Early childhood care and education is the foundation on which a child's future is built. Preschools (balwadis) have been set up in communities and provide an atmosphere of joyful learning for 4 to 6 year olds and socialize the role of education in communities.
The first six years are crucial for children because that is when their young minds develop and they acquire the skills that will see them through life. It is therefore essential that every child is provided with the opportunity of early stimulation and growth. Non-formal education centres like anganwadis, shishuvihars and NGO-run preschools facilitate children's early exposure to a learning environment filled with fun, games and activity. In a preschool, a child finds the stimulation of new things, new ideas and new concepts, something many disadvantaged and deprived children in India seldom find at home.
Akshara Foundation started its preschool or balwadi programme in 2000 in Bangalore city, reaching out to children in the 4-6 year age group who had no exposure to the facilities of a preschool. Balwadis were established and run by volunteers from within the community. This ensured the involvement of the community and the commitment of the teacher.
A typical Akshara balwadi runs for three hours a day in the house of an Akshara volunteer. Children are taught the basics of language, which may be Kannada or Urdu depending on the locality. The balwadi focuses primarily on oral teaching. The volunteer teaches children rhymes, alphabets, numbers, colours, shapes, the names of animals, fruits, vegetables and familiar objects in their environment. Activities are conducted for eye and hand coordination like colouring, threading patterns on a board, and arranging puzzles. Some outdoor and indoor games are played in a manner conducive to making learning fun, with emphasis on the overall development of the child. Every balwadi admits 15-20 children, on an average.
The Independent Balwadi Model
As the balwadi programme expanded, Akshara evolved a strategy to make the programme self-sustaining. The plan included training volunteers to set up balwadis, providing them with teaching learning material (TLM) and making their centres sustainable through parental fee support. The volunteers who run them are educational entrepreneurs, or "edupreneurs", as Akshara christened them. Today the programme has many self-sustaining independent balwadis across the state. The main purpose of this model is to achieve the goal of transferring the ownership of this programme to the community and making every parent aware of the importance of preschool.
Working with Anganwadis
Government-run anganwadis are often located close to Akshara balwadis. The preschool education provided in the anganwadi is similar to that in the Akshara balwadi. In addition, children also avail of other facilities such as nutrition, immunization and healthcare. Further, the anganwadi has space that is often larger than the Akshara volunteer's home. Akshara Foundation therefore found that collaboration with the government's anganwadis would be beneficial to the children of both the anganwadi and the Akshara balwadi.
Akshara started supporting anganwadis in Bangalore Urban District with a volunteer service from 2005. The volunteers were trained to work in anganwadis, alongside anganwadi workers without breaking down existing structures of functioning. Their training taught them to be supportive of anganwadi workers. Each volunteer visited 2 anganwadis every day and spent an hour and a half engaging the children in preschool education. This model worked for three years.
This successful collaboration matured into a deeper engagement with all the anganwadis in Bangalore. Akshara is currently working with all the anganwadis in Bangalore Urban District.
Akshara supplies a teaching-learning kit to all the anganwadis.
Akshara trains the anganwadi workers in using the teaching-learning material.
Baseline and end line child assessments are conducted every academic year and the results shared on www.klp.org.in
Bal Vikas Samithi members are trained. (Bal Vikas Samithis are support group for anganwadis comprising of stakeholders like the mothers of children, self-help group members, elected representatives of the area, the HM of the nearest government school and the health worker. The group supports the anganwadi worker in running her centre smoothly and solves everyday problems at the centre level)
The programme catalyzes community support in the form of the Friends of Anganwadis groups, a forum of mothers and like-minded community members, to support the anganwadi worker in imparting the educational component of the preschool.
Monthly meetings of mothers are conducted to generate awareness of the importance of preschool education.
General awareness is also created in the community about the significance of preschool education and the important role anganwadis play in delivering it.
Balwadis in non-notified slums in Bangalore Urban District
Akshara has initiated a pilot programme to start preschool units in non-notified slums in Bangalore Urban District to cover all the 3 to 6 year old children identified there. These are areas socio-economically disadvantaged and since these areas are not recognized by the government, there is no delivery of public services, including education.