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Ball, sockets, and scorpions

In this age of plenty, there are some for whom privilege implies clean drinking water, and perhaps, a bit more space between their house and their neighbour's. In Antop Hill's Chana Gali, one such house transforms into a Balwadi every morning, and an informal education space for older children by evening. Part of the curriculum is 'play time'. How does a toy change a child's life, we find out

Suraj Chauhan, 12, is a tall, gangly boy, whose favourite subject is Hindi, but he doesn't set much store by Maths. When he returns from school -- a private English-medium school barely a stone's throw from his home on Antop Hill -- he attends tuitions. Last Wednesday, however, we found him indulge in some play time. Sitting in the tiny room hired by Parivartan Shikshan Sanstha, a not-for-profit trust that works to provide education in the slums of Antop Hill, Chauhan made scorpions, dogs, chairs and robots with the ball-and-socket pieces of a game called Zoob.


Priyanka Khupate (red dupatta), a teacher at Parivartan Shikshan
Sanstha, a not-for-profit trust that works for children's education, spends
playtime with children residing in the slum pockets of Antop Hill. Most
of the older children go to school and visit this play-and-learn centre in
the evening, while the younger ones attend the Balwadi in the mornings.
They play board games, Lego and other building block games gifted
to them by Toybank, an NGO that distributes good quality second-hand
toys for underprivileged children. Pics/Atul Kamble


Suraj looked at the handbook studiously -- he didn't follow the English instructions -- and concentrated, instead, on the pictures. "Have you played this game before?" Arshi Ansari, a teacher at one of the four centres run by the NGO in the vicinity, asked him. "No," he shrugged. When pointed out that the ball and socket is the same mechanism found in the elbow and the knee, Chauhan stopped for a minute, nodded, and went back to making his chair, filing this piece of information in his mind.

Beside him, his five year-old sibling Akash, a regular at these evening play-and-learn sessions, joined the pieces to make a garland, which he promptly proceeded to wear. Eight year-old Neeraj, assisting his brothers, looked longingly at another game that some children sitting a little further away, were playing. Tumbling Monkeys involves placing different coloured sticks through a hollow 'tree', pouring tiny toy monkeys with curled tails into the hollow so they'd latch on to the sticks, and then pulling the sticks out carefully so that none of the monkeys fall.

Except, in their version of the game, monkeys did fall, and were collected as prize. "In my experience of volunteering for a children's NGO, I found that we pay a lot of importance to their education, food and health, but overlook their need for playtime," said founder Shweta Chari, 29, who tied up with Parivartan last year, and has already delivered four batches of second-hand toys to their centres. Psychologists and child specialists agree about the significance of toys in a child's development, which in turn has spawned a billion-dollar industry of educational and recreational toys and games fed by an ever-growing demand.

However, possessing a toy isn't enough. Learning how to use it correctly and in an environment where competitiveness is moderated and contextualised is equally necessary. Arshi Ansari has been a Balwadi teacher with Parivartan for close to six years. She collects her students, milling about on their doorsteps, every day on her way to the centre. Talking about a time when the teachers had to improvise with whatever was at hand to teach, Ansari said she's happy they have picture card games now. Earlier, to explain the concepts of cleanliness, hygiene and nutrition, they'd use old toys and a lot of words.

"Toys help train the brain. All the children sit and play together," said Ansari. Akash and Suraj jostled over a socket -- Suraj's chair was missing a leg and Akash's garland could afford to lose a piece. After resisting for a while, the young one took out a socket and chucked it at his older brother. Ansari said she can count the changes she has seen in the students on her fingertips. "They're able to concentrate better, because playing games teaches them patience. They've learnt how to think logically, step by step," she said. "Most importantly, we teach them about gender equality and make no distinction between religions or caste in these classes. Everyone plays together," said Kanupriya, administrative head and project coordinator for Parivartan.

To ensure that, Toybank and Parivartan are careful about the kind of toys they stock at their centres: No Barbies, or toy guns, and certainly no charity. Children are given free access to the games, and while the first half of the session is spent studying, the other half is kept free for playtime.

Soni and Moni, sisters with barely a year's gap between them, are chalk and cheese in their choice of toys. Nine year-old Moni is the more boisterous of the two, and likes the rocking horse more than anything else in the room. But Soni prefers the monkeys and collects them with gusto every time they fall from the 'tree'. Although reticent, she pipes up when the game is played and fights vigourously when she gets passed over by her mischievous friend, Aslam.

When we told them that the game should be played the other way round -- taking care not to let the monkeys fall, and earning penalty points every time one does -- the duo looked at us askance. "That's no fun," said 10 year-old Soni. "Our rules are better."

Toys that have made a difference
Group
games which involve children building things together, using their imagination
Soft toys are always a hit
Educational games like mathematical games that teach addition, subtraction help children get their concepts right 
Visit: www.toybank.org or contact Parivartan Shikshan Sanstha on 22947309

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