas on the fly, he was also on task for nearly 40 minutes…painting…waiting for the paint to dry, sticking things and decorating, etc.

It’s a great activity to push for creative thinking, conceptualizing, fine motor skills, just getting kids to focus and work on something that interests them!

It’s been a month now and the cars are still going strong. Definitely a fun project and i am now looking forward to doing the dollhouse as an ongoing project too.
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More conversations!

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Once again my boys were busy playing ‘doctor doctor’. This time Nish was the doc, Sid the patient and Amu the nurse cum person who brought the patient in.

Doctor, armed with stethoscope, otoscope and syringe: What happened? What is the matter?
Amu: This is the patient ok? I am bringing him to the ‘hopsital’

Sid (lying down upon an old wooden chest that serves as our center table in the living room) – i will sleep here and you examine me pl. I am dead

Nish: I need a nurse. Amu you are the nurse now. Give me my bag

Sid: Doctor, coould you please hold my bowl of peanuts and give them back to me later?

Nish: OK

Amu: it is a girl patient doctor…she has a purse. Please give your purse also to the doctor. He will not take it…he will give it back

Patient (female) Sid obliges.

Doctor: OK what happened?

Sid: I am dead doctor. A car ran over me on the road and I had a lot of blood!

Nish: Wow – so you could actually see the underside of the car?

Sid: Yes i saw the underside!

Nish: OK now i will give you an injection and a kissie … tyhen you feel feel much better

Sid: Thank you

Nish: What car was it? The underside looks cool?

And then the doctor, nurse and fully recovered dead patient discussed BMW models and motorbikes…

THE END

Ramadan Moon – Book review

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“Ramadan, the month of fasting,
Doesn’t begin all at once.
It begins with a whisper
And a prayer
And a wish”

I love the way this picture book starts. Ramadan Moon, written by Na’ima B Robert and illustrated by Shirin Adl is a wonderful introduction to Ramadan for kids. It takes us on a journey of the waxing and waning moon, all that it brings with it…it gives us an insight into the fasting and the prayers, the thinking and humility and generosity and gratitude that this period symbolizes. In a simple, fluid and poetic style the author and illustrator help the reader experience the beauty, celebrations and excitement of the month. The book is a wonderful introduction to Ramadan for young kids. It is simple (yet not simplistic) and a wonderful snapshot into a world that some kids may not be familiar with. Mine were not…and they enjoyed reading the book and learning about something different from what they experience. What is lovely is the fact that the book reflects a child’s perspective and understanding of Ramadan.

The illustrations are gorgeous and in a style that combines various media – a style that would be fun to explore for kids! The style also reflects Persian inspiration! (And according to one of my twins, the moon has most probably been made by cutting out silver chocolate wrapping foil)

I think that since Ramadan has just started, this might be a good time to read this with kids. I am thinking of how to explore this more and better. Have shown the kids a mosque earlier but might take them to Mosque Road on of these days so they have a chance to see people praying and then will also engage in some conversations around some of the ideas if they seem inclined to it. I also think this is a wonderful book for schools to use to introduce Ramadan.