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Balwadis in Chennai: a First Impression - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

Balwadis in Chennai: a First Impression [Feb. 21st, 2011|03:01 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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On a recent trip to Chennai, my aunt who volunteers for ASHA took me along on a trip to 4-5 Balwadis (government-run pre-schools, apparently supplemented by private contributions). Here's a writeup of some notes I took. This was originally meant as feedback for ASHA but I decided to post it here as well.

What made the most striking impression upon me was that in every school I visited, the kids were curious and friendly. They were not crying or fighting, took to strangers easily, and most imporantly, seemed eager to learn and explore. I refer not only to classroom instruction—I gave a two-year old a pen and piece of paper to see if she could draw, and after scribbling for a few seconds she began to investigate how the pen worked (it was a retractable ballpoint), and quickly figured out how to operate the spring mechanism. The general impression I got was that with the right care and teaching, these children will go very far.

As for the Balwadis themselves, the conditions are very basic, to put it mildly. They are overcrowded and understaffed (if I understand correctly, there are enough 'aayas' (caretakers) but not many qualified teachers). Many of the schools did not have a working gas line for cooking mid-day meals, and some didn't even have running water. The classrooms are kept relatively clean (compared to the surrounding slums). The children sit on the floor and write on slates with chalk. The walls are filled with brightly colored instructional materials such as pictures of birds and animals with their names.

My recurring observation was that a few changes that would cost little or nothing could make a real difference. One big area is hygiene—while it is not terrible, there is a lot of room for improvement. One of the aayas was chopping vegetables on the floor when we visited; I assume they all do this. A raised countertop (which was available) would have been much more suitable. A child who repeatedly indicated that she needed to go to the bathroom was ignored until she gave up and urinated in the classroom; this was not cleaned properly.

Another area that could use improvement is study materials. Take the use of slates and chalk: I know this is how things were done traditionally, but pencils and notebooks are cheap these days. It would allow the teacher to monitor the child's progress, but more importantly, taking the notebooks home would encourage parents to keep their kids in school by showing them that the children are learning and making progress over the months and years. There was also a conspicuous absence of toys. Young children learn by playing, and not just by receiving verbal instruction. Toys would have the added benefit of encouraging children to go to school.

Needless to say, I'm unfamiliar with the workings and the constraints of the system and my suggestions must be taken with a pinch of salt. In summary, I saw promise and hope, but there need to be systemic changes in order to realize the potential, and I'm glad that ASHA is involved in funding and volunteering. I wonder if it would be possible to develop a blueprint consisting of ideas and procedures that have shown results in individual schools that can then be distributed to all the teachers.