“God bless mummy, god bless daddy, god bless teacher who will teach us, and make them happy”. Standing in a perfect circle, at 10 am sharp, children chanted this prayer to start their activities of the day at the anganwadi. In the next five hours they would learn through play, have one nourishing meal, take a noon nap, and return home to their mother, who had the comfort of having her child taken care of for a significant part of her working day.
Immediately after the prayer was a round of physical exercises, accompanied by poems created for the purpose. This was the only time of the day when children danced to the tune of the anganwadi worker! After this short round the teacher shifts to a round of lessons, but children hardly notice the change – for them it’s all one big game.
The teacher is well trained for preschool education. Keeping with the spirit of joyful learning, all her lessons are in the play-way. Her syllabus for the fortnight was flowers. She had an assortment of creative games ready. She started her lessons with a simple game of matching pairs of flowers, painted on cards. We observed that the elder children had learned the names of flowers. You could for example hear them say, “hey, the other lotus in the pair is here, keep it with the other one”. As the day proceeded children played with flower-shaped facemasks, jumped over flowers she drew, heard stories about the lotus and the bee and amused themselves.
Behind this simple set of activities lay much thought and creativity. Each game was carefully designed to cultivate important skills for the 3-6 year olds such as recognition, identification, comparison, learning language in an interactive fashion, etc. The syllabus prescribed one topic per fortnight, to introduce children to things in their immediate environment e.g. flowers, vehicles, fruits, etc.
While this was on, the helper was busy preparing lunch. Before serving the children, she tasted the food herself and asked the teacher to do so. A sample portion was taken and kept in a clean steel box that could be used for lab test in the event of food poisoning. By twelve children filed out to wash their hands, received their clean plates and sat in a neat circle for the food to be served. As the food was being served, the little ones looked at the helper curiously for permission to start eating. They were asked to wait until all children were served and the prayer had been recited. These little gestures go a long way in making the child accustomed to the ways of the world. At the anganwadi the child also learns to socialise, share a meal, and in general get used to a classroom atmosphere.
The lunch was reasonably nourishing – a sambar made with pulses, green leafy vegetables and carrot. The teacher told us that a variety of spinach is always there since it contains iron, which is good for anaemia. Like many other anganwadis in Tamil Nadu, this one too had a small garden sporting tomatoes and other vegetables. The helper proudly told us that children would eat vegetables from their own kitchen garden.
We continued chatting with the teacher as she put children to sleep. “Children will get up after an hour or two, play for a while and then go home by three”, she told us. This was another attraction for working mothers who were relieved of childcare for a good part of the day.
The teacher’s day was far from over. She had to do some home visits to check out on pregnant mothers. On other days she conducts “nutrition and health education” classes, checks out on newborn babies, etc. She often finishes her working day at home by preparing games for the next section in the syllabus.
As our visit drew to an end we were left wondering about the significant work that she does. She was a simple village girl who had completed class ten and had been trained to do this fine job. All it took to prepare children for school and to lay foundations of a healthy life was one well-trained person and very moderate additional expenditure. As we came out children from the nearby school were streaming out. She pointed to one young girl and said, “she was my student here and has now joined school. The school teachers tell me that just like other children who have gone through an anganwadi, she is doing very well at school”. The pride and sincerity in her voice touched us. We left feeling pleased that the anganwadi as the dreamer saw it could actually work.