Shabana Parveen is remarkably patient. She has be to handle 17 children under six, crying, starting fights or trying to escape her anganwadi centre. Until a few months ago, she would receive them at her early childhood care and education centre, in Laxmipur Kattai village of Moradabad district, Uttar Pradesh, promptly accede to their demands of the day, for play or stories, and hope for the best.

Her job is still partly chaos-control, but she has a more structured timetable of activities to follow and a clearer understanding of how the four hours with her in a single room of the village’s primary school could affect the children’s future development. She always encouraged play – she had to – but now she understands how walking over a rope laid on the ground can hone fine motor skills. “It improves balance and coordination,” she said. Jumping over it boosts the sense of orientation. Playing with other children teaches them to interact with big groups and small, reciting some poems with actions can contribute to basic numeracy, telling stories can build language skills – all crucial for getting children school-ready.

Parveen has made such effective use of training in early childhood care and education she received over the last year that her anganwadi – government-run early childhood centre – is ranked among the best in Moradabad. “Earlier, workers did not understand what had to be done,” said Parveen. “We sat children down for a while, distributed the food supplement and if they cried too much, sent them home.”

Based on the National Early Childhood Care and Education Policy, 2013, which defined standards and content for early childhood care and learning, the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, has chalked out a training programme for anganwadi workers in India. Each of its four cycles addresses one aspect of pre-school education – physical development, language skills, numeracy and socio-environmental awareness. Uttar Pradesh adopted the policy in 2015 but it had gone unimplemented until now. The training of anganwadi workers ensures children are not neglected over the crucial first five years. With prayers, independent play time, recitation, story-telling, drawing and other activities, all worked into a common timetable, there is enough variety to keep them engaged.

Children sit in a circle to improve their engagement skills. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Training the leaders

“In our system, those responsible and accountable for the anganwadis are themselves trainers,” said Ritwik Patra, education specialist for Unicef in Uttar Pradesh. In a typical “cascade model”, a set of trainers would train workers but not be responsible for the outcome of that training. In the “responsible cascade model” that Patra’s team has used, one set of officials in charge of centres train those on the rung below them in the hierarchy. First, district programme officers are trained in Lucknow by the Pune-based Centre for Learning Resource. The district officers, in turn, trains all child development project officers – block-level officials – in their respective districts. Each project officer trains the supervisors under them who train anganwadi workers. “This brings accountability to the system,” Patra said. Each district officer had to run an anganwadi for two-three months as well.

There is a separate cycle of training for each of the four aspects of early childhood care and education and so far, only the first two have been completed. The first cycle of training, addressing physical development, began in June, 2016. The second, on building pre-language skills, was completed in May this year. Skills and ideas obtained through one cycle are implemented by workers before the next round is started. Numeracy is next, in October.

At present, Unicef’s programme covers 15 districts – Allahabad, Shravasti, Pilibhit, Raebareli, Moradabad, Badaun, Varanasi, Barabanki, Balrampur, Sonbhadra, Hardoi, Mirzapur, Lucknow, Sitapur, Unnao. Over 41,000 angandwadi workers, handling about 12 lakh children, are being trained. Of the 41,000 centres, “about 13,000 are ready,” said Patra, meaning they have been refurbished and their staff are using their training effectively. Some, like Parveen’s, have seen the villagers getting more interested and asking for reading and writing to be taught. Although two children, Sophia and Rinki, both five, can write the first few letters of the Hindi alphabet, Parveen will not teach the rest.

“We tell parents our job is to get children ready to learn it when they reach school,” said Prerna Agarwal, who supervises 68 centres, including Parveen’s, in Munda Pandey block of Moradabad.

Altamas, 5, and his friend play with building blocks. Play areas are defined with tape. Bags with name tags hanging on the wall were made with the packaging the nutritional supplement came in. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Learning from junk

Although supported by the centrally-funded Integrated Child Development Scheme, anganwadis in Uttar Padesh feel the state’s general resource crunch. Few centres have electricity and children sit on the floor even in winter. Even the nutrition supplement, panjira, has not been coming for three months because of a “tendering problem”, officials said.

Moradabad child development officials said they last received teaching aids – a box of building blocks, a rocking horse and some alphabet cutouts – about two years ago. “We could use a regular supply of crayons and colouring books, for instance, even toys and puzzles,” said Iqbal Kaur, an anganwadi worker. Neeta Verma, another worker, added, “And something to play music on.”

While the wish list is likely to remain unchecked, the training programmes have taught anganwadi workers to be thrifty but resourceful. Nothing is wasted. The packaging for the nutritional supplement that was given to children until October has been cut up and stitched into bags with names, one for each child. As children get used to putting their artworks and craft projects into their bag daily, they learn to figure out how their own name, and those of their peers, are written. Across districts, the blue saris anganwadi workers wore as uniform before being replaced by green salwar-kameez, have been repurposed to create khel ghars, or play rooms, at the centres.

Child development project officer Komila Kaur inspects the play room fashioned out of a blue sari, the old uniform of anganwadi workers. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

From studying leaves, flowers and vegetables, children get a sense of shape, weight, colour, size and quantity. “We give a child a leaf and ask him to pick a matching one from a plate with different kinds of leaves,” explained Komila Kaur, child development project officer for Munda Pandey. The few hundred rupees a centre gets for running costs go into stationary, toy kitchen sets and doctor sets. There are no expensive teaching aids. Children fill outlines on blank sheets with bits of coloured paper to learn shapes. A small mirror helps instill awareness about the body and hygiene.

Anganwadi worker Shabana Parveen watches Sophia, 5, write. Sophia only knows the first few letters of the Hindi alphabet. Photo credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury

Limited support

Panchayats, or the village administration, have been roped in to tile the centres’ floors but in many places, they are reluctant to invest more. Laxmipur Kattai’s is unwilling to pay for a boundary wall; Parveen’s register has been stolen three times. A sizeable number of centres run within primary schools. Workers themselves are underpaid for the services they render, Neeta Verma and Iqbal Kaur complained. They are contract employees and despite being called upon to deliver a range of schemes – not all for children either – they are paid just an “honorarium” of Rs 4,000 per month.