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Friday, March 24, 2023

Early childhood learning: Early focus for long term impact

India’s promise to its youngest children, of ensuring access to quality early education, has been reinvigorated with the launch of the “Jaadui Pitara” – a magical box by the Ministry of Education, containing teaching and learning materials for the foundational stages of 3 to 8.

Jaadui Pitara is a milestone in our education system’s recognition of the impact of learn-by-play in ensuring an equal foundation early for our children.

Learning through play, both free and structured play, has been recognised over the past few decades as an important strategy in building foundational socio-cognitive, motor and emotional skills in children – by engaging in play, children are introduced to a world that teaches them to negotiate (eg: who will become the doctor this time), basic physical patterns (e.g., clap sideways, then front and back) that help them build pattern recognition skills that are critical for mathematics, or pretend-play, which acts as a simulation for a child to reconcile their emotions with external factors, rationalize, express, freely discuss ideas and opinions and build agency and a sense of control.

A meaningful addition to the learning curriculum for early ages, Jaadui Pitara exemplifies the ethos of holistic development of National Curriculum Framework that builds on the non-linearity of learning trajectories, focusing on contextual understanding over rote learning.

Need for centers of quality

With 85% of brain development achieved by the age of 8, foundational literacy and numeracy can either set a child up for a life of opportunities or a sprint on the backfoot. India’s 1.4 million Anganwadi centres and the quality of education provided there are catalytic building blocks for millions of children from low-income households.
The opportunity, therefore, that could lessen the divide between what children can do and what is expected of them are the Anganwadi workers (frontline workers in-charge of a child’s health and nutrition primarily).
What has been evident through our engagement and work with communities across 7 states in India is the hunger and desire of the Anganwadi workers to leverage play-based learning and teaching. They have naturally higher intent and interest in contributing effectively to a child’s future and greater readiness to upskill. In our intervention states, Anganwadi workers have reported a visible uptake in attendance, learning outcomes, and socio-cognitive skill building – confidence, ability to think, etc. when play-based learning is implemented.

Rocket Learnings’ studies have shown that the average child of a treatment group improves test scores by 30%+ and reaches the top third of a control group.

Highly resourceful in a resource-poor environment, Anganwadi workers have continually gone beyond their call of duty, doing ‘more with less’ as exemplified in the dolls Angawandi workers from Maharashtra have been making with old clothes and rocks – indestructible, long lasting and leading to socio-emotional development.

The Jaadui Pitara, with its potential optimized and last mile reach ensured, should positively encourage improved learning outcomes. Empowering a generation of ill-equipped but resolute parents.

Parents also play a vital role in providing a stimulating, learning environment for their children but need support because of their low literacy levels, lack of awareness, laborious work limiting time for engagement, and daily struggles with poverty. But when empowered with resources that are user-friendly, that allow for seamless integration into one’s daily routine, parents’ behavior changes, leading to regular positive actions over a long period, for young children’s foundational learning.

In fact when learning becomes more play based, parents and children find joy in learning together – giving busy fathers and mothers a way to engage with their children everyday without the stress of traditional ‘homework’. This in turn, helps them regain their confidence and motivation in their roles as first educators.

From momentum to action

There is an increasing understanding of the positive, long-term impact of early childhood education both at the national and policy level. There have been many significant announcements recently, including of the Jaadui Pitara, the new National Curriculum Framework that emphasizes life skills and socio-emotional skills, and the National Education Policy 2020. These double click on self-paced learning and meeting children’s learning needs contextually, and mandate admission of children into primary schools only post age 6 to ensure active engagement in foundational education.

These policy efforts all point towards a conducive policy environment cognisant of the opportunity for an economy that will rely on our youngest children’s ability to solve problems, think creatively, and enjoy the process of learning in the future. The Ministry of Women and Child Development’s (WCD) recognition of early childhood learning as an important component of the Integrated Child Development Scheme and concerted action on the inclusion of ‘Poshan Bhi Padhai Bhi’ as part of Poshan Maah are positive indicators of the government’s openness and commitment to seize the opportunity and to develop a high quality pre-school system both in perception and capacity. Collaboration between parents, Angawadi workers, and teachers to drive towards a north star of delightful, play based learning will help realize Bharat’s vision of Amrit Kaal.

(Authors of this article are Namya Mahajan; Co-Founder, Rocket Learning and Sukhna Sawhney, Lead for Early Childhood Education, Rocket Learning. Views expressed here are personal.)

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