India’s unsung ECCE pioneers

EducationWorld March 2020 | Expert Comment

In an era when educationists — including early childhood educators — are rightly encouraged to think and act ‘glocal’, i.e, global and local, it’s equally important to realise that at the formative age of 0-6 years, education rooted in a child’s mother tongue and local culture has a lasting impact on the cognitive and socio-emotional development of youngest children.

Therefore, while it’s important to know about the seminal contributions of European early childhood educators such as Friedrich Froebel, Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner, it’s equally important for ECCE (early childhood care and education) providers in India to be aware of the education philosophy and work of indigenous pioneers who drew upon best practices from around the world and adapted them to local conditions. Four pioneer Indians who made a significant impact on early childhood education and from whom all educators need to learn are: Gijubhai Badheka (1885-1939), Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Tarabai Modak (1892-1973), Anutai Wagh (1910-1992) and Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948).

A creative disruptor, Gijubhai introduced several innovative child-friendly practices into ECCE. Among them: teachers greeting children instead of the other way round; encouraging child-crafted plays/concerts; according children respect and freedom to voice their opinions; banning corporal punishment in schools and educating parents about its negative consequences.

Another great ECCE educator was Tarabai Modak, a social worker of Maharashtra. Inspired by Gijubhai’s experiments in early childhood education, she began working with him in Bal Mandir, a preschool in Bhavnagar. Together they also started India’s first training college for pre-primary teachers, way back in 1925. Sadly almost a century later, India does not have a formal early childhood teacher training programme similar to the B.Ed study programme.

In 1936, following criticism that ECCE being provided was for “rich children”, Tarabai started the Shishu Vihar Kendra in Bombay. In 1945, she moved to Bordi, a tribal area of Maharashtra, where she founded a Gram Bal Shiksha Kendra (pre-primary). Indeed Tarabai Modak should be credited with having pioneered the concept of balwadis — preschools for youngest children. In Bordi, she experimented with two types of preschools — central and angan balwadis. Central balwadis were run for five hours with children brought from their homes to preschools.

Conversely, angan balwadis were conducted in courtyards of homes by teachers who sang ballads and conceptualised games to teach children hygiene, language etc. Together with Anutai Wagh, she developed an indigenous curriculum using low-cost teaching aids. The idea of anganwadis promoted under the ICDS scheme has been drawn largely from Tarabai’s work.

Another great stalwart of pre-independence India’s cultural renaissance who was an ECCE proponent, was poet-writer Rabindranath Tagore, also a great admirer of Dr. Maria Montessori’s ECCE philosophy and pedagogy. In 1929 when the first International Montessori Congress was organised in Denmark, Tagore travelled to that country to attend it where he also met the famous Swiss educationist Jean Piaget. In 1940 when Dr. Montessori visited India, Tagore welcomed her warmly and learning from her, began propagating education for youngest children through music and play. Moreover, almost a century ago, he introduced drama and arts as compulsory subjects in preschool.

Even Mahatma Gandhi, who successfully masterminded India’s freedom movement, drew up a detailed vision for Indian education in 1937 — Nai Talim (basic education). But it was later in 1944 that he became aware of the importance of early childhood education. “Real education begins from conception, as the mother begins to take responsibility for her child. It is very clear that if this new education is to be effective, its foundation must go deeper, it must begin not with the children but the parents and the community,” he said. In his explanation of Nai Talim, he defined ‘pre-basic education’ for children below seven years of age, as “the development of all their faculties, conducted by school teachers in cooperation with the parents and the community in schools, in the home and in the village.”

The plain truth is that immersive pedagogies such as experiential learning, exploration and discovery through the playway method which are being introduced as contemporary, were already being practised by India’s ECCE pioneers much before independence, albeit in small corners of the country. For educators, particularly ECCE teachers, it would be useful to revisit these early pioneers and incorporate their work and teaching in contemporary preschools.

Swati Popat Vats

Swati Popat Vats

I recommend that all ECCE professionals read Divasvapna: An Educator’s Reverie (1931) by Gijubhai Badheka, A Parrot’s Training (1918) by Rabindranath Tagore, Kosbadcha tekadivarun (2008) by Anutai Wagh and Basic education (1940) by Mahatma Gandhi. This will enable them to learn the philosophy and best practices of Western as well as Indian early childhood educators. It will enable us to become truly glocal.

(Dr. Swati Popat Vats is president of the Early Childhood Association and president of Podar Education Network. Excerpted from keynote address delivered at the 10th EducationWorld Early Childhood Education National Conference 2020)

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