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.

Home to house

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

A Kaleidoscope of Children by Jayanti Tambe – Book Review

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It’s been a while since I wrote…the days have gotten busier and more packed with the boys and work and I seem to hardly find the time to write.

But today I decided I simply had to…have been meaning to post something about this incredible book that was published recently – a little earlier this year.

A Kaleidoscope of Children written by Jayanti Tambe is an absolute must-read for anyone working with early childhood…by anyone I mean parents, teachers of infants, toddlers and preschoolers, early childhood care-givers, students of early childhood and education…It is a book that simplifies this rather complex age and process…that makes it accessible to a range of economic backgrounds too. The ideas here are not simply for the elite private preschools with loads of funding but for the poorest of Anganwadi centres that wants to make a difference in the way they look at children and learning.

Jayanti Tambe, the author, is the Executive Director of Early Childhood Care and Education at UCLA. But more than that, she is an incredible teacher who has worked extensively (and most creatively) with young children and preschoolers in the United States and India as well as for a short while, in South Africa. Her experience, creativity and passion make the book really engaging and difficult to put down. it gives the reader the unique perspective of a teacher and a professor – a rare combination of theory and praxis. It also has lovely color photographs to better illustrate what the author is saying.

The book addresses different domains of development – physical, socio-emotional, and cognitive. Each domain is broken up into short chapters that come alive with Tambe’s narrative style. While there are a lot of pedagogical and theoretical constructs subtly and seamlessly interwoven with the narrative, the focus is on real life examples and discussions. As you read the book, you can actually hear the voices, see the colours, imagine the children jumping and playing, drawing at an easel or building a tower…and this time when you hear the voices and see the children you have the key to decode what they really are saying and doing and that makes it all the more magical.

You will have ‘aha’ moments and times when an example will resonate so strongly with you that you truly begin to relate to the book. It is replete with interesting suggestions and ideas and does not hesitate to bring up and talk about a range of things that emerge from children’s conversations – questions on colour and gender and sex, obsessions with potty talk, same sex parents and even death.

The short chapters in the book make it easy to read. The chapters are complete in and of themselves and can be read in isolation. So you can choose to read the book sequentially or simply open it to a chapter you find relevant. Whatever works for you…but there is something in there for you for sure!

I have recommended this book to a few educators and friends who have children in the this age group and I would strongly recommend it to those who are reading this blog post (assuming that most of you who are reading this do have kids in this age group). 51yJrD1MS2L._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_

Dealing with tantrums

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The boys are playing peacefully, building with their lego blocks and chatting as they build. I am enjoying a book, reclined on a sofa with a glass of chilled sweet lime water. The big boy is catching an afternoon nap and everything seems just perfect.

Suddenly, one of the twins (almost 5 yrs) screams while the younger fellow (now 3) runs off with his brother’s lego plane, bits of it dismantling as he runs.

Nish: He is breaking it!

Amu: These are all my pieces, you can’t use them.

Might prevails (for the moment) and Nish manages to wrestle some pieces back from Amu. I hold Amu firmly because I see him lunging forward to attack his brother. Now Amu is mad and as his lower lip pouts out and his eyes glare at me I know the storm is about to hit and another tantrum is ready to be unleashed. Amu yells, throws the remaining pieces of lego on the ground, yanks my cushion off the sofa and flings it down. Still full of energy and anger, he looks around the room for something else to throw. I rescue my lime water just in time and he gets madder. At this point I am glad he is looking at objects and not his brothers to direct the anger at. There are times when he scratches and hits them and that is not pleasant.

Over the last month I have changed strategies. I used to hold him and tell him to stop what he was doing, i would point out to how things were being broken or someone getting hurt…usually it had very little impact.Or i would lose it and yell.  And yelling at him did not help. he would get more upset and angry and destructive.

Now, i try to pick him up gently and talk to him. I say things like: I know you are really upset sweetie…why are you so angry?

Or, “Hey can we fix this together? Do you want a little help putting this back?”

Or “why are you crying and shouting? Are you angry? Or upset? or sad about something?”

This sometimes helps him stop and think a little bit which buys us some cooling down time.

I try and help him calm down first, maybe focus on something else till he is a little cooler to discuss what had upset him. I find that sometimes showing him something interesting helps distract him a little too. But usually i simply hold him close and very gently try and talk him through his temper.

And slowly introduce strategies that he can use – words instead of hands is one of the things we have been talking about.

Last night as we were in bed getting ready to sleep, he asked me and dad: “hitting is not good is it? it can hurt people. It’s not nice”

Dad agreed with him.

AMu: but sometimes i get very angry and people bother me – then i hit

Me: yes – i know …what bothers you?

Amu: when they take my stuff or bother me

Me: yeah – i know you get upset, but we just have to figure out a better way to tell them that.

He agreed…so at least he is slowly processing things. The tantrums are still very much a part of our day – multiple ones at this point. And  I am not saying my approach has changed that. However, if at least he can channelize his anger better, slowly be able to voice his feelings and also recognize different ways of venting it is a step forward. And the important message that I feel this approach gives him is that we understand..we get that he is angry and we respect that and we still love him to bits… which is where i feel that the yelling and reprimanding or punishing just seems to fail. 

If i were to yell at that tiny 3 year old bundle of dynamite for every tantrum thrown I don’t even want to think about what that would do to his self esteem. He is at an age where he getting more and more independent, and yet is in control of such few things..he is the youngest of his brothers,  always trying to catch up and probably does not know how to vocalize, reflect on what he feels – of course this is upsetting (how many of us adults have mastered that?).

And i know (i hope) that this phase too shall pass!

Preschool prisons

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I was in a couple of preschool classrooms this week. I have never been inside a prison (the only ones i have seen are on TV), but i think these classrooms came pretty close. The rooms were small and crammed with benches. Six in a row and one along the side wall. Each long bench and desk seated six children taking the total number of kids to 42. Dressed in white uniforms, the children formed a stark contrast to the dark brown oil painted walls around them. The walls were bare save a couple of cartoon character cutouts and one string of beads that hung from a nail on the wall. A tall metal shelf was piled with books and the blackboard had a lot of written matter on it for the children to copy…questions and the correct answers were both provided. All 42 children were bent low over their notebooks, scrawling away and copying mindlessly from the blackboard. I asked a couple of the kids what they were writing and they had absolutely no idea..none.

The teacher sat on one side, a long ruler her hand which served as a pointer, a threat and a weapon when needed. During my 15 minutes she managed to lightly smack at least 4 children in the room…2 who were fighting over an eraser, one who was trying to say something but did not know how to in English, and a fourth (hold your breath) for allowing her knee to move off the bench. For a room full of young, fun and curious minds, if this was not prison then what??

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So much learning takes place when children explore, discover, interact and engage with each other and their environment. Dewey’s approach to education was one of experience, as was Maria Montessori. Today the emergent curriculum is based on the child’s experiences and Reggio too engages the learner and his different senses in so many ways. How does sitting cramped on a bench all day mean learning? What is a preschooler truly learning on that bench from a blackboard that a conversation and play cannot teach him? How is rote repetition of rhymes making him more proficient in English? (I heard a class singing a song about a bear and a bollafulla huh-neee – bowlful of honey). Why are the walls dark brown or grey? Where is the art and craft? Who decided that 3 year olds needed textbooks and had to do homework? Who gave us the right to stifle their bodies and minds and steal their childhood? Do we truly truly believe we are ‘teaching’ our children?

While this experience was in a low fee private school, the scene may not be that different in our higher end schools too….sure- the space will be brighter and the resources more abundant. But honestly – what happened to free play and fun? What happened to music? What happened to conversations beyond instructions, rules and reprimands? It is time to give our children back their childhood and freedom. It is time to unlock the prisons and open our minds…and allow children to truly develop and grow into the wonderful individuals they can be if only we let them!

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