Feature story

Putting the fun back in schooling

An early education effort in Karnataka’s childcare centres has had a transformative effect on tutors and the tutored

Once a shy and withdrawn child, five-year-old Vanishree chatters nonstop now about herself and the stuff she’s into, not least the activities at her anganwadi (childcare centre) in Hosalingapura in Karnataka’s Koppal district. Their daughter’s enthusiasm is the reason Vanishree’s parents have decided to keep sending her to the free-of-cost centre, even though they can afford a private school.

Anganwadi Centres (AWCs) in rural Karnataka have come a long way in building vibrant learning environments for children. This wasn’t the scenario a decade ago, when these centres were referred to as uppitu kendra, loosely translated as food centres. The implication was that kids were sent to AWCs only for the free midday meals they provided, a perception aided by the poor quality of teaching there.

The transformed AWCs are now called learning centres, in no small measure because of a clutch of teacher-training programmes run by Kalike, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts. Since 2010, Kalike has worked — through its early childhood education (ECE) initiative — alongside Karnataka’s Department of Women and Child Development (DWCD) to improve the quality of teaching at AWCs.

The ECE initiative has spread to more than 13,300 AWCs across seven districts of the Kalyana-Karnataka region: Yadgir, Bidar, Kalaburagi, Raichur, Koppal, Ballari and Vijayanagara. Hundreds of AWC workers have been trained under the programme and child students have come back to the AWCs in droves, with attendance more than doubling to 80% since its launch.

Matter of delight

Teachers and education authorities couldn’t be more delighted at this transformation in the attitudes of students and parents. “Many children would earlier run home after having their meals at the AWC. Now they stay for the entire preschool duration,” says D Shivakumar, the Trusts’ regional manager (Karnataka), who oversees the ECE effort. 

Children playing at a childcare centre in Halemalapanhalli village in the district of Vijaynagara
Children playing at a childcare centre in Halemalapanhalli village in the district of Vijayanagara

The Trusts’ involvement in early childhood education in Karnataka came on the heels of a devastating report released by the state-constituted Nanjundappa committee in 2002. The committee examined regional educational imbalances in the state and found that among the worst-performing places was Yadgir (then a part of Gulbarga district), where there was a direct link between the region’s economic backwardness and the poor quality of AWC education. “Standard III students were not able to manage basic reading,” adds Mr Shivakumar. 

At the heart of the issue was the poor quality of teaching. The anganwadi workers themselves had inadequate qualifications and their attendance was irregular. There are other issues as well: many parents did not understand the importance of early learning. As a result, their children rarely had the foundational requirements of reading and writing by the time they entered the formal school system.

Given that AWC workers are responsible for early childhood education in rural areas, Kalike made them the focus of its ECE intervention. As a first step, it provided them with intensive, capacity-based training. This included giving them hands-on training to conduct age-appropriate activities for the all-round development of children and use practical methods of teaching.

Kalike’s strength lies in utilising local themes and materials. Rather than teaching children the usual Jack-and-Jill nursery rhymes, Kalike’s team trained educators to use familiar materials — beads, pebbles, beans and tree leaves — that the children could easily relate to.

The AWC workers were coached to use jigsaw puzzles and simple maths problems to let children think independently. “It’s important to let kids think through a problem, ask questions, and come up with solutions, even if they are flawed,” says Dr Chitkalamba N, head of early childhood development at Kalike.

Another challenge was that the AWC workers had little or no support. Besides, they are assigned so many other tasks during the day that educating children often takes a backseat. “There are six services under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) in Karnataka, but the least importance is given to early education, probably because there are no reliable methods to measure results,” says Mr Shivakumar.

As Kalike’s teacher training programmes progressed, many anganwadi workers found themselves growing in proficiency and confidence. Shabana Ajmi, an anganwadi worker — and a double graduate — from Heroora village in Gulbarga, recalls the time from before the ECE endeavour, and it was far from ideal. “Kids often had to be dragged in by their parents,” she says. “Sometimes they would ask to use the bathroom and then slip away to their homes. It made me dejected because I was failing as a teacher. I nearly quit my job.”

Things started changing quickly after Kalike’s ECE training programme got going. The training transformed Ms Ajmi’s approach and soon she began supplementing the available learning materials with locally relevant teaching aids. Her enthusiasm has rubbed off on the children she teaches. “I often find them waiting to enter the centre, even on Sundays and other holidays.”

Five-year-old Tasmiya identifies her bag at the childcare centre
Five-year-old Tasmiya identifies her bag at the childcare centre

Three to teach

Building monthly timetables for the AWC workers was also a challenge, as these needed to be customised to local conditions. Since these workers get a limited number of working days to spend with the children, and have plenty of other responsibilities, it was decided that activities would be divided into those that are non-negotiable (some bit of arithmetic every day), repetitive (alphabet, arithmetic) and revision.

Repetition and revision were essential because it was assumed there would be no reinforcement of concepts once the child returned home. Kalike also spread out its training modules across the year instead of bunching them together, as used to be the norm. The workers were taught simple activities that they could introduce in their classes. As their confidence grew, more complicated tasks were taken up.

About a third of the teaching material used in the ECE programme is made by the AWC workers themselves (picture cards, number cards, etc). Another one-third is locally collated and includes beads, stones, leaves, flowers and such. The rest of the teaching material, such as books and building blocks, are provided by DWCD and a few are sourced from the market.

Several mothers, encouraged by seeing their children at the recast centres, pitched in with contributions. “Some of them bring their husbands along for review meetings, which was unheard of previously,” says Dr Chitkalamba. “Some parents even play with the materials and solve puzzles.”

Over the years, supervisors (government employees from DWCD) acquired skills as trainers and began supporting ‘demo anganwadi centres’ as models for anganwadi workers from elsewhere to visit and learn. This decentralisation has caused a ripple effect, and the momentum gained has made it all the more likely that Karnataka’s entire AWC network will be covered under the ECE initiative.

That’s because the whole process of supervisor and trainee has had better-than-expected results. The supervisors were given a target of developing two demo AWCs in their circles, but many have exceeded this target through their own initiative.

A midline assessment of Kalike’s ECE programme, which turned in its final report in March 2023, found that the intervention “has had a significant impact on the members of the ICDS team and has helped in developing a shared vision of the intent and scope of the intervention programme and their own role in it”. At the time of the assessment, 1,800 demo AWCs were in place and used for the training of grassroot-level workers.

More remains to be done, but there is little doubt that Kalike’s early-education initiative has produced stellar results. Aided by a solid framework and built-up momentum, the Trusts are now in talks with the government to take the programme to more districts and, eventually, the entire state.

Circle time in the childcare centre in Hosalingapura
Circle time in the childcare centre in Hosalingapura

Making room for more

A few years ago, Karnataka’s education department introduced Chili Pili, which are activity-based learning programmes designed to help students at anganwadi centres (AWCs) develop basic cognitive, linguistic and numerical skills. This programme has been upgraded with help from Kalike.

Under Chili Pili, AWC workers would explore a new activity every week. The challenge here was that covering some themes within a week was sometimes futile. Themes based on festivals and seasons, for instance, needed to be explored closer to the actual event to allow children to relate to them.

“We modified the processes so that each theme could be taught at the ideal time, and for the ideal duration, to ensure better retention of information in the child’s mind,” says Dr Chitkalamba N, head, early childhood development, at Kalike.

The second change is infrastructural. Each of the AWCs upgraded with Kalike’s help has four activity corners: a gombe mane (doll) corner, a painting corner, a reading corner and one with building blocks. The children explore a corner of their choice for the first 30 minutes of the day. After that they are taught structured activities, such as conversations and storytelling, sticking flowers and leaves (to improve their motor skills), counting beads (to learn numbers), and so on.

These changes have made learning a joyful experience for the children, who look forward to coming back to their AWC. “Till a few years ago, anganwadi workers had to visit homes to pick up reluctant children. Now parents themselves drop off their children at the centres,” says Dr Chitkalamba.