Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
Nestled in the lap of nature, near Kandbari village of district Kangra in Himachal Pradesh is a space where one is sure to be greeted by bright and chirpy children. As I stepped into one of the classes at Udaan Learning Center, I ran into a bunch of kids squabbling for hula hoops. They rushed outside in a herd, hula-hooped the muggle way and showed me their idiosyncratic versions of sporting the rings. I joined them, held the hoop and rolled it on the ground. It spun for a fraction of a second and gave in. “Roll it with a backspin! It will come back to you like a boomerang”, exclaimed Abeer, an 11-year-old at the Learning Center. I did get it right, but it took a few laborious attempts. It was fascinating to observe how the scope of play is increasingly stimulating and creative, outdoors. Especially when the pursuit of exploration is acknowledged.
The current education system in India, is imbued with a highly competitive ideology and is geared towards teaching and learning through adapted western methods. Children lose the spirit of learning and self-inquiry in the process. In a response to this, there are various efforts that rethink education around India; such as the Marudam farm school in Tiruvannamalai, Pathshaala in Chennai, Poorna learning center in Bangalore, etc. Child-centered education is at the forefront of these initiatives. Udaan learning center is one such space that encourages children to learn at their own pace and believes in exploration through play.
The space has two parts to it.
- Udaan learning school: A Pre-primary and primary school Focused on teaching the board curriculum up until the 5th grade.
- Udaan learning center: An after-school learning space where hands-on workshops are conducted for children.
Udaan learning school has received recognition from the Board of Elementary Education to run the school as an elementary and primary school. There are about 40 children from diverse socio-economic and cultural backgrounds who are a part of the school from nearby villages. The primary languages in which interactions take place are Pahadi, Hindi and English. Within the brick-laden walls, the space provides avenues for children to experiment and engage in various immersive activities. Gender neutrality and inclusivity are candidly exercised.
On designing the curriculum- the Montessori way
The school has adopted the Montessori methods of education which is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. A child’s natural desire to learn is given ultimate priority.
It has been widely accepted that spaces which propel unstructured play help develop a child’s creativity and problem-solving skills. When children play together, they develop their social skills. In nature too, play prepares young ones to be ready for the unexpected. Innovative games at Udaan are not just restricted to outdoor spaces, but also trickle into classrooms. For example, an intriguing math class taken by Mrs. Rimpi was about learning the volumes of basic geometric structures. Children created 3D cubes to spatially visualize it. Consequently, they derived the formula organically and intuitively.
Another class I observed for 5th grade was a debate on themes of punctuality, attendance, homework, games period, etc. This was effectuated by students and facilitated by teachers. It entailed children defending their games period over homework while teachers placed their views on how a consistent balance in offering lee-way and inculcating discipline is required. This entire discussion unfurled how reasoning is given priority over the imposition of rules. Underlying messages were based on negotiation and carrying out discussions with grace.
I also had the opportunity to attend a two-day pottery workshop at Udaan learning center, after school and was pleasantly surprised when I heard that the school had a functional pottery wheel. The first day was purely about interaction with clay without any constraints. With light instrumentals playing in the background, this experience appeared nothing less than mediation to me. I sat beside Chitrangad, a 6-year-old at the school, and asked him if he was enjoying the process. He replied, “ I have been eyeing this panda on the wall for a long time and am so happy to recreate it in 3D!” At Udaan, such sensorial activities allow children to make their own discoveries about materials and their properties. It appears to help gather one’s thoughts after a long day at school and reflect on them.
Workshops such as pottery, quilling, theatre, painting and crafts are conducted in the after-class sessions. These allow children to explore various modalities of expression. The second half of the workshop is outdoor games time. Dodgeball, catch are a few of the myriad games one can find them playing on a sunlit playground with the Dhauladhar range in the backdrop. Shane, the sports instructor and teacher, ensures children are familiarised with good sportsmanship, team building and collaboration. To top it all off, a film is screened every Saturday based on the theme for the month. This month it was a mix of live-action and animation.
Despite the diverse backgrounds of children, they are indifferent to differences. This was evident in the way they interacted with one another. Circle times, which are spaces created for children to talk about how they feel and voice their thoughts without the fear of being judged, are conducted regularly. Developing relationships amongst themselves which cultivate empathy is a hallmark of this practice. These are often tailored with cultural songs and dance.
Engagement with the community
While the children here have access to ample resources and experience nurturing relationships, the community surrounding the school is still grappling with the idea of unconventional learning spaces. Many children are first-generation school-goers. For parents, the pipe-dream for their child is to be fluent in English and move towards cities or foreign lands where the apparent standard of living and employment is better. They are also apprehensive because Udaan fosters learning through the medium of play, which might appear to be relatively slower and non-severe. Most parents believe in having a more rigorous schedule fueled with reading, writing and homework as primary means of learning. This is again reinforced by the riveted expectations of the society they are a part of.
On the other hand, some parents value the novelty of such spaces. On chatting with Ruhani’s parent who had come to receive her, he said, “There are very few schools that have huge open spaces and encourage play. Most schools have indoor classes for 8 hours and give 4 hours worth of homework. Khelenge kab phir? Bahar jaake khelna toh bohot zaruri hai (When will they play then? Outdoor play is very important). One can’t force math tables down a kid’s throat. But if it’s learnt through, say, hopscotch or stair-climbing activities, chances are they will retain it better. We had a very clear understanding of this for our daughter. And I believe more parents should pay attention to how their child learns best.”
The school is still young, forging its way into the community by standing true to its principles. Deepa, Vandana, Neha, Shane, Kalpana, Dorothee are a few of the many wonderful visionaries who are working towards sustaining and building this space. Teachers and staff are currently anticipating the onboarding of its first batch of 5th grade to a different secondary school. “We only hope that they retain the instilled values of self-sustenance, confidence and fearlessness”, said Dorothee, English teacher at the school.
They’re also addressing trepidation from the community by knitting relationships with them to gradually invoke awareness. The intent is to have more children make use of the school’s resource pool.
To conclude, here is a short poem that surfaced from my experiences at Udaan,
“The green board in my classroom says,
Circumference of a circle=2πr
But I couldn’t understand
As evening set in,
I stepped outside
With my head turned to the sky
I saw an eagle circling,
squinted my eye,
stared a bit harder
lo and behold,
I imagined the rings of Saturn,
A saucer from the cabinet at home,
The coin of 5 Ma gave me in the morning
The ferris wheel I dreamt of at night,
And the hula-hoop that spun back at me!
I closed my eyes,
Approximated a circumference,
And centered myself”
- Urvi Shah, March 2022
Also read Udaan: Wings to the Mind