By Barkha Kumari
Thirty-four-year-old researcher Anitha P had it all planned — she would finish her research by February this year, send her child to LKG by June, and start a job by July. But the second wave of the pandemic has thrown much of those plans out of the window. She has put her job hunt on hold to help her son go through online schooling. “He is four years old. He can’t open the laptop. He can’t sit in a place for more than 10 minutes. He doesn’t understand the concept of school. So we have to assist him during Zoom classes,” says Anitha from Mangaluru about her decision to go on a career break.
Over 350 km away, in Bengaluru, Akanksha Gupta has taken her five-year-old son out of school. She plans to teach him the UKG syllabus herself and admit him back to school in class I next year. “My son attended LKG online last year and he didn’t learn much or seem to enjoy it. It felt like it was the parents who were going to school. We had to sit next to our kids, take notes and repeat the material to them later. It took double my effort and time but it has given me the confidence to homeschool my child,” says the 29-year-old.
Not all is well in the lives of preschoolers in India. Yet all we heard through the pandemic was when high school students will write their exams or when college-goers will return to their campuses abroad. We forgot a generation of kids who would have started school life in 2020 or this year if not for the pandemic. It was only recently, on June 19, that India’s education ministry released guidelines for home-based learning for children from the preschooling age till class XII. It calls on parents and caregivers to support the education of children through school closure and lists out activities to do at home for each age group. For children till class I, the learning should be flexible, multifaceted and based on play and inquiry, it emphasises.
‘Preschools first in other nations’
Children of three to six years of age are full of energy, curiosity and creativity. They may sulk and cry on the first day of school but give them a few days and they come back home with stories and questions that would put a lot of adults in deep thought. To see them share pencils with their buddies, play, fall, get up, fight and apologise, eat their lunch, sip their water, say A to Z and 1 to 10, or write standing lines and cursive letters, are milestones every parent waits for, which virtual schooling has mostly interrupted. But with the scare of a third wave looming large, when will these tots go to a real school?
Who can predict that, but has India done enough for this age cohort? Experts say no. From China to the UK, US, Australia, Germany and France, many countries opened early schools and daycares before unlocking institutes for senior education, Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, founder and managing trustee of Neev chain of preschools in Bengaluru, says. Moreover, many states in the US vaccinated teachers from early to high school on a priority basis. “India, however, opened senior classes and didn’t even think of opening early schools,” she compares, saying this stems from our obsession with “the 10+2 culture”, worsened by the belief that ABCDs and playtime are ‘discretionary’.
This belief is unfounded, says Swati Popat Vats, president of Early Childhood Association & Association for Primary Education and Research (ECA-APER). She states two important pointers that the National Education Policy 2020 has proposed: “One, it says that 85% of the cumulative brain development in a child happens in the first six years. Two, nursery will be the starting point of formal education in India, starting at age three.” Yet, a news report says about 55% preschools in India folded up in metros and small towns and admissions fell by 80% since 2020. This could be because parents feel they can tutor their kids better than a Zoom school or because job losses have forced them to let go till class I beckons, feels Vats.
If this is the case in urban India, where internet and digital devices are more accessible, what is the fate of children going to anganwadis, she wonders. Multiple reports have shown that the drop-out rate in rural India could increase yet none looked at the state of schooling under the age of five.
Screentime, social isolation, stress
Families who have opted for online school are hoping it will help kids transition to offline school better. But when it comes to learning, there isn’t much happening, claims HR consultant Apurwa Sinha from Bengaluru. Mother of an LKG-going boy, she says, “We are paying full fees but getting one-fourth its worth. Teachers think kids are learning the concepts but the truth is many times, parents whisper or gesture the answers to them so they don’t feel left out during the class. Other times, we repeat those concepts after class. My son learnt the difference between near and far from me, not in the class.”
PhD researcher Amritha KR is just as anxious about the outcome of virtual schooling. Her son has started LKG this month after a year of homeschooling. “It’s the age when kids learn a lot by mimicking their peers, whether it’s saying certain words, finishing their food, sitting or standing. Not to forget, teachers have the tools and patience to get things done from them, which we, parents, don’t possess. It’s clear that kids are missing out on those things.”
These families say they will make up for the academic lessons somehow, but how will they fulfill the social needs of their kids? Most are nuclear families, with no grannies or siblings who can talk to the child as the parents work or do household chores. And letting them out in the apartment complex or to a park to play with other kids is unsafe now. “When I started taking my son to the park in January and February this year, he would get scared of other children and run away. He’d been cut off from people since March 2020, when we went into lockdown. It is worrying to see him this way because the friendships we make at this age last for a lifetime,” Amritha, a resident of Mangaluru, shares. Likewise, Gupta’s son doesn’t talk as much as he used to in nursery, which he went to for a month till March 2020. “Even the cartoons he watches has kids going to school and enjoying. He misses that,” she says. The lack of social interaction is concerning but so is the health of the children.
Sinha says she appreciates the efforts teachers put in but only if they could cut down the number of classes, and with that, the screentime for kids. “What’s the need for separate periods for drawing and craftwork? Can’t we keep the timetable limited to numeracy and literacy classes for now? A kid in my son’s class once complained of a burning sensation in the eyes,” the 32-year-old argues. “They have split the timetable between morning and evening classes. I feel terrible waking my son up from his nap to attend the second half.” It would be better if the school hands over the syllabus to parents and lets them teach at convenience, she says. “But the weekly tests to assess the progress should continue.”
The timetable varies from schools to age groups. Running from Monday to Friday, the classes run for an hour or less and are followed by a 20-minute break or a session of physical education. Language, numbers, reading, storytelling, public speaking, arts and music are the focus. Some subjects are taught in large groups, others in smaller pools. And parent-teacher meetings are very much on.
By the looks of it, parents need to spare only a few hours every day to assist or tutor their kids but the burden of this disproportionately falls on women in India, whether they are in a job, on a career break or a homemaker, experts say. “But it doesn’t serve the purpose because kids are smart. They throw tantrums in front of us to get away from studies. They don’t fear us as they would their teachers,” Anitha says.
Edtech steps up
Parents are trying every trick in the book to bring a semblance of school into their kids’ lives. Amritha schedules a video call between her son and parents daily to train him to sit and listen to people on the other end of the device attentively. To give her son a peer experience, Sinha invited three children of security guards at home, taught and fed them for three months.
To engage her “very social child”, Nikita Pahwa Lamba enrolled her 2.5-year-old daughter in a life skill school that is a stone’s throw from her home in Chennai. It was in March this year. There the toddler learnt how to set a food table with other kids, eat by herself, throw waste in the dustbin, stack plates for washing, etc. The stint was cut short by the second wave.
But Lamba has continued the life skill training, involving the child in baking, gardening, etc. She kisses ‘good morning’ to brinjals, scribbling chalk on the blackboard with lots of talking. And when her child craves school, Lamba breaks into a game. “I pretend we are going to school, which is her play area in our house upstairs. I pack a sipper in her bag and walk with her to the ‘school’. When we reach, we do painting, solve puzzles and play memory cards for about 15 minutes,” says the textile designer, who is on a career break.
Lamba had also booked a service to have a teacher come home and conduct one-on-one classes and activities for her little one. But even that didn’t take off because of the second wave.
As parents look to make up for their kids’ schooling, edtech brands have come up with a slew of alternatives. Flintoclass [email protected], the one Lamba had booked, clocked 1,000 enrollments in the first month of its launch in March 2021, with most of the demand pouring in from Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad. Arunprasad Durairaj, CEO and co-founder of Flinto Learning Solutions, has an update on the service: “It will resume operations from July 1 and 300-400 certified teachers will be added.” The company also delivers an extra-curricular activity box for early schoolers.
Similarly, Lighthouse Learning has rolled out a 26-week offline homeschooling kit for toddlers, designed to boost literacy, numeracy and science skills.
The Story Merchants, on the other hand, launched Write + Colour Your Own Storybook, which lets children channel their inner storyteller. “When they are at it, they get to exercise crucial skills like hypothesising, memory boosting, fine motor skills, creative skills, sense of purposeful discussion and more,” explains Merchant Doshi, founder of the brand, which has also unveiled puzzles for self-play.
Strangely, given the concern around increased screentime, preschooling language apps like OckyPocky have seen downloads triple since the corona crisis shut schools. The team acknowledged the concerns, but said over an email, “It is better to spend this screentime in a safe, monitored atmosphere that contributes to early brain development.”
‘School, parents work closely’
Education experts like Sangeeta Hajela admit that Zoom schooling is less than ideal but that’s no reason to put schooling on the backburner. We have to adapt to the circumstances. “Once in two months, we give kids a virtual tour of the school, its gate, furniture and library,” says the principal of Delhi Public School, Indirapuram, Ghaziabad. Even her teachers are reinventing their pedagogy. They are clocking extra hours to teach kids in several sub-groups and are making use of things at home, from walls to puppets, to make the classes engaging.
Vats concurs there should be no break in their learning curve and proposes a few solutions. Schools must engage with parents and value their feedback to make pandemic schooling worthwhile. Parents must organise virtual playdates involving three or four kids to encourage social interaction. For families that decide to homeschool their kids till the pandemic subsides, “download and follow the preschool curriculum designed by NCERT”. Quality preschooling is one that is built on play, not just reading-writing, she emphasises. “And 60 minutes of screentime a day is safe,” she assures young parents.
India opened senior classes and didn’t even think of opening early schools… this stems from our obsession with the ’10+2 culture’
— Kavita Gupta Sabharwal, founder & managing trustee, Neev chain of preschools, Bengaluru
Parents feel they can tutor their kids better than a Zoom school… job losses have also forced them to let go till class 1 beckons
— Swati Popat Vats, president, Early Childhood Association & Association for Primary Education and Research (ECA-APER)
Parents, try this at home
Ask children to name different items, identify shapes, recognise animal noises, point out their body parts
Enthuse them to make mock costumes, draw with crayons, mould clay or fold paper in the shape of a boat, plane or bird
Tell stories of your childhood, read them a book or let them enact a scene
Snip a newspaper photo into pieces and let them put back the puzzle
Have them observe the local environment (flowers, leaves, trees, birds, insects)
Earmark a space for their writing and drawing by painting a wall as a blackboard
Show scenes from a fair, zoo or any event and ask them to talk about it
Teach counting and basic math using vegetables, pulses, clay models, etc
Use the calendar to talk about days and weeks
Pass the softball and play with them or hide things and let them find out
Sing songs with your child and use shatter-proof bowls, pots and pans to add music
Allow them to make patterns with bottle caps, leaves, flowers and twigs
Give a letter consonant grid and ask them to make and write new words
Monitor their progress. Can your five-year-old classify objects based on size, colour, shape? Can he/she solve a jigsaw puzzle of up to 10 pieces or copy a pattern or hold a storybook correctly?
Barkha Kumari is a writer & journalist