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WALKING, TALKING, SCHOOLGOING WONDERS

A curious piece of news trivia caught my attention in the flurry of the presidential elections of the Western power that seeks to determine the fortunes of the rest of the world. The daily dose of scams in our own country had begun to bore, but some of us did show a mild interest in the less flamboyant transition of leadership in an Eastern country — slated to be a serious rival of the first. The news item to catch my eye was about a Colombian woman who claimed that her one-month-old baby could stand up, walk and even run around. This claim halted my thoughts on the implications of being a global power and set me thinking about the precocious little mites, quite powerful in their own way, who are packed off to play-school months before their second birthday. As they enter our nursery they seem like veterans having already had considerable ‘educational experience’.

The astonishingly grown-up air about our nursery entrants in recent years, coupled with escalating parental expectations, aroused my curiosity sufficiently to investigate current practices in the field of pre-school education. Almost every nursery applicant was attending a play-school and had covered a lot of ground as prescribed by a sophisticated pre-school curriculum. Many of these children had been stretched to KG-level standards and their parents appeared to be very impressed by the phenomenal knowledge that their little ones displayed.

Their pride is plainly visible as they speak of their own lack of awareness even when they were much older. These charged-up, new-age parents are eager to find out about the latest pedagogic approaches and technology that would enhance their children’s quantum and quality of learning and would like to ensure that they are on offer in the school to which they would be entrusting their children. Other concerns are the teacher-pupil ratio, curriculum content, extra-curricular activities, nature of assessment, frequency of reporting ‘progress’ and degree of parental involvement in school.

These parental concerns no doubt reflect the fast-changing times. Even a decade ago, parents were happy to hand over their children to the neighbourhood nursery school or admit them into the nursery section of a ‘big school’. Thereafter, they stopped worrying until their children were old enough to embark upon a formal academic programme involving homework and examinations. The pre-school years in the nursery and kindergarten in those times were truly carefree for children — and for their parents. The new phenomenon of intense performance-driven activity at this stage puzzled and, I confess, disturbed me. I decided to study it with a consciously open mind as I certainly did not wish to be hopelessly ‘out of sync’ with the times. But I am also aware of the danger of trying out every new fad and educational experiment in vogue and then going back on the rebound to traditional or even ultra-conservative methods of teaching and learning. This is precisely what the British education secretary, Michael Gove, is being accused of because he is demanding a return to rote-learning and rigorous examinations as a measure to improve the quality of learning in school.

As I proceeded with my investigations I began to discover many interesting things. For example, pre-primary schools that are mostly in the unorganized sector — needing no affiliation or licence to operate — have proliferated in all the big cities, perhaps covering all the main neighbourhoods. The spawning of such play-schools was necessitated by the rapid social and economic changes in our country and, undoubtedly, many of them are doing excellent work. For some parents it meant a few hours’ respite from their toddlers who are quite a handful even before they have entered the Terrible Twos. Other parents believed that they are taught much more at school than they would be at home. Moreover, since every other child of that age was being sent to play-school, no parent wanted to be left behind. All parents felt these play-schools were rendering the important service of lending a social milieu that would enable their children to interact with others of their age. Besides, the school environment was filled with educational toys and equipment designed to stimulate their little brains. Indeed, nursery rooms are now a feast of colour, sights and sounds, and children can touch, smell, listen and see the various objects that are displayed so that they may learn through all their senses. How much better this is, say parents, than for the children to be stuck in an apartment in the care of an uneducated domestic help. Besides, we must remember that new-age grandparents are in short supply for various complex reasons. It is universally acknowledged that the kind of ‘enrichment’ that grandparents are able to provide cannot be matched by any institution or learning programme. While this void cannot be filled, the little time that children can get with their ageing grandparents must be valued and made the most of. The historian, Tapan Raychaudhuri, an octogenarian, recounts in his memoirs, Bangalnama, how he told his very young grand-daughter that ever since her birth he had wanted to live another hundred years. “Dadu, you will be very old by that time!” she exclaimed, and added, after some thought, “So will I be.”

However, many parents feel that the most important function of play-schools is to make their children ready for admission to prestigious high schools. In this context, it is important to point out that the Right to Education Act (2009) does not permit any kind of screening, testing or interviewing of children or their parents at the elementary stage. For reasons that are unclear, ‘minority schools’ are outside the purview of this act. So, whether schools observe this rule or not, parents do not wish to take any risk. I discovered, to my horror, that ‘grooming’ sessions are held for this momentous entry into ‘big’ schools. Parents are prepared for The Interview in many ways. They are advised on appropriate attire for themselves and for their offspring, given tips on the kind of questions to ask and on how to respond to the questions that they were likely to be asked. College students used to call these ‘suggestions’ and ‘pass notes’ when they were preparing for exams. A tutor’s reputation was often built on his or her ability to supply these accurately.

So, nursery parent-hopefuls come calling in elegant attire and ask us questions that demonstrate their up-to-the minute awareness of educational trends. Their readiness to continue to invest handsomely in their offspring’s educational career, which has already had an excellent start in a reputed playschool, is made very plain. But, for me, things begin to take a different turn when parents want to know whether our school holds ‘socio-emotional personality development’ sessions, ‘communication skills’ and ‘etiquette’ classes for our nursery children. My uneasiness on being asked these questions was instrumental in my determination to find out the rationale behind parents’ expectations from their young children and from their nursery schooling. I needed to investigate the current scenario in pre-school education in general. Some of my findings are given below.

Play-schools need to be market savvy. A well-known play-school chain has advertised thus: X is rated among the best pre-schools all over the nation … it’s the environment full of love that makes every school pale in comparison… computer-aided learning, scientific curriculum, stage-exposure for each child, spacious environs opened eyes of the entire nation towards new facets of personality of children… the school is nurturing not only children but also educating parents about parenting. … Teaching method: International level. Cut-off age: 1 yrs [sic] and 8 months for playgroups.

There is a mad scramble for admission to the best play-schools in certain parts of the United States of America. Parents begin to research profiles of pre-schools and send off two-page-long CVs of their children to the short-listed schools. In England, seven-month-old babies and their parents attend workshops entitled “Getting to Know Each Other”, “Talking with Baby”, “Listening and Looking Out-of-Doors” and so on. In Mumbai, nursery schools organize Mike Time sessions for 18-month-olds so that their public-speaking skills are perfected long before they reach President Obama’s age.

Those of us who are responsible for giving direction to our school policy must keep abreast of the latest trends and innovative measures in education and, indeed, be innovative ourselves. But even after what I have learnt, I believe that in the nursery there should be more learning and less teaching, more of exposure to the outdoors and nature, more of interaction with other children and some ‘alone time’ too when they learn to amuse themselves. I do not think that adults should operate as schedule masters and event managers for their children and pack every hour of their day with ‘fun-filled learning experiences’. Some of these new trends ensure that children are introduced unnaturally early to a high-pressure world, and I keep wondering whether the premature curtailment of childhood will be regretted in later years. Of course, I could be quite wrong, and soon there will be one-month-old infants in our nurseries interacting meaningfully with intelligent computer screens.

Meanwhile, the Colombian mother with the one-month-old baby that walks believes that her baby is possessed by the devil.