New curriculum gives children a much-needed head start

A more holistic approach to early learning is bringing more children to Anganwadi (preschool) centres and giving them the much-required head start in their lives.

Azera Parveen Rahman
There, in the middle of the room, stood the class-entertainer, five-year-old Jhonson, who regales his friends sitting on the sidelines with impromptu dance moves.
UNICEF India/Vishwanathan
19 July 2019

There, in the middle of the room, stood the class-entertainer, five-year-old Jhonson, who regales his friends sitting on the sidelines with impromptu dance moves. On his direction, the children started drawing on the floor with chalk. Johnson is a child with disabilities and, as was revealed by his mother and the Anganwadi worker later, has bloomed into a confident little person after he started attending the centre two years ago.

“I was initially apprehensive about sending him to the Anganwadi centre,” confessed Jhonson’s mother, Vinita Devi. Standing out among the crowd because of his developmental disability, the little boy would often be at the receiving end of cold stares and parents wouldn’t allow their children to play with him. The Anganwadi centre, Vinita imagined, would be a repeat of the everyday ordeal.

Vinita Devi with her son Johnson.
UNICEF India/Vishwanathan

Even then, it was a tussle of belief. Three of her other children had come to the same centre earlier and were now in a formal school, and Vinita knew the Anganwadi worker, Sunaina Devi, well. “So I accompanied Jhonson to the centre for the first two-three months. Initially, he cried when he came here. But slowly, his behaviour changed. He started interacting with the other children, played and participated in the activities that the teacher taught,” the mother said.

Inclusion and overall development, as illustrated in Jhonson’s case, are essential components of the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) curriculum that has been introduced in Anganwadi centres. A big step forward from earlier times, the new curriculum, which was developed with the help of UNICEF, and is supported by the IKEA Foundation, uses a holistic approach towards development and includes age-appropriate learning and recreational activities.

Vinita Devi with her son Johnson.
UNICEF India/Vishwanathan

“It is a scientifically proven fact that 90 per cent of a child’s brain development takes place by the time he or she is six years of age,” said Shweta Sahay, ECCE in-charge under Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), Bihar.  “Considering India has 150 million children in this age group and the significance of this period, the government formed a policy on Early Childhood Care and Education in 2013. Under this, in 2015, we developed a theme-based curriculum which, in addition to encouraging learning abilities, aids the development of fine motor skills, cognitive ability, and language.”

“My eldest daughter is 12, and when she was in this Anganwadi centre, the room looked bare. She would come here, sing some songs, eat lunch, and go home. But now I see how the children have so much more to do – they have books, toys, and do so many activities,” Rinku Devi said as her younger daughter, five-year-old Anupriya sat close by. “Anupriya is slower than others because she cannot see, but she is learning a lot. She sings with the others and listens to stories. As a mother, I am delighted.”

Johnson in his classroom.
UNICEF India/Vishwanathan

Sunaina Devi, the Anganwadi worker of the centre that Jhonson and Anupriya attend, also had a significant role to play in motivating the parents to send their children here. Bespectacled and mild-mannered, she has been working as an Anganwadi worker for the last three decades. “I have cared for some of the parents when they were little and whose children attend the centre now!” she smiled, adding that the scope of her work has widened now, but she feels more supported because of the structure that the new curriculum provides.

Kalawati Devi, another Anganwadi worker in a different centre – in the Sherghati block – concurred with her. To begin with, the four-day training of the Anganwadi workers on the ECCE curriculum was an experience in itself, Kalawati said. “In the training, we had to let go of all our inhibitions and pretend to be children ourselves. So we sat like them, had our nails checked for hygiene, and did all kinds of activities like hopping over swinging ropes, painting, walking on crooked lines, and creating clay toys, which we would then implement in the centre. For four days, we became children,” she said.

Children reading a book in class.
UNICEF India/Vishwanathan

This, the Anganwadi worker said, helped her understand the logic behind each activity. Playing with pebbles helps develop motor skills, making puzzles helps develop cognitive and problem-solving skills. The curriculum is theme-based, with associated activities. For instance, one of the themes is the human body. The children were learning to identify body parts and sang rhymes on the theme.

A mother and daughter.
UNICEF India/Vishwanathan

“Of the 12 themes, we have inculcated three in the curriculum; booklets have been distributed on these themes, and Anganwadi workers have been trained. We are now working on four other themes,” Rama Shankar Prasad Daftuar, the director of ICDS in Bihar, said. 

At both Anganwadi centres, the workers remarked on the spike in attendance that they had seen. Johnson, for instance, now walks to the centre every morning. “I now tell other mothers to send their children to the Anganwadi centre too,” his beaming mother said.