Twenty-eight, thirty and thirty-one are the respective ages of Hemant Kumar, Anish Mukherjee and Kshitij Patil – co-founders of a non-profit organisation, “Art of Play”. The term “Non-Profit” sounds scary for most of us who belong to this age group. Most of the middle-class population in this age group is busy finding ways to make profits. In contrast, here are three middle-class men who have set up their first company which by definition is not about making financial profits. When I asked this as my first question to Patil, he replied, “Well, that depends on how you define profit. Doesn’t it? For us we have made some real profits in the last one and half year. Not all profit is about the bank balance alone.”

We live in a cynical world. When it comes to changing things for good in a society most of us have either given up or have chosen to not care. We are very good at finding problems, sometimes even solutions but most often fail at becoming a part of the implementation. So how did these three young men get out of this cycle?

The Gandhi Fellowship program

“I think by pedigree we are a little different. We spent two years at the Gandhi Fellowship program. When we came out of the program we all knew that we wanted to work in the social sector. Our experiences there made us realize that change was possible if we remain persistent,” said Patil.

The Gandhi Fellowship is an intensive two-year residential program that helps talented young people develop the leadership skills essential to cause positive change in society. The Fellowship challenges these young people to support and partner with primary public school headmasters to transform their schools to achieve the desired educational outcomes.

Patil had a cool and laidback demeanour. My hurried questions were followed by long and patient answers. I was ready to ask him about his journey with the organisation, but he surprised me with his own question instead: “Before I answer any of your questions, tell me what is your perception about the public school system in India?”

After everything that I had read and observed about these schools I thought I should just be honest with my answer, “I think they can do much better. Infrastructure, skilled teachers, assessment of progress or of the students’ future is questionable. The kids seem to go to these schools only because they get a meal a day. There might be a very few exceptions.” Patil took a deep breath and contemplated for a while before he responded.

Kumar and Patil getting ready for the day. Image credit: Chinmay Athaley

The current situation of public schools

“Do you know how many public schools are there in India?” he asked me. I replied that I had no idea. Patil began, “There are roughly around 1.5 million schools in 600 districts in India. It is one of the world’s largest public education systems. You must understand the magnitude of the problem here. The National Curriculum Framework was written in 2005. It is an amazing document which has guidelines for how schools should be run and how teachers should teach. We have managed to write good frameworks but the sheer scale at which it needs to be implemented makes it very difficult for implementation.

He added, “However, the positives here are that the school infrastructure has reached most of the corners in India. There is at least one primary school within the radius of 1 km, and there are teachers in place. The discourse and efforts have now slowly moved towards improving the quality of education and the way it is delivered to the children. Saying this, the efforts of the government systems are still not enough to improve implementation. Schools need to have well trained teachers. Infrastructure needs to still be improved a lot. The idea of education is very traditional. Children are not encouraged to ask questions. Physical punishment by teachers is normal. That does not mean that private schools are any better when it comes to good education.”

The premises of a public school. Image credit: Chinmay Athaley
Most of the schools have very small grounds. Children have to be taken to public parks or grounds to play. Their happiness comes through from their faces. Image credit: Chinmay Athaley

Idea of education

His last statement got my attention. Why would he say so about private schools? I think he understood my surprise and continued, “See, education has been seriously misunderstood in India. Education does not just mean coming to school, going through seven periods of 45 minutes and going home. The majority of our schools educate children to become either engineers or doctors. They are all so identical to each other that there is no scope for bringing out their real passion. How many schools encourage art, painting, sports, singing, dancing for that matter anything creative? School should be about a child’s holistic development. A child needs to be exposed to everything in an equal measure.”

There are recent educational discourses that have identified the significance of two sides of brain development. Our left brain is the logical side that controls reading, writing and logical thinking while our right side is responsible for creativity, emotional intelligence and empathy. Education is catering to our left side alone and right side remains undeveloped. With intelligence, a child’s emotional awareness, creativity, instincts and intuitions are equally important and that needs to be organically built.

The World Health Organisation and schools like the Harvard Graduate School of Education have been doing research on identifying certain life skills that are necessary for children to possess in the 21st Century. Some of them being critical thinking, problem solving, creative thinking, resilience, empathy, effective communication, coping with loss, self-awareness and others. These skills are expected to be taught to them in schools as part of their education.

No shoes, but that has not diminished the football love. Image credit: Chinmay Athaley

Sports to the rescue

For Art of Play, the best way to teach these skills was through sports. As Patil believes, “Sports teaches you most of these values. It is an organic medium that helps a child to be his real self and makes the process of learning easy. It is a great agent to make children understand the importance of reflection, self-awareness, communication and collaboration. Our aim is to teach them to play organised sports.”

Playing organised sports is not just coming to a ground to play. Organised sport is where a child is taught to dribble a ball, hit a shuttle, basically a skill is taught to them in an organised way.

Games like frisbee, football, netball and others are played at the workshops to balance workouts with a focus on both upper and lower body strength. They are also cheaper to play. Image credit: Chinmay Athaley

Lack of physical education

Being a sportsperson myself I knew the importance of being an athlete. I was curious though about why would they choose public schools for their workshops. “According to the Ministry of Youth Affairs, 93.7% of children and young adults in India don’t have access to playing organised sports. Imagine then how difficult it is for children studying in public schools. I believe it is every child’s right to play. It is a part of their childhood. All of us have played a sport when we were young. We have now worked in Assam, Delhi, and schools in Varanasi – none of them have any infrastructure for sports. As a policy, the Uttar Pradesh state government gives a very nominal amount for sports.

He added, “The figure quoted by a district sports teacher to us was Rs 43,000 for around 550 schools. In all the schools we have been to, a physical education instructor has not been hired for the last six to seven years. Some of them hire PE instructors on contractual basis, and these instructors have been working there for 4-5 years but have still not been made permanent. The instructors we are working with now are all working on a contract, and therefore are not paid much. Their idea of sports is the PT exercises we did in school and marching children around their small grounds. With these circumstances is it possible to make athletes of these children? They have no opportunity to choose to become an athlete.”

There are more girls in public schools than boys as the latter are sent to the private schools. Many girls stop their education after school. Image credit: Chinmay Athaley

Due to lack of PE instructors, there is no way of assessing the physical capability and technical skills of the kids. There is no assessment on a monthly or even yearly basis. This is mainly because there is no set structure in place. The meagre amount of money allotted for physical education says a lot about how much priority is being given to sports in our public schools. An American football coach in the United States on the other hand is given a salary in the range of $1 million-$5 million by schools and universities. They are hands down the highest paid teachers in educational institutions.

So how does Art of Play help with the solution to this problem?

“We have a year program that is divided into four quarters. This comes to about 80 sessions in a year, 20 sessions per quarter and around 2 sessions per class. We first have a training workshop for the Physical Education instructors for three days at the beginning of each quarter. A student’s class constitutes a 45 minutes’ session. This session includes an ice-breaker session, warm-up drills, game specific drills, playing a match and finally a debrief – where the child reflects and shares his thoughts about a session and the lessons he learnt.” This whole structure is to ensure minimum of 80 hours of teaching and learning for every child on physical education. (The National Curriculum Framework recommends 120-150 hours every child per year for physical education).

It is impossible for the founders to be at all these schools at the same time and they realised that when they planned the workshop. The main mission of their work is to empower teachers and give them a structure with which they can work. It makes the whole plan more sustainable. Their idea is to spread this structure to various schools by empowering PE teachers and work with them rather than instead of them.

“We have given an assessment sheet for both physical and emotional skills to every P.E. teacher we have worked with. All they have to do is fill up the same form for every child. Every month, we visit the schools again to check on how the program is being conducted. The idea is that after at the end of every year out of the 2500 kids that we work with we identify at least 100 kids who are scoring comparatively better than others on their assessment sheets. These kids could then be pushed harder to be trained with more intensity to become athletes.”

Training the PE teachers. Image credit: Chinmay Athaley

A tough road ahead

Art of Play is only one and half years old. It hopes to partner with academies, organisations and sponsors who will be willing to pick the talented children in public schools and give them opportunities that the kids only dream about but have the right to. Patil maintains that they are still trying to find their place in this huge market. They realise that they are entrepreneurs of a different kind. Their customers are not the richest and most of the time are not very keen to pay for the services their company is ready to provide. It is challenging and frustrating a lot of the times, but Kshitij maintains that there is nothing more rewarding and meaningful than the work they are doing.

“We aren’t doing this to prove anything to anyone. This is not a social service. It is a social problem that we are trying to solve. Just like PayTM is trying to solve a problem of a cash dependent economy. We are doing this as a conscious choice and the keeda (Hindi slang for being a little eccentric) that we share between the three of us, of being a part of change. At the end of the day when Ram a 10-year-old kid in Assam chooses to come and play football with us instead of working in an alcohol shop even when it is the only way to pay for his food, we know we are giving him an opportunity which he truly deserves. Not every kid will become a sportsperson in the future. But it is their right to at least get an opportunity to choose to be one.”

Aditi Mutatkar is the winner of five national badminton championships – under-13, under-16, under-19 and senior nationals – and has represented the Indian badminton team in international tournaments.