All the world’s a school

Ahead of Children’s Day, we speak to parents who are looking outside the four walls of a classroom to help their children learn the ABCs of life

Leaving home at 8 am with a half-eaten or skipped breakfast; competing for the top rank; copying notes mindlessly; rote learning, with little time for free play, sport, art or music. Many parents are opting out of the formal-school education system. Here’s what they do instead.

Travel schooling

“The best lessons are those we learn from people,” says Durgesh Nandhini, 32, mother of two daughters, Tamaraa and Thanvi Shankar, 1 and 5. The roads are the classrooms for Durgesh’s daughters.

Travel schooling simply means education through extensive travel. The traffic policeman, the lady who sweeps the streets, billboards by the roads, the beach… the full-time mom, who is a zero-waste practitioner and minimalist, says that everyday people and places have taught her girls much more than a regular classroom could. Her home is devoid of books, toys, and TV. She doesn’t sit with them asking them to study. No numbers, no alphabet.

All the world’s a school

“Children learn by wondering,” she says. Durgesh remembers how her five-year-old asked her why most billboards featuring air conditioners were in blue. “She recognised a pattern in which blue is used by advertisers to create a cooling effect,” says Durgesh and adds that since Thanvi couldn’t read what the hoardings said, her mind was open to taking in other details.

From villages and sustainable spaces, to alternative schools and forests within India, Durgesh and her girls have experienced a range of environments. “This has made them adaptable,” she says. “They enjoy a village as much as they would a posh hotel.” She adds that they are able to treat all kinds of people equally. On the downside, there are bugs, literally. “Thanvi is quite irritated by mosquito bites. So I ensure that I carry a repellent,” says Durgesh. Her one-year-old, however, has grown used to them. “She’s been travelling since she was three-months-old. So she doesn’t complain.”

Home schooling

Five-year-old SP Sangamithra makes friends with people wherever she goes. She’s is chatty and full of questions, making her a people-magnet. “If she were in school, she would’ve only been friends with kids her age. But now, she has friends of all ages, including adults we meet at the vegetable shop,” says Sangamithra’s mother Senbaga Poonguzhali, 31, who home-schools her child, in Coimbatore.

Poonguzhali has formulated an informal syllabus for her daughter’s age group based on her research. “I write out numbers and letters for her and keep the notebook at home. She picks it up whenever she feels like writing,” says Poonguzhali. Sangamithra spends a major part of her day playing — a luxury for school-going kids. “She’s up by 7 am and plays, while my husband and I go about our work. Sometimes, she walks up to me saying she wants to write Tamil today or feels like studying numbers,” says Poonguzhali. “It’s entirely up to her. We don’t have a rigid pattern.”

All the world’s a school

Sangamithra spends almost four hours in the evening playing in the park at her apartment in Coimbatore. “There are a lot of kids there and she plays, cycles, and runs around.” Poonguzhali says that there are times when her daughter reminds her of a word she promised to teach her. “We go by her pace and interests. She loves to draw, and so she keeps at it through the day,” she adds. While she agrees that she has a slight fear over the mammoth responsibility that rests on her shoulders, Poonguzhali says that she’s growing confident seeing her daughter’s development — more importantly, seeing how happy she is.

Farm schooling

Kokilashree Vickneshwaran’s boys sow seeds, remove weeds, and water plants at their farm in Attappadi in Kerala. And oh, they also study there. Shivesh and Vishwesh, 10 and 7, spend most part of their day playing at their farm, among fruit trees, vegetable plants, and spices. “They do have books to study,” says 37-year-old Kokila, but she says nature is a dynamic place for children to grow and her boys have a natural affinity to the wild.

“We were in Chennai for Deepavali and they are able to talk about the difference in air quality in both the places,” she says. “They understand the essence of the goings-on at the farm by themselves. For instance, we recently planted 60 to 70 endangered species of trees and they got a complete picture of why this was necessary.” Kokila says that she and her husband believe in free play and free learning. “We wanted our children to have a stress-free early childhood,” she adds. “If they want to go to school once they’re older, we will be happy to enrol them in one.”

All the world’s a school

This transition, agrees Kokila, could be difficult for her children. “But the way they are schooled has made them flexible; they will be able to manage,” she feels. It’s not all wonder and excitement though. She also speaks of the challenges. “It is challenging to constantly be available to help them with their studies and interests,” she says. “Finding the right mentors is difficult too, so is balancing my work with the children’s. But these challenges help us grow stronger as individuals and as a family.”

Shivesh loves birds and animals. “He’s taken a liking to wildlife photography and walks around the farm with a camera, Vishwesh following him around,” says Kokila. The younger one, she adds, follows him around with a smaller camera.

The expert view

We asked Dr Shraddha Kapoor, Associate Professor, Human Development and Childhood Studies, Lady Irwin College, Delhi, our deepest fears and doubts…

Are alternative methods of schooling, a social experiment?

Yes. There is a value to a normative child. It’s unfair to give a child choices that are far from the norm, without knowing what the end will be. Some children thrive in the environment of a school. School is not just studies and exams; school is friends; it is not having everything you wish for; school is not opening your lunch-box in the middle of a Science class. School is not so powerful that it will take away the values that you believe in. Also, it is open around 220 days or so a year, and parents have enough time to practise their beliefs. Tread a middle path — pick a school that’s closest to your philosophy.

What are the challenges involved in such methods?

Parenting should prepare children to handle life without the parents. They should create opportunities for children to develop emotionally, socially, and physically. By choosing such [alternative] methods of parenting, you are narrowing down opportunities for children to develop.

When do warning bells go off?

When the child is not developing and enjoying it. When they are not curious and active, something is not right.

All the world’s a school

What my options are

Homeschooling parents, if you wish to enrol your children for board exams, here’s what you can do.

National Institute of Open Schooling: Also an examining and certifying authority, it has no upper age limit for admission. A candidate has to choose five subjects and has five years to complete them from the date of registration.

Homeschoolers can also give the Cambridge O Levels, AS and A-level exams as private candidates registered with a school or through the British Council in some metros.

The Tamil Nadu State Board lets private candidates appear directly for the SSLC exam, if they have passed Class VIII with English. Private candidates can appear directly for the Class XII exam, after passing SSLC or its equivalent. (Source: http://homeschoolers.in)

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