India: Are we doing enough to create the best learning opportunities?

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The other day, I observed a three-year old girl ask her ‘teacher’, “What is the colour of water?” After thinking for a moment, “Water has no colour.” The child immediately asks, why? The teacher, who (obviously) didn’t know the response, asked the child to go get the crayons for art work. Instead, this could have been an interesting opportunity for the teacher to engage in an activity around water that would have helped the child understand the nature of water.

Across the country, it is becoming common for children above two years of age to spend about 3 to 8 hours in centres that run as preschools, day-cares, play-homes or anganwadi centres. This emerging reality of children spending time in ‘safe’ care-settings other than homes would be true across socio-economic groups and geographic locations, with both parents having to work for their livelihood.

While care-taking seems like a simple task that involves feeding, keeping children happy, controlling fights and falls, toilet training, engaging children in play, and so on, as any parent will tell you, it is not as simple as it looks.

Managing and engaging a two or three year old, who has begun to express herself, has a zillion questions about the world around her, wants to explore and experiment with objects around, wants to be reassured about every step she takes, can hardly be a simple task.

While love for children is intuitively likely to help teachers, care-givers and anganwadi workers ‘know’ about children and their characteristics, it is somewhat far-fetched to imagine that it will help teachers know ‘what to do’ with children for the hours that they are together.

Most preschools conduct a few day’s in-service induction and refresher programmes to prepare teachers to take care of children. These programmes are essentially designed around activities and curriculum they wish to complete with every age-group. Today, a common belief driving this business of providing care for young children seems to be that a caring woman can be trained to keep children engaged for a few hours every day using pre-defined activities such as songs, rhymes, stories, some reading-writing, patterns, drawing and craft work. This is a rather mechanical endeavor which assumes that care-takers and teachers are only ‘implementers’ of content and activities that someone else has planned.

A young child, whose developing brain is fast making millions of neural connections and is grasping and learning from every experience, requires the best opportunities possible in her environment. In this context, the efforts made in preparing the teachers and caregivers seem rather laisse-faire and inadequate.

As a society interested in caring and nurturing the potential of young children, it will be important to have a teachers and caregivers who know about children and their development, not just through their own personal experiences and naïve understanding, but through more informed theoretical understanding about children’s growth and development. They will also need to have a broad knowledge about the world, to help teachers them respond to curious questions and not shoo-away children for lack of answers. A teacher and care-giver who is able to create suitable experiences, along with the ability to cater to every child’s unique needs and contexts, is critical to an ideal care-environment for children who spend more active-hours outside home.

All this knowledge about working with children is unlikely to come to a loving and caring woman (care-taker/teacher) from a list of activities to be conducted. It requires time and commitment for investment in learning about children and working with children. The experience from other countries suggests that it will require a carefully designed teacher-education program that develops aspiring pre-school teachers over a period of 2-3 years before they get professional certification that qualifies them to teach and care for pre-school children.

And that is something we hardly demand – perhaps it’s time?

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