Kids Under 6? Give Them Fewer Books & More Play, Say Child Experts

How does a child learn? How can we help in ensuring that they learn in the most optimal way possible? We spoke to experts in early childhood care and education to understand how India can better ensure that its children don't fall behind.

When the Government of India announced its New Education Policy 2020, experts furiously debated its merits and demerits. After all, this policy document was set to establish a paradigm shift in education policy. One principle articulated in the policy document which didn’t elicit furious debate was the government’s push for early childhood care and education (ECCE). `

The document makes an emphatic case for it, particularly for children from low-income households. It says, “Schools providing quality ECCE reap the greatest dividends for children who come from families that are economically disadvantaged.” This statement came a few years after a 2013 resolution taken by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to adopt the National Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) Policy. 

With this 2013 resolution, the government reiterated its “commitment to promote inclusive, equitable and contextualised opportunities for promoting optimal development and active learning capacity of all children below 6 years of age.”   

The emphasis on this age group stems from scientific research to believe that anywhere between 85 to 90 per cent of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs before the age of six. Sadly, the NEP estimates that more than 5 crore elementary grade students in India lack foundational literacy and numeracy. This problem is particularly acute for children living in socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds with little access to ECCE.

“There is existing neuroscience research to suggest that 90 per cent of brain development happens in the first six years. Yes, the brain does develop further, but the number of neural connections getting made in the early years is just much more and after the age of six, it’s like an exponentially decreasing graph,” explains Sindhuja Jeyabal, co-founder of Dost Education, a Delhi-based non-profit working on responsive caregiving and early childhood development, in a conversation with The Better India.  

Shreeja Kanoria, a curriculum specialist with Dost Education, adds, “The experience of the first six years also affects the child’s entire life trajectory and all aspects of it including learning, education, socio-emotional development, physical development, etc.” 

To address this critical phase in a child’s development, the NEP lays out a framework for educators to provide quality ECCE through either preschools or Anganwadi centres. The policy document also makes a case for how parents, particularly from low-income households, can become active stakeholders in their child’s education.  

Child Education requires fewer books and more play-based learning
Early childhood care and education: For representational purposes only

What is early childhood learning?    

Key Education Foundation (KEF), a Bengaluru-based non-profit, runs its flagship School Readiness Programme for 65 affordable preschools in Karnataka. Through this programme, they partner with affordable preschools in the state, where parents of low-income/blue-collar households send their young children, and offer end-to-end early childhood education (ECE) solutions. Swetha Guhan, co-founder and director of KEF, explains some of the key aspects of ECE and how educators should approach it. 

“The child needs to be given a choice. Even a three-year-old needs to be provided with the element of choice. For most, this seems like too far-fetched an idea, but we have found that essential elements and tenets of early education, which is providing children freedom and choice via play, are essential for them to discover things and build cognitive abilities,” says Swetha.

Everything in terms of ‘the how’ of what we teach has, to begin with, an experience for the child. The child has to discover something through that experience. Following this, the child applies this experience in the activity and finally, the child practices it.  

“The traditional system has forgotten the experience and activity aspects. They are directly jumping to practise on workbooks and hope that by doing this, the child has learned. Instead, what we aim to do is transform 100 per cent of all classroom time into an experience activity and practice method that is rooted in play. Also, movement is essential to early childhood. It’s not a bad thing when we say children can’t sit still. It’s very natural for children to want to get up from their seat every five minutes,” she explains. 

During field visits, Swetha recalls how parents would often say that ‘my child goes to school to get disciplined’. And by ‘discipline’, they often mean ‘sit properly and quietly’ in class. 

“So, if a big part of what we’re teaching is sitting quietly, we’re going against the absolute innate nature of how a child learns, which is by moving and using their whole body. A child needs to develop these particular faculties before the age of 6. If they don’t do it before the age of 6, research has shown it may not happen after, especially during physical development. It’s a real challenge to convince schools that this is okay and that you need to employ a play-based model for ECE. That has been a real push for us at a school level,” she argues.  

What are some examples of play-based learning, where they incorporate movement, and how does that translate in a classroom?

Take the example of children learning numbers from one to ten. 

“In scenarios like these, we often forget to ask the fundamental question of why is my young child learning numbers? It’s to understand the concept of quantity. At an experience level, my child need not repeat things and rote learn. She needs to experience numbers,” Swetha says. “The first thing a child naturally engages with is counting objects and not looking at the number symbol. You give her a set of little blocks or stones and we have her count those, or we have a number string that we install in the classroom. So the child is counting them one by one by touching them.”

Educators can even employ tools like stories, poems or conversations around themes like transport to physically illustrate what these numbers mean. 

“So that’s the complexity of early childhood learning. You need to look at something as simple as numbers and break that down into various steps of seeing the child have these multiple cognitive actions. Once they’re able to count, able to work with numbers, then we say ‘you have 5 chocolates, you ate 2, how many do you have left?’ This is a lot of conversation. When the child is ready and understands, then you explain how these numbers fall in a certain order and are written. Teachers soon realise you can teach numbers in fun ways when they’re not running behind teaching 1 to 1,000,” she argues. 

KEF has collaborated with an organisation called Jodo Gyan for their maths pedagogy. They use giant number dice, number strings, and various physical materials that children need to engage with to teach these concepts in affordable preschools. 

“The process takes longer, but children get the idea of what educators are talking about. The teacher will never say ‘today, we will study this’. Instead, she will say, ‘Let’s try, play and do this’. And that’s how we follow it with everything from language to learning about the environment. We follow a theme-based approach so that anything educators are teaching at any given moment connects back to a common conversation theme. That way children are always able to connect what they’re talking about, whether it’s in maths or environmental science,” she notes. 

A Child needs play-based learning and education over rote learning from books
Play-based learning for a child is an important facet of education: For representational purposes only

What role can parents play?

When Dost Education began its work in 2016 with parents and children from underprivileged communities in rural, semi-urban and urban centres, what they found was that there was a lot of focus on health and nutrition-related issues for parents. Anything associated with early learning, development and socio-emotional learning was not a big part of the conversation back then.

“We believe parents have a bigger role to play in ECE. Thus, we began our work understanding their interaction with children, how a child can feel supported at home, how Anganwadi workers and parents complement each other in supporting the child,” says Sindhuja.  

Children from wealthier families experience not just quality daycare, but also have their parents (or at least one of them) read to the child, interact or perform tasks together regularly.  

“But in reality, this doesn’t happen in a home where parents haven’t had those experiences themselves, haven’t gone to school and aren’t literate enough to read to the child. What we’ve typically seen from parents who come from such backgrounds is the feeling that they can’t participate in their child’s education,” explains Sindhuja. 

Parents play a fundamental role whether it’s regularly reading, playing and having conversations with the child, building an emotionally safe environment at home or social development.

Expanding on their role, Sindhuja adds, “We understand that parents are really busy. They are not like educators or homeschool people who will take charge of the child’s early education in that kind of a process. But at the same time, we have done a lot of primary research and found out that they do take out time for hygiene-related tasks for the child in the first six years, put them to sleep and bathe them.”

As Shreeja Kanoria explains, “The whole house is like the child’s playground. If you just think about the kitchen, parents can get their child to convert wheat flour into play dough, shell peas or potatoes. That’s like a bunch of motor skills happening right there. Why do you need blocks when you have bowls? Stack them up and let them fall. Just take a bowl of water, try throwing things inside and see what floats and what does not. That’s science right there.” 

“Parents’ attitude towards what constitutes learning is a major part of child development. Often notions of learning begin with a book, pen, and paper. But when the child is playing or doing other activities, they feel it’s a waste of time. So, in a way they are pushing the child into a ‘formal academic system’ much earlier, which shouldn’t be the case,” says Sindhuja. 

So, even when we say early learning, it’s much broader than the cognitive development of the child. Their socio-emotional development is really important. No amount of reading and writing is not going to help him/her because those are the practices that the child also needs to learn. 

“Preschool teachers often say we’ll take care of the academic stuff but then the parents need to know how to help the child sit in one place, and take care of themselves. In terms of behaviour management, it’s universally understood that children throw tantrums. Still, the question then arises how do we help them self-regulate their emotions because no one is going to be giving individual attention to the child when in school. But they need to be prepared to be in that environment and learn,” says Shreeja.

“For parents, it’s about improving the quality of the interaction and being mindful that this is helping the child. We’ve seen that when parents understand their impact on child learning, they consistently do those things. Otherwise, the interaction with the child stops,” she adds.  

Having said that, these parents can’t provide everything the child needs in terms of learning and development at this age hence the Anganwadi system exists.

Parents also have a role to play in child-based education, where play-based learning should be prioritized over rote learning.
Parents also have a role to play in a child’s education: For representational purposes only

Role of Anganwadi workers 

For millions of Indian parents who can’t afford daycare or send their children to preschools, the Anganwadi centre serves as a lifeline. Running this centre is the Anganwadi worker (AWW), who is the most important functionary of the government’s Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme. A community-based front-line worker, she is mandated to oversee women’s health, pregnancy care, and nutrition and is also expected to deliver early childhood education, among a myriad of other responsibilities, particularly in rural and semi-urban settings. 

From the time a mother is pregnant, an AWW is tied to the family till the child is six years old. According to a recent study conducted by Rocket Learning, a Delhi-based organisation which supports governments to develop effective ECE systems, AWWs have the potential to be the backbone of early childhood education but are held back by several systemic failures.

“In terms of early childhood education, AWWs can be very important levers because they have a high intrinsic motivation to be around children and teach them. They love the idea that they get to interact with children daily. So, there is inherent care towards the children. The roots of their pedagogy are in play-based learning as opposed to rote learning. That is something the Ministry of Women and Child Development has been pushing. They also have strong ties to the community,” says Ankita Kodavoor, who is part of the leadership team at Rocket Learning. 

Take the example of Anju Ahuja, a 45-year-old AWW from Rudrapur, Uttarakhand. With a Master’s degree in sociology, she has been an AWW for the past 11 years. 

She arrives at the Anganwadi centre at 8 am, cleans the facility with a Helper (which is assigned to every AWW), visits every home in the area under her jurisdiction and brings their children to the centre at Ravindra Nagar, Ward No 18. 

“We conduct a prayer, sing devotional songs and give them their breakfast. Following this, we play games with these children and then serve lunch. We then teach them some basic preschool material and then we take them back home. Our work doesn’t end here. After dropping these children back home, I visit three or four homes a day of pregnant mothers or children who come to the centre. We do regular health check-ups of these children. If they are undernourished, we visit their home and guide their parents on diet and hygiene,” says Anju.  

“For pregnant ladies, meanwhile, we once again conduct regular check-ups, advise them on diet, mentally prepare them for delivering their child at the hospital and guide them through the process of vaccination for their children. These visits continue even after the pregnant lady has given birth, where we give them advice on breastfeeding and hygiene, etc,” she adds. 

At the Anganwadi centre, she has about 50 children under her care from six months to three years of age. She takes care of their health, and nutrition and gives them rations as well. Besides, she also has 12 children under her care from ages three to six.  

“They are my family. I love this work. These children and mothers are like family members and they feel the same too. If I can help them, there is no better feeling. I can see how much they need us. However, there are days when I want to help, but can’t,” she says.  

But these AWWs have to deal with so many constraints. 

Ankita notes, “They are held back by the lack of basic facilities and space with barely any budget allocated. This becomes particularly problematic in urban areas where they have a budget of about Rs 900 a month, which is ridiculous given how they have to seat about 25 to 30 children and the rent often reaches six to nine months late.” 

“You have Anganwadi workers paying the rent out of their own pockets in a lot of cases. They also have a huge split of responsibility across domains even outside of ECCE with low pay, no clear guidance on zero to six education curriculum and the burden of administrative record maintenance with a lower system-level push for time spent on education,” she adds.

However, the governments don’t even treat AWWs as full-time employees and often pay them wages that are in no way commensurate with the volume and importance of the work they do. As Anju explains, “When I joined the service, my salary was Rs 3,000 per month, and today, it’s 9,500 per month. With this amount, my expenditure is taken care of, but many people can’t live on such a salary. Many of my fellow Anganwadi workers are single mothers too. My husband expired when my son was three months old.” 

“The government doesn’t pay our salary on time. Sometimes, we get our salaries after a gap of three to four months and sometimes even six months. Meanwhile, the Anganwadi centre is located in rented accommodation and hasn’t received the rent money for a year,” she adds. 

In certain states like Uttar Pradesh, AWWs are paid as little as Rs 5,500 per month. So, what can be done to mitigate their situation? How can they become more effective in delivering ECE?

The first step has to be rationalising their responsibilities, leaving them to focus on early childhood education and development. Many AWWs report being assigned several tasks ranging from polio duty, elections, surveys, immunisations, etc. In the Rocket Learning study mentioned above, one AWW said, “Random duties are assigned to us sometimes. Once we were asked to collect used bottles from homes (for recycling) to ensure separating of trash.”

During the pandemic, many reported their workload increasing exponentially with a commensurate raise in pay. One suggestion would be to delegate all public health department-related work to Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) workers. 

The Anganwadi workers desperately need more resources. After all, this is an investment in a worker who is building the foundation for many children. 

As Swetha Guhan says, “We have to look at an additional Anganwadi worker at the centre who’s doing early childhood education and development regularly and consistently. It’s not a skill problem. It’s a failure at the level of human resources available.”

Also, as the Rocket Learning study notes, there is no real upskilling happens despite repeated training of AWWs. Most workers surveyed in Uttar Pradesh and Chandigarh feel that teaching is the most important part of their work, but these states and UTs don’t have a set curriculum. Only one state they surveyed, Maharashtra, has an E-Aakar timetable that is followed. 

Meanwhile, Shreeja Kanoria suggests finding ways to further enhance the relationship between the AWW and parents. “Parents living in urban slums who have migrated and single parents living with children need support. They are constantly working and trying to make a living. These parents respect the Anganwadi centres because they’re giving them rations, cooked food, daycare, etc. Can this Anganwadi worker be that support system for these parents?” she asks.  

“AWWs are respected members of the community who parents look up to. They have a command over these parents as well,” she adds.  

India has more than a million Anganwadi centres manned by these AWWs. Here is a resource that has the requisite reach with underserved communities. While the government’s vision for ECCE, as outlined in the NEP 2020, is laudable on paper, what’s required from them is greater investment in this resource available to them. This means better pay (on time), regularisation of employment, additional human resource support, rationalisation of responsibilities, a training module that directly translates into what they need to do on the ground and State governments need to formulate a well-defined play-based curriculum.

After all, they are performing such a fundamental service and helping define the lives of millions of children each year. If India can get this right with ECCE and the role Anganwadis play in propelling it, there could still be a demographic dividend worth celebrating.   

Anganwadi workers too have a role to play in early child education and learning
Anganwadi workers too have a major role to play in a child’s education: For representational purposes only

To conclude, EkStep Foundation, a non-for-profit foundation that aims to extend learning opportunities to millions of Indian children, asks, “We have a societal responsibility towards our youngest. The policy and implementation framework (albeit imperfect) has been in place for sometime and has now received a renewed focus with the attention to the early years in the NEP. That said, we have an opportunity and perhaps this is a societal imperative to look at our approaches, mental models and practices around early childhood. How can a shift be triggered to see the well being of the whole child and to enrich the childhood experience for every child? How can this shift be made seamless for the caring adults around the child by building on the abundance that is already available, rooted in practices of the everyday?” 

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

(Representational Images courtesy the UNICEF, The Lego Foundation/UNICEF, Key Education Foundation, Dost Education and Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India)

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