How young mothers have become the force of change in the learning and growth of our children

Time taken out from busy household schedules to play with children works in favour of educational attainment

Rukmini Banerji
Updated: Jun 11, 2024 12:00:44 PM UTC
Image: Shutterstock

Under the wide leafy shade of a Gulmohar tree, a group of young mothers are practising a number game. With chalk, they make boxes on the ground and write single-digit numbers. The first woman gets ready to play the game. Others give her a number. She jumps onto the box with the given number. Now, she has to give two numbers, which, when added or subtracted, will give the number she is standing on. Everyone gives suggestions. The young woman keeps saying "wait, wait". There is a lot of laughter and fun. The women will go home and play this game with their children. 

In July 2020, India's new National Education Policy was launched, and two important elements stand out in the education of young children. First, the age range 3 to 8 is recognised as the "foundation stage". Pre-school years are now seen as part of the continuum that leads into the first two grades of the formal school system. Second, the policy lays out clear goals—every student will attain foundational literacy and numeracy by Grade 3. The document goes on to underline that this is "an urgent national mission" with clear timelines and further states unequivocally that "the rest of this policy will become relevant for our students only if this most basic learning requirement (i.e., reading, writing, and arithmetic at the foundational level) is first achieved. These two elements provide an exciting opportunity to build India's education system, starting with fundamentals.

In addition to strengthening the classroom environment and practice in early grades, another force for fuelling and supporting children's learning is becoming increasingly visible. This is the effort of parents, particularly young mothers' engagement in their children's learning. The current cohort of mothers of young children (ages 3 to 8) differs from their counterparts even ten years ago. These women have benefited from the last two decades of progress in universalising elementary education. They have high aspirations for their children's educational attainment. Further, for a variety of reasons, for women, wage work or participation in the labour force outside the family is currently low in India. These demographic trends come together to provide an additional boost for building strong foundational skills for young children.

Starting this year, the United Nations has declared June 11 as International Day of Play. The National Curriculum Framework—Foundational Stage emphasises the importance of play in the 3-8-year-old age group. Play in all its dimensions is taking centre stage in the learning of our youngest.

Mothers of young children come together in groups in their neighbourhood. They meet frequently (twice or thrice a month). Together, they do fun activities to engage their children. Play is key to keeping energy and enthusiasm high. Activity cards and videos are shared to bring new ideas into the mix. Common and everyday objects are used—for example, sorting games with onions and potatoes, arranging beans or ladyfingers in order of length, counting games with kitchen utensils, games to build fine motor skills like separating rice grains from dal, and so on. Building vocabulary through simple word games has been an immense source of joy for mothers and children as they dig into and develop their own "treasure trove" of words in their own language. Mothers engaging and playing with children brings new vitality and momentum into building the breadth of skills essential to building foundations. The mother groups help organise and channel this productive energy, and for the community, schools and anganwadis to recognise and celebrate mothers' contribution and support.

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State governments are actively adopting and adapting such ideas. In Maharashtra, the state government has encouraged the formation of mothers' community-based activity groups for the last two years as a key part of their NIPUN (National Initiative for Proficiency in Reading with Understanding and Numeracy) effort. The education department in Madhya Pradesh has been conducting FLN (foundational literacy and numeracy) melas that bring in parents, especially mothers and children, to participate in activity-based fairs.  In Punjab, for several years, the pre-primary classes in government schools organise mothers' activity workshops that teachers lead. Himachal Pradesh government has launched a separate initiative called Pehli Shikshak Ma. In Chhattisgarh, the government carries out Angna Mei Shiksha.

Core to all of these initiatives is the central role of the mother and the critical element of play—time taken out from busy household schedules to play with children. Time and again, we see that these efforts not only get children going but also bring childhood back for adults.

As a country, as communities and as families, let us enthusiastically welcome mothers and children as we play and learn together and build a strong foundation for the future. Through play, we celebrate childhood and keep growing—Bachpan Manao Badhte Jao.

Rukmini Banerji is the CEO of Pratham Education Foundation.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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