Quality early childhood education can significantly contribute to the child's physical, psychomotor, cognitive, social and emotional development, including the acquisition of languages and early literacy. The first eight years of a child's life are critical for growth and development. Early childhood educators’ most important task is to provide a program that is sensitive to and supports the development of young children. These are formative years in children’s development and learning wherein a high-quality program can build a solid foundation for their success and fulfilment in school and life.
Mentor Magazine had an opportunity to discuss Early Childhood Education in India and with Dr. Swati Popat Vats, The president of Podar Education Network. She also heads the Podar Institute of Education as a Director.
MM: How has Early Childhood Education been implemented in the Indian Education system? What progressive changes have we seen over the years?
Dr Popat: We have a solid history of pioneers that advocated for and set up early childhood programs, contributing to 85% of learning in schools. It started in 1920 with the first Balwadi opened in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, by pioneer educator Gijubhai Badheka. Tagore, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Gijubhai Badheka, and Tarabai Modak were also inspired by these philosophers and were one of the first few educationists in India who realized the importance of early childhood education
Tagore believed that the school environment was an arrangement to give pre-decided lessons whereas nature is the best teacher for children under the age of 7.
Tagore’s theory on education focused on individual differences and demanded that curriculum should address the needs of children.
He claimed that music, art and poetry are essential to the overall development of children, and thus they should be facilitated with these in the early years of school (Vittachi, Raghavan & Raj, 2007).
He also believed that education can be best imparted in the natural surroundings and that it should be contextualized with the child’s background.
He developed the concept of Nai Taleem, India's first significant initiative towards early childhood education. He was against the textbook culture and exam-oriented approach to education.
Gandhi and NEP-2020
By making children independent from a young age, giving instruction in their mother tongue and stressing the culture of India, a feeling of strong nationalism were to be inculcated through primary education.
In a speech on 17th February 1946, he said that a child starts learning from conception itself, and so he said that pregnant women should be taught as a part of adult education till the child is born (NCTE, 1998).
Till 2 and half years of age, parents will be responsible for the child’s education. By that time, children can use their sensory and motor skills.
Thus, formal pre-basic education will start at two and half years, where children will learn through play and group activities. The education will teach them to be constructive and creative.
In 1920, Gijubhai Badheka, a High court lawyer from. There was considerable emphasis on culture (traditional music, art, dance), along with Montessori materials and activities” Bhavnagar, Gujarat opened Bal Mandir, a school in which Montessori methods were Indianized
Tarabai joins Gijubhai
In 1922, Tarabai Modak who was the first Indian Principal of the Barten Female College of Education at Rajkot resigned from the post and joined Badheka as Montessori’s work also inspired her in pre-school education.
They established the Nutan Bal Shikshan Sangh (NBSS), which was responsible for the evolution of a preschool system that devised Montessori’s principles suitable to the Indian context. They also used Froebel’s methodology with Montessori’s methods and developed innovative techniques of story-telling and handicrafts making (Naik, 1978).
In 1945, Tarabai moved to Bordi, a small coastal town about 160 km from Bombay and established the Gram Bal Shiksha Kendra (GBSK) - Center for the Education of Rural Children. Anuta Wagh, a social worker working with the Kasturba Gandhi Trust, joined Modak, and they started the preschool in Bordi.
The concept of Balwadi developed during this time in 1946. Two types of Balwadi- a central Balwadi, which would be open for all children during regular school hours and the Aangan Balwadi which was conducted in different courtyards of Bordi by the Gram-sevikas trained by the Kasturba Gandhi Trust, so that children and their parents of any caste can realize the significance of the preschool and do not get deprived of it
Sargant Plan- first official document on ECE
In 1944, the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) presented a post-war educational development proposal known as the Sargent Plan.
This was the first official document which recommended pre-primary schools for children of the age group 3-6
After independence, the first government initiative for the inclusion of pre-primary school in the existing primary school system as suggested by the Committee on Early Childhood Education came in 1953.
In 1964, the Kothari Commission of India recommended the establishment of state-level pre-primary education centres.
National Policy on Children
The National Policy on Children (1974) integrated the aspects of care and education in early childhood education, which got reflected in the Fifth Five-Year Plan in 1975 (Sood, 2003).
The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) was launched with 33 pilot projects providing healthcare services to children of 0-6 years of age, and pregnant and lactating mothers.
The National Policy on Education (1986) emphasized early childhood care and education (ECCE).
So it took India from 1920 to 1986 to make a national policy emphasising early childhood education.
MM: Thank you for giving us a historical perspective. How is your school contributing towards the policy of Early Childhood Education?
Dr Popat: The policy of Early Childhood Education states play-based, hands-on, inquiry-based learning that is stress-free, and we achieve this at Podar Jumbo Kids, now rebranded a Podar Prep as we are POWERED BY NEP 2020 AND BOOSTED BY EYFS (UK) AND EYLF (AUSTRALIA). The overall aim of early years education is to attain optimal outcomes in physical and motor development, cognitive development, socio-emotional-ethical development, cultural/artistic development, and the development of communication and early language, literacy, and numeracy. We achieve this by combining the NEP2020 with the development and learning of EYFS(UK) and the life skills learning of EYLF (Australia).
The areas of development are
Communication and Language
Personal, Social and Emotional Development
Understanding the world
Expressive arts and design
To ensure all of the above, the KIDUCATION curriculum has three specific elements
Hand-Head-Heart = Hand-Stimulation, Head-Thinking, Heart-Nurturing
HAND–STIMULATION – 98% of the brain develops in the first six years. Thus young kids love to touch everything, in fact, they use their five senses in learning. To help make brain connections, learning in KIDUCATION is about the basic stimulation involved. Hence, all teaching at Jumbo Kids is about sight, sound and touch or experience. So hands-on stimulation, the first element in the KIDUCATION curriculum, translates for teachers and parents into creating opportunities for kids to understand, reason and implement.
HEAD–THINKING – Why? This is the favourite word of young kids, this is because their neurons are connecting at a breakneck speed and curiosity becomes the key to keeping these neurons connected. So at KIDUCATION, we do not believe that ‘curiosity killed the cat’ in fact, we believe that curiosity helps create brighter brains. So we allow kids to question and motivate them to wonder. So while a rote-based curriculum will teach kids that the sky is blue, KIDUCATION helps them wonder and understand ‘why’ the sky is blue. For parents and teachers, it translates into projects, events and activities designed to help kids wonder, question and seek their own answers.
HEART–NURTURING – All education aims to use knowledge to make the world a better place. When the head thinks, the heart understands and implements. KIDUCATION knows that it is EQ that will make kids successful individuals, and so all learning culminates into doing, practicing and creating stress-free environments for kids. Teachers and parents partner to understand that children have a strong desire to explore, question and manipulate and nurturing this desire sets the stage for future learning and lead to clarification and understanding-the foundation of lifelong learning.
Further, we assess children on the above 7 areas of development of EYFS, which the teacher maps through observation daily and records the assessments in the Portfolio of the child. These development-based assessments can be marked across various age groups based on the development milestone achieved by the child. Thus the teacher can track the skill areas where the child is lacking. The teacher then plans the following steps as Goal setting for the child, which is then shared with the parent to do at home with the child for consistency in learning and development.
MM: What can parents do at home to give their children an early start in Early Childhood Education?
Dr Popat: The first 1000 days are the most crucial, and parents need to be educated that they are not just parents but the child’s first ‘brain builders’. They are responsible for providing optimal stimulation for energizing the brain cells, which shape the behaviour, emotions and development of each child- Because over 85% of a child’s cumulative brain development occurs before the age of 6, indicating the critical importance of appropriate care and stimulation of the brain in the early years to ensure healthy brain development and growth
During Early Childhood there are ‘sensitive periods’ or ‘critical periods’ for development of cognitive, linguistic, social and psychomotor competencies.
At Podar, we have developed a website for parents, www.born-smart.com that has videos on 2-minute games that parents can play to nurture brain development in children. And we have released a book that helps parents to understand brain development and a helpline where parents can reach me for parenting tips. Our Born Smart program is available in Hindi and English on TATA SKY channel 664 every day.
MM: How can we implement Early Childhood Education in socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds?
Dr. Popat: Our ICDS program is one of the most robust programs in the world, but sadly it was established with the goal of nutrition, health and mother education. Early childhood education was added later as an afterthought, and that is why our Anganwadi Sevikas are not trained well enough in ECE. We strongly need a good private-public partnership if we want ECE to reach all children in India. Think about it, if every private preschool were to adopt 5 Anganwadi or Balwadi centres and work together to ensure they have the required material and teacher training, we would have uplifted the Anganwadis and Balwadis to be vibrant play centres that children would love coming to and parents would want to send their children to. Of Course, we have to keep in mind that we do all this keeping language and culture of the children in mind and not forcing western culture, language and activities on them.
MM: What actions have you taken to help your teachers to get trained in Early Childhood Education?
Dr Popat: Sadly, in our country, we don’t have a common ECE teacher training course like a B.Ed., so most of the time, we are working with untrained or under-trained teachers. Hence we have developed our own teacher training program and consistently and constantly train teachers.
Educate, Empower and Enrich are the core ways that we adopt to instil leadership at Podar Jumbo Kids:
Educate – Tools like dockets, videos and training are made available to educate the teams regularly. We encourage the teams to use their brains to understand and apply knowledge, not just as a memory bank. So we use tools like assessment, competitions etc. to understand the knowledge capacity of staff and then encourage them to learn more.
Empower – We want them to be empowered to take ownership of their classrooms, and thus we ensure that they are well equipped to answer any questions or queries that parents may have about the curriculum, assessment or ‘why we do what we do, that is developmentally appropriate practice. They need to ask;’ why’ for them to be able to reply to a parent’s ‘why’!
Enrich- emails, blogs, circulars, and training are all tools used by us to enrich your knowledge and experience at Podar Jumbo Kids. So we ensure that the teams make the most of all of these and that they are learning something new every month.
It is mandatory for all our teachers to have completed a minimum of one year of ECE teacher training qualification and if not then we enrol them in our one-year teacher training program.
All the teachers have a weekly curriculum meeting with the Headmistress to discuss the next week's curriculum, give demonstrations and solve their queries.
The Headmistress trains teachers every month for 5 hours.
We have an online induction program based on the curriculum and other important aspects at Podar Jumbo Kids which the teachers mandatorily are trained on when they join and then every year too.
Teachers are regularly sent early childhood insight and updates via blogs, circulars etc. by the Director.
Every year extensive 2 full days of training are conducted with the teachers to upgrade their curriculum and early childhood knowledge for next year.
They are also sent for workshops on early childhood which could be in-house or an outside faculty.
MM: How do you think Early Childhood Education is different in the 21st Century, as opposed to the 20th Century?
Dr Popat: In many ways, it has regressed, and in some ways, it has progressed! Now in kindergarten, children are taught how to read, write, and add with worksheets and homework. How did kindergarten become such a mess?
Kindergarten, a children’s garden, was founded by Fredrich Frobel in 1837 in Bad Blankenburg, now in Germany. Most countries in the world call their early childhood programs- kindergarten, but many don’t know about the origin of the term Kindergarten. Kinder means children and garten is garden, children’s garden, where the prime focus is the child and its freedom to grow and develop as nature intended. Kindergarten, where Froebel desired that children are to be like plants under the care of a gardener.
Today the stress is more on technology, toys, and infrastructure because private preschools have to market themselves, and parents choose schools based on these parameters. What Kindergarten was is lost!
But today we have more research on brain development, toy-based pedagogy, play-based learning and cognitive and socio-emotional development but the sad part is very few schools use it, understand it, and are able to explain it to parents.
MM: What are the important inclusions that you think should be made in every school with respect to Early Childhood Education?
Use of blue pen for corrections in the child’s notebooks because a red pen has a negative impact on the child as proven by research.
A birthday celebration without cakes full of sugar and instead use healthy options which in turn support their health and growing years enabling them to achieve their full potential.
The 3 lines concept for writing in notebooks as writing in 4 lines- red and blue leads to children learning and then unlearning when they go to grade 1 as they have to then learn to write between 2 solid lines only.
Behaviour management tools like conflict resolution, and silent classroom language techniques support children to understand and manage their behaviour better.
Allowing children to do certain tasks on their own independently leads to the building of confidence in them. Move away from too much teacher-directed curriculum and embrace child-initiated activities
A Numeracy education program which is based on visual representation and hands-on learning of Math thereby creating a strong foundation in Math.
Reading and writing program uses different teaching-learning resources and research-based activities to strengthen children’s reading and writing skills.
Include more emphasis on socio-emotional development and nurturing life skills
Have a play-based curriculum and move away from the senseless filling of notebooks and making children write things 50 times!
No exams and tests please, it’s against the RTE act too.
Change some senseless rhymes and stories that teach negative things like not saying sorry, taking things without asking, stepmothers are bad, wolves are bad and so many more
MM: Should schools offer daycare, to make the policy implementation more effective?
Dr Popat: Yes, daycares are essential both for children and parents. Children thrive in quality day-cares instead of being left with an untrained babysitter. Parents are able to focus on their work without the anxiety of what is happening to their children. Women can join the workforce, which will also benefit the country's economic development.
MM: How important is learning a second language for a child? At what age should children be exposed to a second language in schools?
Dr Popat: Very Important. All researchers agree that the earlier a child starts learning a second language, the better, for more reasons than one. Some researchers say that second language acquisition skills peak at or before age 6 or 7. Studies by Harvard University confirm that creativity, critical thinking skills, and flexibility of the mind are significantly enhanced if children learn a second language at a younger age. Preschool years, especially the first three years of life, are believed to be a vital period in a child’s life. This is when the foundations for attitude, thinking, and learning, among others, are laid down.
MM: According to you, what is the role of meal times for developmental processes in Early Childhood development?
Dr Popat: Meal time teaches the child to learn self-help skills and understand the importance of nutrition. At our centres, we ensure that there is a snack timetable for two reasons. We strongly believe in the WHO guidelines of healthy food and no junk food and so our menu ensures that children do not carry junk food in the snack box. Secondly, the menu ensures that children eat different food every day. Finally, the menu ensures that all children in the classroom have brought almost the same kind of food so there is no comparison or competition.
MM: What kind of role does technology play in Early Childhood Development?
Dr Popat: Technology is good and bad, we need to balance its use in Early Childhood. Think about it, if it was not for technology many children would have lost out on virtual learning during two years of the pandemic! Technology safety is like road safety and needs to be taught to children at a very young age, at Podar I conducted the largest ever screen use survey in India and the results were shocking, parents did not know the harmful effects of too much screen time. It is vital we teach children about safe technology use.
MM: Dr Popat, Thank you so much for your valuable time and insights into Early Childhood Education. We appreciate your expertise and we hope our readers will benefit from your experiences.
Dr. Swati Popat Vats has completed 33 years as an early childhood education expert. As an education consultant she set up the Euro Kids chain of preschools and TATASKY’s Actve Whizkids channel. She is President Podar Education Network and the founder director of Podar Jumbo Kids preschools and daycares and Podar Institute of Education, teacher-training wing. She heads the CACHE (UK) training program at Podar and is also Director of Podar’s UAE chain of preschools.
As President of Early Childhood Association- India she is involved with many state governments in developing the policy for ECE and in designing the early childhood curriculum for the government of Maharashtra’s International Education board and CBSE board’s optional subject of ECE for standard XIth and XIIth.
She advocates for child safety and has written many books for children, parents and teachers. She has recently written a book on India’s superlative educationist, Gijubhai Badeka and the Divaswapna method. At present she is actively involved in writing a curriculum for Coding and Robotics in early years.