Monthly Archives: October 2016

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 😦

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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