Encouraging the journey of play for early childhood education in India

Nurturing lives, building futures

By Jagannatha Kumar and Dr Nilay Ranjan 

When early childhood experts, gather, it is unlikely to be a quiet place. As they sang, shared, and laughed, they walked the talk on the play-based learning approach in India. There are over 13 lakh Anganwadi centres dedicated to foundational development in India. The focus on the early years from birth to age six, as a critical window in a person’s life, has been long recognised.As 85% of a child’s brain develops in these years, innovative approaches are crucial.

With innate curiosity, children engage in play to explore, learn, and grow. Activities, stories, or community interactions with cultural significance permeate their world. The academic system, is prone to memorisation and standardised tests and teacher-led instruction.

When children choose activities and try them in different ways, they find independence. They also engage with others in the space and develop mental agility through the process. Unlike structured classrooms, play-based learning enables children to enjoy spontaneous, non-goal-directed activity. With anticipation and surprise children develop an interest and in emotional and physical growth.

Growing interest in play-based learning

There is interest now, in play-based learning a fundamental pedagogical approach. This is a step away from looking at it as a supplementary tool. Studies – including ground-breaking research by Nobel laureate James Heckman – find quality early education has long-term benefits for individuals and societies. UNICEF in its advocacy brief on learning through play, emphasises this. It notes that preschool years play helps children explore the world as well as develop creativity for life.

There is a need for educator training, addressing social norms and building awareness. Recognising these, the National Education Policy 2020 and the NIPUN Bharat Mission are bridging this divide, to achieve foundational literacy and numeracy by 2026-2027.

The true spirit of play-based learning is what occurs in classrooms or early childhood centres while also at homes and in communities. Play should seep into learning spaces, guiding activities while being engaging and inclusive. This requires an enabling, collaborative approach. Educators, parents and community members together, nurture the child’s innate curiosity. Everyone co-creates exciting learning environments. Children develop skills for critical thinking and a strong foundation for school readiness and future learning.

Building stakeholder confluence on play-based learning

During the recent conference held by Reliance Foundation on ‘Building Flourishing Futures’ in Mumbai, practitioners, policy makers and academia and representatives from institutions engaged in play-based learning themselves. Reliance Foundation aimed to build on this crucial point: everyone – practitioner or community member – needs to be hands-on, to walk the talk. The unique convergence of national and international knowledge and practice, the conference transformed into a buzzing multiverse of ideas. It was also an opportunity to explore further practice and policy opportunities. Key stakeholders from government, civil society, grassroots and academia shared diverse experiences.

Government and the larger ecosystem collaboration with organisations and communities is integral. They enhance caregiver capabilities through insights from their body of work and learning. Technological and knowledge capabilities of CSR entities, educational experts, research organisations and knowledge partners across India can come together. They can build educator capacity to deliver play-based learning, contemporary child-friendly learning facilities. With interactive education material, focus on nutrition and development along with other ideas we can step up on leveraging learning on the latest global practices.

Scaling up innovative ECCE approaches

Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) initiatives provide an opportunity for innovation, particularly at the intersection of enabling policies and emerging educational technologies. With India’s robust policy framework, the stage is set for significant advancements. We are looking at an advantage of a growing demographic dividend and the largest population of youth in the world. The opportunity lies in strengthening our wealth of human resource early, really early.  As we harness our learnings and feed into ideas, stakeholders are also constantly looking for scalable, sustainable play-based learning programmes. that can be adapted across diverse geographical and cultural contexts.
Furthermore, digital tools and learning platforms offer enhanced possibilities to expand learning and quality of ECCE. They can deliver capacity building to empower educators, parents and communities. Additionally, government-private sector-civil society partnerships can accelerate knowledge sharing, so ECCE innovations reach underserved populations. In keeping with the core vision of the ICDS, to create experiences for the innate curiosity and potential of children.

Looking forward

What next? We need to strengthen consistent capacity building among educators and caregivers.
Trainers need to adopt effective strategies to incorporate play-based learning. The community also needs increasing awareness about benefits of play-based learning. We must create continuous professional development and robust support networks for ECCE professionals.
Through these steps, strong policy backing and innovative practices, we can shape a future for a child to thrive in the most crucial stage of her life.

The UN sustainable development goal, target 4.1 of SDG 4, underscores the push towards inclusive and equitable quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all. As part of India’s commitment to the SDGs, we each have a role in making this a reality. Policymakers, practitioners, and researchers shared innovative play-based learning practices, to better explore, scale-up and adapt insights across different contexts.

Our future aspiration is to ensure that every child can thrive in a stimulating, inclusive, and joyful environment. Each stakeholder has a role in building a positive socio-emotional development movement. Investing in early childhood is an investment in the future of our nation and of our world.

So, in this journey, let the magic of play lead the way.

Jagannatha Kumar is the CEO, Reliance Foundation. Dr Nilay Ranjan is head – Education, Reliance Foundation.

This blog first appeared in Voices, Lifestyle, The Times of India.