Swati Raje: Keeping children positively engaged was a big concern

Swati Raje, the founder-president of Bhaashaa Foundation, shares how the Pune organisation intensified its education efforts through its libraries and interactive centres to mitigate challenges faced by school children during the pandemic

05 May 2021 | By Dibyajyoti Sarma & PrintWeek Team

Storytelling by veteran storyteller, Geeta Ramanujan from Bengaluru

With schools shut for the better part of the year, and with children at home, you’d expect them to pick up the reading habit. Has it happened?
Children have been spending more and more time at home in the past 10 months. Being confined in their homes without schools for so long, keeping these children positively engaged was definitely a big concern. But parents, teachers and organisations such as Amar Chitra Katha and Kishore have been taking many efforts to tackle this.

These organisations and publishing houses have shared free links to a treasure trove of literature for children, so that children can access these wonderful stories from home without parents having to go out and buy books. We at Bhaashaa Foundation also joined in this effort.

We have reached out to more than 5,000 parents from different schools in our database with these links, encouraging children to immerse themselves in these beautiful stories. The time these children have spent at home, along with all these efforts on various fronts has definitely seen a rise in children picking up reading as a habit.

While physical schools are closed, online classes seem to be going on. How do you think the introduction of these online teaching methods will affect the holistic development of a child?
A child’s holistic development is greatly influenced by their physical interaction with their friends and peers, their experiences in co-curricular activities, and every little experience a child has being physically present in school.

Even the seemingly mundane and routine daily commute to and from school for example, is an integral part of a child’s holistic development. Physical schools being put on hold, therefore, will certainly have some impact on this development. However, during these times, we have also seen the rare phenomenon where children, parents and grandparents were all present together at the same time in numerous households.

This proximity and positive interaction across generations has helped to some extent to fill the void created by shutting down of physical schools. Additionally, many teachers are also approaching teaching and learning in creative ways, which has also contributed to a different kind of development for children.

Kathayatra, Bhaashaa Foundation’s signature story festival to re-root the importance of the ‘story’ in our life

Do you think a child now would be more receptive to books with audio-visual components added on?  
With the medium of instruction being totally audio-visual now, the skill-sets and comfort levels with this medium have been enhanced. Not only urban, but also rural children are now more than comfortable with the audio-visual medium. It seems to be a natural extension of this that children will be more than accepting of books with audiovisual components.

Yet, in a country like India, half of the population still don’t have access to the internet. What happens to these children?
With such a large part of children’s key learning dependent on access to the internet, there is a danger of children with no access to these facilities missing out on essential education. This is a concern for children in rural areas as well as from low-income or working-class families who may not have access to the internet and other audio-visual technology.

It is mainly in these areas and communities where we at Bhaashaa Foundation have already set up our community libraries and interactive centres over the past decade. In light of the pandemic and school closures, we are now working on intensifying our education efforts through our curriculum-based libraries and interactive centres to mitigate challenges faced by these students in the past eight months.

Swati Raje

Do you think with schools closed, and book related public events not taking place, it’s more difficult to promote children’s literature than books for adults?
Due to the lack of physical events such as book exhibitions, literary festivals and so on, it has been a challenge to promote children’s literature. However, all stakeholders are aware of this situation, and their out-of-the-box thinking is helping in making great efforts to overcome this obstacle.

I have personally been invited and involved in many such online events and forums in different capacities – at readings of my books as an author, at interactions and talks with parents and children as the president of Bhaashaa Foundation, as a chief guest at an essay competition as an academic to address the participants. These are but a few events I was a part of. Given the limitations to in-person meetings, everyone has taken the initiative and moved this cause online.

How the pandemic has affected the work in your organisation?
For an NGO such as Bhaashaa Foundation, for whom community-based programmes are the base of the movement, restrictions in physical meetings during his pandemic has certainly affected our working. Programmes such as Yakshaprashna, the state-level interschool quiz competition, which has been held continuously for the last ten years, wherein more than 150 students from schools all over Maharashtra gather on the forum; and Kathayatra, one of the largest story festivals in India, could not be held due to the same.

In spite of these difficulties, with a firm belief in our goals, our team has kept moving forward and is using the online mode to reach out to more than 200 schools, their teachers, students, and more than 5,000 parents to carry forward our various programmes. For our signature programme of Marathi Bhaashaa Olympiad, we have developed a digital platform for sending out question papers and submission and grading of answer sheets. In fact, this digital medium has done away with geographical and logistical constraints, further increasing our outreach from previous years.

Every year schools from all over the state conduct the Marathi Bhaashaa Olympiad Exam in their premise. This year children appeared for it online

Now, the big question. How to make children aware of the virus and the importance of hygiene and social distancing? Have you published any books on the subject or conducted classes/ workshops with them?
In my opinion, the stage as of now is beyond awareness. All children are more than aware and knowledgeable about the virus and its effects, and subsequently the importance of hygiene, through media and interaction with teachers and elders in the family.

The bigger question is the effects of the pandemic on the psychology of the child. The beginning of the school year is associated with the rain, the scent of new books, longing to meet your friends after a long break. All of this, and more, is now missing. Missing is the space now enjoyed in normal school, the eye contact with teachers, physical nearness of friends and classmates. The negative effects of all these on the psychology of the child need to be acknowledged, and efforts to tackle those need to be on priority.

Literature will play a big positive role in this in some measure by helping the child escape from this stark negative reality into a world full of positives, whatever may be the genres of the literature.

One book project that made you smile in these grim times.
A book club called Twice Told, which has members from all over the country, started an initiative called Swap Book. The members of the group choose three organisations to support. Then they raise funds and give them to a designated book dealer, who then sends an equal share of books to each of the three organisations.

We are happy to share that Bhaashaa Foundation is one of the organisations chosen as part of this initiative. This support will help us further improve our library network in rural areas. It is very heartening to see that even in times of crisis, literature lovers come together to support the cause of promotion of literature.