Early Scope

Early education is catching up in India, but what about content for kids on TV?

Earlier this month, on April 4, the Vikas Vihar slum in Kakrola had an interesting date with education. Sesame Workshop India, the Indian non-profit part of the global Sesame Workshop, was running week-long workshop with kids and their parents/siblings i.e. care-givers on learning by playing.
 
From story-telling, creative toy-making, pictorials to role-plays (pretend play), it was an expansive range. But at heart was preparing children for school, building their learning, comprehension and socialisation skills. Fun was on premium, and so was learning. Most children present in the workshop came from families of daily wage workers at construction sites, small vendors, hawkers.
 
Their parents are first generation migrants to Delhi and the locality is a regular working class settlement, ordinary yet familiar in its everydayness. It reminded me of Ravish Kumar’s episode in Hum Log with the legendary Arvind Gupta’s toys from trash and how easily his toys and stories teach concepts of science.
 
And the fact that Sesame Workshop India’s “Play and Learn” initiative is focused on children from low-income communities, means much needed pre-primary education is reaching some children who need it the most.
 
This World Bank Report states money spent on early child development is the smartest investment a country can make… if a child gets the healthcare, nutrition, affection, stimulation and education that s/he needs, the gains s/he makes in those early years are for life. Yet:
 
Worldwide, only half of all three to six-year-olds have access to pre-primary education. In low income countries, just one in five children has access to pre-school
One in 200 children in the world is displaced, exposing them to the kind of stress that can undermine their development.
Investments in young children are minimal: in Sub-Saharan Africa just 2 per cent of the education budget goes to pre-primary education, while in Latin America government spending on children under 5 is a third of that for children in the 6 to 11-year range
The children’s charity TheirWorld, in its latest report, states that development spending for early child education is still stuck at 1 per cent of the total aid spending in spite of its impact on enabling children to reach their learning and earning potential.
 
Sarah Brown, the president of TheirWorld recently wrote in Guardian that this is unconscionable neglect since it perpetuates inequality and further marginalises the already marginalised children.
 
Back to India, with over 216 million children under the age of 8 (as per the 2011 census), providing high quality early childhood stimulation is vital to the country’s future. Sesame Workshop India is making an important intervention in the country’s early childhood education landscape through its innovative projects that put children at the front and centre of the curriculum and human development.
 
Their motto is “smarter, stronger and kinder children”, ready for school and learning. To give some perspective, the ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) consistently records very low numeracy and language skills among rural and urban poor children, their latest report records doubling of enrollment but very low skills among the rural students in India. In this context, intervention in early child education is necessary.
 
Sesame Workshop India’s flagship initiative Galli Galli Sim Sim is focused on low-resourced classrooms and communities to bring children and their caregivers’ language and strategies to improve children’s literacy, numeracy, physical wellbeing and social emotional skills, in short, life chances of the children, shifting focus from survival to thrival. While Galli Galli Sim Sim is a take-off from the globally loved Muppets of Sesame Street fame, it is a completely Indianised adaptation.
 
In a raging society like ours, where we all seem to be sitting on a powder keg, ready to explode, kindness is a premium value and Sesame integrates that into all its learning material, explains Sashwati Banerjee, Managing Trustee of Sesame India. No wonder comedian John Oliver is using Sesame Street muppets to raise public awareness, from lead poisoning to the fast changing English vocabulary.
 
While the Delhi government is focusing on play-based learning and introducing a happiness curriculum, according to the Unicef-India Early Childhood Education Impact study: “Twelve states in India are integrating pre-primary education to their formal school curriculum in government schools”.
 
And the education activists and child rights activists could not be happier, from the RTE Forum i.e. the Right to Education Forum, HAQ Centre for Child Rights, Sesame India to Unicef, et al. From Tamil Nadu to Tripura, some of the progressive states of India have been integrating the early child education component into mainstream school programmes, thus making the school from pre-school, taking it all the way to Class 12. And RTE Forum has been collectively advocating for scaling up this model pan India.
 
While these are encouraging developments, the early child education sector needs more attention, from public finance, trained personnel to appropriate policy. Its location in home economics and the home science stream has not helped the cause. Considering the patriarchy in India, home economics continues to be the exclusive domain of women and hence mostly invisible.
 
Since most early child education practitioners and experts are women, there is an undesirable feminisation, a collateral outcome of locating the stream in home science itself, feels Banerjee. In Harvard University, however, early child development is an independent discipline on a par with public policy, political science, etc.
 
And it has the perverse impact of treating early child education as a low-wage, unskilled, semi-skilled work, while it requires enormous skill and patience. And since it is under-paid and treated lowly in the hierarchy of educators, it is further feminised and becomes a woman’s burden. And the vicious cycle continues.
 
The most worrying part is the programming content in mainstream media, especially private television channels. There are a quite a number of TV channels targeting children, such as Animax, Cartoon Network, Disney, Discovery Kids, Disney Junior, Nickelodeon, Hungama, ZeeQ (to name a few). Most of their focus seems to be children from 8 years to 16 years when their pester-power is the maximum and most product manufacturers target them, shares Banerjee.
 
From among the top 20 TV serials in India, only one has a female role model, The Powerpuff Girls, she points out.
 
Most serials are animated, hyper-masculine, violent, and are primarily foreign stories with Indian voice-overs. Considering that crèches and baby-sitters are expensive, increasingly in nuclear families television is treated as the baby-sitter. Hence it is important to overhaul the content and build empathy, kindness, women role models, advocates Banerjee.
 
Annie Namala of Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion adds a deeper dimension to the content concern. She states: “Considering most protagonists in general entertainment category serials are Hindutva-ised, upper-caste, hyper-masculine males, there is an end in imagination when it comes to programming for a diverse and inclusive society. Where are the diverse role models, the Dalit, Adivasi, minority heroes and heroines? Considering the abysmal content for families and adults, it is little wonder that our content for children is equally bad.”
 
Considering the state of tele-serials in India in the general entertainment category with kitchen politics, hyper-Hindutva narratives and nonsense fantasia, fixing the kids’ genre of television programming is nobody’s priority, laments Banerjee. Add to that the broken state of news programming in TV, aptly displayed by Newslaundry’s very own TV Newsance.
 
The BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council of India), after much advocacy, has added kids’ genre to its categories for viewership tracking. But their categorisation ranges from 3 year olds to 14-15 year olds, again the early childhood cohort falling through the cracks.
 
Quite an agenda, from improving early child education content to fixing the television programming in the kids’ genre! And as the childhood champions would quickly point out, “Not a day later and equally necessary!”