Alternative Education - Let Them Play
by Chintan Girish Modi
Balloon RattleYou Need
A balloon, a few grains, a bamboo stick and a piece of thread.
How to make it
Put the grains inside the balloon, fill it with air and tie it with
Machbox RattleYou NeedA thin bamboo stick, two matchboxes, a pen-knife and a few pebbles.
How to make it
Split the thin bamboo stick into two with the help of a pen-knife.
Walk into Anurag Tated’s house in Baroda, and you are more than likely to find the eight-year-old jumping from sofa to table, playing with cushions, pulling someone’s hair, cooking up his own lingo, or inventing his own steps to go with the latest Bollywood dance number. He loves playing ‘dark room’. Getting blindfolded, running around, making all sorts of strange noises before you eventually get hold of someone who will then get blindfolded and do all of the same – the sequence is thrilling enough for Anurag to want more of it. He enjoys playing badminton, with a racquet usually snatched from one of his sisters, although he is still learning to hold one properly. There’s a lot of energy and enthusiasm bubbling inside him, and he needs to use it his own way. If you try to force him into staying put, sitting quietly, and learning math tables, he’ll find a way to dodge you; else, he will stay glued to cartoon films on television.
Unblock their Creativity
Anurag is still young, and since the burden of studies isn’t too overwhelming, he can make enough time to have fun. But older kids are so caught up with school, homework, tuitions or coaching classes, that there is little time left for recreation. Their natural impulse to play is curbed under the pretext of equipping them for the competitive world.
Lavina Gulati, who was formerly a counsellor at Bombay International School, feels that play is the only way in which children get to express themselves freely. She says, “When children play, their creative potential comes out. But parents want to structure every moment, sending them from one class to another – dance, art, music, swimming, etc. They want their children to be super kids. Kids are hardly ever just allowed to be, and to do their own thing. Thus their creativity gets blocked.”
Lavina’s two-year-old son, Ahan, loves water. He finds it soothing, so Lavina often takes him to the swimming pool, to let him enjoy it. She also takes him along to the bookshop, the zoo, and other places. He always finds something fun to do. Lavina feels that it is important to let children make what they wish to of what is given to them – be it toys, colours, or pieces of paper. “These bring out a lot of things going on in the child’s mind. Kids cannot come and tell you about everything that bothers them. They express through their play. But look at the kind of toys parents are buying these days, operated using batteries and buttons! Everything happens for you, and you just sit and watch. Play becomes mechanical. One should just give them stuff, and let them play in their own way. This will enable them to try out different things, learn on their own, and discover their creativity.”
Let them use their imagination, and you’ll be surprised with the ideas they come up with. A kitchen utensil may double up as a musical instrument, and a chair may serve as a driver’s seat. But for this, you must let them experiment, and even make mistakes. In her book, The Treehouse, Naomi Wolf records a conversation with her father, Leonard Wolf, a well-regarded poet and teacher for 60 years. Leonard says, “We played with pebbles, corks, spools from thread. We built cities out of mud and twigs. I haven’t the slightest memory of a single toy in my childhood. But there was plenty to do. There was a grain warehouse owned by a Jew – ten- or twelve-feet-high bins filled with wheat, corn, and oats. He would let us play in the bins: we would climb to the top of the mounds of grain, slide down it, roll in it. It was marvellous.”
The argument about play becoming increasingly mechanical, and far removed from unstructured joyful expression, is a strong one, and is supported by many. Aban Bana, who teaches at Tridha, a Mumbai-based Waldorf school, run in keeping with the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, is among these. At Tridha, children play in specially built sand pits, with sand from the nearby Juhu beach. They also frolic about in water. In addition, they learn eurythmy, an art of movement practised to infuse oneself with health-giving rhythms, and develop one’s self.
Aban advocates playing with traditional toys as opposed to the plastic, battery-operated, so-called ‘educational’ ones. She says, “Children can learn so much from traditional toys. The skipping rope is a wonderful way to co-ordinate movements. When children play together, they give and take and share. One holds the rope, and the other jumps. It’s a great way of learning rhythm. How many children play marbles these days? It is beautiful hand-eye-brain coordination. They push and pull and make a lot of noise. It’s so exciting. The more they play, the more guileless, innocent, natural and spontaneous they will be. Let them fight. What’s wrong with a fight? It shouldn’t get ugly, parents should keep a watch on that.”
Comet Media Foundation, a Mumbai-based organisation, has been holding children’s festivals called ‘bal vividha’ in different parts of India, exploring and making accessible alternative approaches to learning. The idea behind each festival is to provide hands-on and activity-based learning, to de-stress the learning process, and to make it joyous. A section of the festival is devoted to interactive corners, where children can play with toys, meet rural artisans, and learn to make handicrafts. This concern with encouraging creative play has led Comet to take up the promotion of toys made from organic materials like wood, lacquer, bamboo and cotton fabric, which provide employment to rural crafts persons. Chandita observes, “Playing is often children’s way of recreating the big world in a miniature form, and trying to make sense of it in manageable proportions. That is why you see them playing shop-shop, doctor-doctor, home-home, mummy-daddy, etc. There is another kind of play, which is logical, and involves strategising – hopscotch, ludo, chess, etc. That helps to develop skills of another kind.”
Chandita feels that children should be allowed to play with puppets, because this gives a boost to their imagination and encourages storytelling abilities. “No tale is static; it is constantly re-told in the light of one’s values, emphasising the parts one liked, reinterpreting the parts one didn’t like.” She speaks of a child who swore that the woodcutter was the real villain in the story of Little Red Riding Hood, while the wolf was the victim. How could the poor thing survive when the woodcutter was chopping down forests? Understandably, the wolf was compelled to encroach on human territory, and devour people! This was the child’s explanation. And the line of argument is quite convincing, especially in an age where environmental consciousness has become so important.
Chennai-based Kreeda is another organisation actively trying to revive and popularise traditional games, many of which are played with stones, marbles, shells, tamarind seeds, cups and coins. Vinita Sidhartha, founder of Kreeda, believes that play is crucial, for it goes a long way in breaking down barriers and building relationships. “Today, with nuclear families, it is sad that kids are losing touch with their grandparents. There are many single-child families, and sometimes, even one of the parents is missing. This is becoming more and more common. Relationships don’t have a chance to blossom beyond a structured environment. The beauty of traditional games is that they can bridge any barrier. My son is 15, and my grandmother – his great grandmother – is 95. There is an 80-year gap, but when they play together, it is bridged effortlessly. Old people may not be comfortable with a computer game, but traditional games appeal to the child in everyone.”
When the Kreeda team was working on their gilli danda, Vinita showed it to her father. He talked about how he used to play with his friends and siblings, the mischief he did, how he cheated, etc. She says, “There is something so magical seeing the child in your parents. For most people, their happiest memory of childhood is laughter, and this is often associated with playing. To win a game, to lose with a friend – these are such important things to learn.”
Deal with Eyeball Addiction
Parents are not always the ones at fault. A number of kids today prefer computer and television screens to the playground. During a recent Comet workshop at Devlali, Chandita met with a lady whose eight-year-old son has a tendency to obesity because his attention is constantly focussed on one screen or the other – the television or the computer. Even here, there is no concentration involved; the child is either switching channels with a remote, or browsing a couple of websites simultaneously. Recalling her conversation with the worried mother, Chandita remarks, “All the play is intellectual. The kid has to be sent out to breathe some fresh air. And there he meets with another kid. They sit together and speak in low voices like old men, using the football as an elbow rest rather than a toy. The mother finds it absolutely strange, because as a kid, she used to spend most of her time playing outdoors.”
Monil Dalal from Chennai has encountered several cases of children who are unable to experience the joy of play because of their addiction to either the computer or the television. A post graduate in Toy Design and Development from the Ahmedabad-based National Institute of Design (NID), Monil now works with BSA Cycles, a company that manufactures bicycles for children. For his research project at NID, he interacted closely with some latch-key kids (children of working parents, locked in at home with little to do), and developed a play unit based on their needs and problems. “These kids spend a lot of time eating junk food, watching television, and playing video games. Many of them are obese. There is a lot of strain on their eyes. I made a toy that would help them improve concentration, kill time, and also provide acupressure therapy.”
Let them make their own toys
Perhaps we need to do something more in addition to encouraging creative play – get the children involved in making their own toys. Arvind Gupta has been doing this for years. Formerly an electrical engineer from IIT, Kanpur, he is now at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, popularising science among children by sharing the art of making simple, ingenious, cost-effective toys from used tetrapacks, syringes, film roll cases, straws, wires, pen refills, matchboxes, cartons, etc. “If you let children play with toys that they can make themselves, they’ll have more fun. We live in a consumerist society that generates enough garbage, much of which can be used to make creative toys. These toys have a strong component of recycling, so children learn to respect the environment. These are simple to make; once children get a taste of this joy, they get hooked. They can use all their senses, and play with their hands and heart. I used to make toys out of garbage when I was a child. Those were my happiest days.”
Sudarshan Khanna, who heads the Toy Innovation Centre of NID, supports Gupta’s idea. In the preface to his popular book, Joy of Making Indian Toys, he writes, “This simple, straightforward resource book has been prepared for two basic reasons: one reason stems from my belief that every society has a great deal of practical and useful knowledge which is often expressed most creatively and effectively through the tales and toys of that society; the other reason is based on my own experience with self-made simple toys. This gave birth to my interest and fascination for design, science and technology. Today we find children and their parents are obsessed with glossy, high-priced, factory-made toys, perhaps not realising what a child can gain from simple self-made playthings.” Both Gupta and Khanna have written several books giving detailed instructions on how children can create their own toys, and these books are very low-priced.
Remember to Gift
In the Waldorf Education Exhibition Catalogue document released on the occasion of the 44th Session of the International Conference on Education of UNESCO in Geneva, Joan Almon writes, “Play is the serious work of childhood. In play, children take hold of the natural and cultural worlds, and, in so doing, take in the qualities inherent in those realms. They recreate human cultural development, and can later contribute to its further evolution, because they have understood through their hands. Kindergarten-aged children grasp the world in play; they experience with all their senses, they move with their whole body. Sure-footed, coordinated movement, balance and tactile sensitivity are schooled in play. This forms a basis for the conscious experience: I can shape the world because I have grasped it.” Need we say more?
Note: Illustrations and instructions for making toys are from Arvind Gupta’s book.
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