A vent on children’s day (or the day after)

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I don’t know if you have read the poem, The Hundred Languages of children by Loris Malaguzzi (translated by Lella Gandini), Founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach. Here it is:

The child
is made of one hundred.
The child has
a hundred languages
a hundred hands
a hundred thoughts
a hundred ways of thinking
of playing, of speaking.

A hundred always a hundred
ways of listening
of marveling, of loving
a hundred joys
for singing and understanding
a hundred worlds
to discover
a hundred worlds
to invent
a hundred worlds
to dream.

The child has
a hundred languages
(and a hundred hundred hundred more)
but they steal ninety-nine.
The school and the culture
separate the head from the body.
They tell the child:
to think without hands
to do without head
to listen and not to speak
to understand without joy
to love and to marvel
only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:
to discover the world already there
and of the hundred
they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:
that work and play
reality and fantasy
science and imagination
sky and earth
reason and dream
are things
that do not belong together.

And thus they tell the child
that the hundred is not there.
The child says:
No way. The hundred is there.

And it is so true…if you look at children before we truly throttle them with our sense of socialization; they are artists, singers, performers in the purest sense. They express themselves through songs and dance and words and pictures and gestures and silence.  And then it is time to box them…to put them into cookie cutter molds that they dare not tumble out of.  We do exactly what the poem accuses us of doing…We take away their different ways of being and have them conform to our one expected way of life.

It probably hits me the most when I visit classrooms…the very place that they come in to bloom and grow and become dreamers and thinkers…it is often this very place that snuffs out the burning embers of creativity, that shuts the doors of imagination and turns the little artists into mindless automatons. They come in ready to reach for the stars but all we have them do is sit down with their arms crossed and their fingers on their lips. They are issued instructions and reprimanded for the scrawls their fingers struggle to produce – fingers that should instead be molding a ball of dough or sliding through paint or sand. They get rapped on the head for looking out of the window at frog in the corridor in stead of at the blackboard where the teacher mindless repeats the same sentence ten times before having the children do the same. Bodies that should be running free or swinging from branches are crammed into tiny hard wooden benches and told to stay still. And the bodies rebel, legs swing under desks, finger tap tap a tune with a pencil on the table, eyes peer out of the gloomy classroom and minds take flights of fantasy to happier places and times. But only for a while as a stern look, a harsh word or a rough tap brings them back to doing what they are expected to…NOTHING.

And so, on this day when we are celebrating children, I am putting out a plea to teachers and school principals. Whether you are working at a high end school or a budget school or a government institution…You have a very very important job to do. You have been entrusted with possibly the most precious resource this world has to offer…you have been entrusted with innocence and purity and the most beautiful human beings. Each one of them is different and brings his share of magic into your world. Recognize his beauty and respect him for who he is. Don’t smother his passion to learn with rote memorization and harsh words and a tight box that you want to fit him into…he wasn’t made to fit in there at all. I know you try hard…maybe it is time to try differently.

Let’s all come together and let our children reclaim their hundred languages…reclaim themselves and truly reach for the stars they were meant to reach for!

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Books and a board game

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This summer has been filled with books for us. In fact, since the past 4 months, we have dived headlong into the fascinating and magical world of Roald Dahl. And while the boys  boys are reading quite a lot of stuff on their own, we have been reading all our Roald Dahls together, snuggled by the book cupboard on our reading rug, or curled up comfortably on the bed before turning in for the day. We have gone through James and the Giant Peach, Matilda, Charlie and the Chocolate factory, BFG (our favorite so far), Esio Trot, The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me, and of course, The Enormous Crocodile. Each book has been a roller coaster ride and the BFG especially has given us so many fun things to joke about.

I came up with the idea of working with the kids to make a board game based on these books. The kids loved the idea and we started thinking about it very seriously. We sat down and first thought about the type of game we wanted. We decided on something similar in concept to Snakes and Ladders…with the snakes and ladders replaced by characters from the books.

The three boys had many discussions and we maintained a list in a notebook. We put down the good and “bad” characters and chose between different characters on the list. So, for example we chose between several Giants from the BFG and decided to go with the Blood Bottler. We felt we really needed to have Trunchbull to toss a player far far out and down. The board was to be a track …a chocolate river with different characters on different numbers who would wither help us move ahead or pull us back. The planning part took several days which were spread out over a couple of weeks.

Finally, once we felt satisfied with our choices of characters and different elements we made a rough sketch of what we thought it should look like.

Then I sat and sketched it out on a canvas and painted it with acrylic. The boys helped too and did some bits of the painting.

Finally it was ready and the boys could not wait to start playing. They have been playing on it constantly since it got done a couple of days ago and are still coming up with thoughts and ideas for potential additions.

This was a great exercise because it allowed the boys to think much harder about different characters, about their specific likes and dislikes in the books as well as their ability to contribute to making the game more exciting. We had healthy (and not such healthy) discussions on the choice of giants and witches and the colors to be used but we completely enjoyed the process. And now the boys are so thrilled with it..they are proud of their ideas, super kicked when someone gets stuck on Veruca Salt’s old bubblegum or gets flung by the Trunchbull. It is even more exciting to land on a spot where the BFG gently blows you with his dreams into a sweeter spot or when you can jump on jelly beans to a higher number. It is great for practicing math skills too – as the kids are recognizing numbers on dice counting, counting on, adding, subtracting and strategizing. But more than anything else, is is plain and simple fun!

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Learning from our kids

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If only we could go back to feeling and thinking like children…somewhere along the way, in the process of growing up and growing supposedly wiser, we lose empathy, we lose our ability to look at each other as just human beings like our selves. Children think so often with their hearts, their sense of justice is well defined, they are agnostic to shades and colors of the skin, to rich and poor…which socialization and supposed education eventually teaches them.

Last evening we read a beautifully written and illustrated book about Martin Luther King Jr. called Martin’s Big Words. A biography of the great man, told in simple words and with powerful collage based illustrations, this was a wonderful book to continue our conversation on the civil rights movement which we had dipped our toes into when we read Follow The Drinking Gourd a few months ago. Nish’s reaction to the story was almost visceral. I could see him looking upset at a point when I explained as simply as I could what segregation was and by the time we reached the place where Rosa Parks was asked to give up her seat on the bus, he burst into tears and stood up saying, “but everyone is a person! Why could the white people not sit at the back? And why did they have to make her get up!!!!” He was very upset and we paused in the narrative to allow him some time to calm down. The tears continued to flow as we read about MLK’s work and his non-violent approach. Nish could not wrap his head around the fact that people were being treated the way they were and it was heart breaking to see him grapple with his initial brush with identities and concepts of power.  And although the book ended with the White Only signs coming down, he was still upset and disturbed that this could have been a reality not so long ago.

And yet it took so long for an educated people to see, understand and respect something that an almost 6 year old could do so instinctively…and we probably have not understood or truly embraced this respect for people no matter who they are, where they come from, the color of their skin and type of their hair.

As a mother, it broke my heart to see him burst into tears and very obviously be disturbed by something, and at the same time, I felt proud of this child who had his heart in the right place, who recognized people for who they were…and it showed me once again just how much we have to learn from our children.

Sid’s key take-away from the book was: I guess I would not have got a seat on the bus back then huh?

Yes – I guess he continues to grapple with that gorgeous brown of his skin in a society which places a premium on chubby fair faced rosy cheeked children.

The tooth fairy’s raison d’etre :)

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Our twins are a few months shy of turning 6 and the current excitement in life is around shaking and falling teeth. Both of the them lost their first incisors a couple of weeks ago – within a couple of days of each other.

I decided to introduce them to the tooth fairy – also because she seemed to have visited pretty much all their friends who lost their teeth in the past few months.

So, I had the boys put their tooth under the pillow when they went to bed. The following morning, they woke up and checked under the pillow and discovered that the tooth was gone and they had 10 rupees and a generous offer of a new book from the tooth fairy to boot.

As one of the twins relayed this fascinating bit of information to his grandmother, she asked him why the tooth fairy was taking teeth. He barely thought for a few seconds and pat came the reply…”i think she does not have any teeth of her own and so she needs to fill her mouth with teeth” I thought this was quite an interesting take on the tooth fairy…because honestly, why on earth would someone want random fallen teeth??

Of course – in case you want more information on the tooth fairy and various myths around this fantasy figure who is found across various countries in Europe, you can look on wikipedia…i am quite content with the toothless lady explanation 🙂

Biases and stereotypes that I struggle with

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IMG_0620We have tried to be open as parents. We have avoided gender stereotypes. My boys have dressed up in dupattas as saris, used make up, painted their nails and mine. They have played with dolls and cars and tea set and dinosaurs. I have never consciously tried to push them into “boy” stuff or “boy colors”. My five year old’s favorite color is purple and in the past, I have had to buy him shorts from the girls’ section because most stores did not have boys shorts in pink or purple. So i am fairly open and not particularly biased at least in my conscious actions right?

Wrong!

I was at a shoe shop to get new crocs for amu our youngest fellow. Just shy of 4 yrs, the little fellow had outgrown his shoes and desperately needed a new pair (his brothers’ hand me downs were still too big!). So we went off to buy new shoes – Amu and me.

At the store, Amu walked around, looking at the different shoes and styles. He finally looked excited and gravitated straight to a gorgeous lavender-purple pair of crocs. “I like these” he announced. And that is when my bias hit me. Some part of me resisted the color. Most surprisingly (to myself) I found myself wondering whether he would be teased by the older kids he played with. And so I was relieved when they did not have his size. But never mind…he next went for a gorgeous pink-fuscia shade. (un)fortunately this was not available in his size either and he settled for a navy blue, telling the store owner to get pink and purple in his size in the future.

I was surprised at myself and spent some time thinking about it. A couple of days later, as i was putting the new stock of children’s clothes I make into packets for an exhibition, he came into the room and picked up a little dress with a cute bow in the front. “What’s this?” he asked. I told him it was a frock. “Can I try it?”asked Amu. Sure…and so he tried it on. Super cute! He looked at himself in the mirror and smiled. “I love it!” he announced. “Can I wear this to school tomorrow?” he piped. “Let’s see” i replied…again my own narrow mindedness hit me. I was not sure I wanted him going to school in a dress. He forgot all about the dress the next morning and I did not remind him either.

But i did not forget. It has been a week and I am still thinking about it. It is so easy to talk about being open and allowing children to explore..and then I find myself not walking my own talk.

Any thoughts? This is bothering me 😦

Smart Steps Preschool: Quality at an affordable price

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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 Preschool (an initiative by ABLE Educare) 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 Preschools. 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 Preschools and I was more than pleasantly surprised. You can find out more about them and their work on: http://smartstepspreschool.com/

process based art

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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

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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

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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

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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.