Category Archives: school

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.

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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

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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A school full of memories

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It has been six months since we left Mumbai but still, when we took a short trip down last week and I asked the boys where they wanted to go and who they wanted to see, they both almost instantly said “By the Sea!” And so, almost like a pilgrimage, we went back to the school where my boys had started preschool last october. They attended school at By the Sea for about 6-7 months and in that short period of time formed such amazing bonds with their teachers and friends…something that made them call out their school’s name as one of the first places they wanted to go to in Mumbai.  In fact, even when we moved from Mumbai to Bangalore and went looking for preschools, the benchmark that By the Sea had set for us was simply too high and very little seemed to measure up to it. As i turned away from yet another school looking dissatisfied, my husband finally said “babes…let it go…we are not going to find another By the Sea here!” Even Sid and Nish used BTS as a yardstick for schools they visited with us. “This does not have cars like BTS!” or “There are no paints set up here!”

We finally found a school we liked but it was difficult to move on from BTS. As a parent and an educator, I could not think of a single instance when i was dissatisfied with BTS. The approach, the setting (literally by the sea), the space and the way it was done up, how open and welcoming everyone was, and most most importantly…the absolutely WONDERFUL and capable team of teachers and staff…the school was like a dream come true for me. I felt connected to the school, its philosophy, the team, other kids and parents. It was warm, friendly, non-threatening and safe. And so did my kids…they bounced off to school everyday, singing on the way there and chattering away about their day on the way back. They have made friends who we are still very much in touch with.

For people in south and central Mumbai…this is a preschool you really must look at. They start only when the kid is 2 1/2. The principal and teachers will bend backwards to help the child settle in and get comfortable. I loved how the environment nurtured my twins who are so very different as individuals and learners. The school has an inclusive approach and they are very open in general. The principal and teachers are very impressive..and warm, genuine caring individuals. The teachers know every kid and understand their pulse. There is space to run around outdoors. The indoor space is beautiful. There is a focus on art, music and free play and it is basically a lovely space that allows kids to be kids.

I realized how much the boys missed their old school when we went there last week. Although school was closed, the principal had opened up the classroom and set out their favorite trikes and cars…the boys were zooming around the school and it was almost like we had never left…I though we would be their for 10-15 minutes but the kids did not want to leave and we were there for almost an hour and half!

I am glad we were lucky to be part of this wonderful experience and while I am sure that the boys will love their other schools too I am so thankful that their first experience at formal schooling was as magical as this!

You can check out their website: http://www.bythesea.in  or visit them on FB

stray thoughts…deeper questions

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I was talking to my kids as we sat and painted yesterday. We were all on the floor on our painting mat and i had laid out the water color cakes and some crayons. Nish was busy choosing his brushes and getting some water for his painting while Sid sat lost in thought…kind of pensive. “You want to paint?” I asked him. “Sure” he said though not super enthusiastically. “You don’t have to” I said. “Nish wanted to so I set it up. You can do something else”

He fidgeted with some crayons and asked for a paper. “Will you give me a star?” he asked. I thought he was generally asking for a tattoo…though he usually chose cars or spiderman for that. “Why not?” i replied. “Why do you want a star?”

“Didi does not give me star. Everyday Nish gets a star but I never get”

“Why does he get one? Why don’t you get one?” i asked

“Because didi says me coloring is ‘kacha-pacha’ (half baked, not proper)”

“Why is that?” i prodded

“Nish colors neatly inside the lines but mine is not so neat and inside the lines. Will you give me star?”

I cringe and feel sorry for the little fellow. For one, I had avoided keeping the focus on rewards like stars so far…it was more about feeling great about what you are doing…So if they paint  something, we talk about it, ask them to describe it, and we either put it up, frame it or use it to make cards. We can be pretty candid while doing this…i do not hesitate to tell them if i feel they are not really putting in their best. I know what they are capable of and I know they feel proud when they do something well. And a lot of times i simply let them explore the paints and different media, recognizing that there is different learning happening at all points. But to have it all come down to a silly star on the hand??? that is what your art needs to mean to you? Is there perhaps a different way of pushing kids to do better or more. And do we need to revisit why we are getting them to do things? Sid has always lagged a little behind his twin in fine motor skills and initially even gross motor ones. He has slight muscle hypotonia and consistent physio and timely early intervention brought him fairly upto speed. But Nish generally has a better pincer grip and control while Sid is still working on it. I don’t want his self esteem tied to a star or him thinking that his art is “kacha pacha”. He has always enjoyed paints and art and I want it to stay that way. He does not have to be picasso or monet…i just want him to be able to create something, be able to look at it critically, be proud of something done well and recognize something that it not.

Am i over reacting?

First day at a new school

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New city, new house, new friends….new school. Yet another chapter started today as the twins had their first day at their new school in Bangalore. After announcing upfront that nothing could be as nice as By the Sea where they went to school in Mumbai, the twins accompanied us on a few school visits to help decide on their new preschool. We narrowed it down to 2 and then finally selected one that we all liked a lot. Gaia (which means mother Earth / a goddess of creation in Greek)…it looks like a lovely place for the kids. A stand alone house with a nice garden (not manicured but fairly organic in its growth)…fruit trees and space to run around, a generally warm staff. 

The kids were super excited about their first day and almost as soon as we entered Nish ran inside to look at a purple trike. Sid was slightly more apprehensive and stood by me asking me not to leave. I let him stand for a bit then gently explained that i was only going to go home for a bit and then be back to pick them up..just like at By the Sea. After about 10 minutes, he suddenly decided he was ready to let go and so he turned around and said “ok…see you later”. He then went and asked the coordinator for his bottle, took a few sips and waved goodbye. 

They were fine after that. When i asked them what they did, Sid reported that they had yummy carrot sticks and cucumber for snack…and he enjoyed a story that was read out. Good to see them enjoying the new school. They are looking forward to tomorrow as well. 

The little one (Amu) on the other hand is a little upset that his brothers are not around. He hardly splashed around in the bath this morning. But we got a good chunk of time to read together and do some puzzles. Normally he hardly gets any alone time with me so I guess this is good for both of us too! 

School day 10

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Back to school after the weekend and once again we were casualties of the infamous monday morning blues. The boys were excited to go back to school, but once again, Sid was most upset about me having to leave after a little time. The good thing that came out of it was that Nish decided to take charge of helping his twin adjust and cope and so he apparently kept walking up to a cranky moping Sid and telling him that “Aai has just gone for a meeting. She will come back soon. She always comes back. Don’t cry” The teachers were most moved by this conversation and at least 4 people told me about it. In fact, when i came back to the classroom area two hours later, Nish came running upto me and told me that Sid was sad and had been crying. “Aai, first please pick him up na! He has been crying!”