Monthly Archives: August 2015

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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