Earlier this month, I traveled out for work. This wasn’t your usual work trip, but a retreat to help some of us unplug from the humdrum routine to think of more strategic matters. And what other place but the mighty Himalayas to make the brain go into overdrive. Fresh and clean air and lush greenery, occasional showers and the mist rolling into the conference room…could one ask for more?
I had my own personal challenge to overcome on this trip. I’ve recently undergone surgery on my knee to reconstruct a torn ligament. Weeks have gone by with limited movement, extreme caution, pain. Shoghi (located a little short of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh) signified RISK….and risk brings in a certain excitement, an element of challenge.
When we reached Shoghi after a train ride and a taxi drive steeply uphill, the clouds were building up and threatening to rain. The walk from the reception to the room was steeply uphill and I laboured upward, taking one step at a time, praying the ground would not be slippery. I texted home: This was a bad decision!
But over the next two days, I learnt to negotiate the slopes. I set my own pace. I asked for support and help. In between the most productive work discussions, I doodled furiously, as I do when my brain is on overdrive. The adrenalin was pumping through me and the confidence (which had taken a wee hit in the weeks before though my optimist hadn’t!) went up and up.
A change of scene can do wonders and the Shoghi sojourn proved that for me. I returned calmer and surer of myself, snapped out of my ‘patient’ mode and stopped cutting myself slack on account of by health. I re-introduced elements of my regular routine (dropping kids to school, the little errands and household chores). I feel so much more hopeful now.
Sharing some misty images and doodles from the trip…..
Watching my children grow and hearing the absolutely astonishing things they say and do, I often try and remember what I was like when I was a child. Of course, I cannot. We only know partly what we were and a lot of what we think we know is informed by what older people have told us of our past selves.
This morning, Udai lost one tooth in a really fun way. These two front upper teeth had been hanging loose for weeks. He was to go see a dentist today, but even before that, in a little squabble at waking up time, Aadyaa punched one tooth out of Udai! Now instead of that becoming a full blown fight, we had a whale of a time squealing in laughter, with Udai thanking Aadyaa and the little one admiring this fallen tooth, this hallowed symbol of being grown-up-er!
Udai then went about trying to distract the rest of us so he could hide this tooth in a secret place. Was it so exciting for me, this breaking of my milk teeth? I don’t remember, though I do remember that ritual of my dad tying a thread around these hanging teeth and yanking them off by tying the other end of the thread to the door knob and banging the door shut! I also distinctly remember that feeling of pushing the tender gums around the newly appearing teeth, constantly feeling that gap in a bitter sweet pleasure (I was amused at hearing myself tell Udai not to do this because the new teeth would come out crooked, why do repeat the stuff we hated to hear as kids when we become parents).
These past few days, my children have surprised me in many ways. In Ramgarh, I discovered that Udai is no longer a slightly timid boy who fears taking risks. Instead, he became the lead walker in our small treks, negotiating little slippery patches and jungle streams with confidence, finding the right path and helping us across. I saw his concern for his grandmums, me, Aadyaa, all the women in his life. I admired him, and was touched as well. I also found out that Aadyaa is an unending well of energy, who can walk far more than I had imagined and is up for challenges all the time! From a rather demanding and attention-seeking toddler, she is turning into a well mannered, reasonable little girl, able to keep herself busy and make intelligent enjoyable conversation. Moreover, I found that the siblings had decided to bond, spend more time in harmony that in discord and that certainly made the holiday far more enjoyable! Making and flying paper planes from a book Udai had carried accounted for a lot of the time spent. No TV, no ipad, no phone games….quite the break it was!
The infamous rape incident in Delhi has also changed things in our home. Udai has been an avid newspaper reader for a while now, focusing on the sports pages but scanning all else as well. But now he points out to me tips for women to be safe. He read out rape stats to me by state yesterday, telling me that Uttarakhand (“where we have come from”) was the 2nd best state for women’s safety, etc. Of course he does not technically understand what rape is, but he does know that it is something “very bad” that men do to women, that rape happens because men believe women are inferior, that women and men are equally capable and deserving of respect, etc…..I actually asked him about what he made of this and this is roughly what he told me, no kidding! Partly, he overhears discussions at home and he knew I would want to hear this, but even so….for a boy not yet nine, to glean this from news reports and conversations and take a position on it seemed pretty mature to me.
I am sure many parents are astonished about how their children are reacting to all the awareness and activism around us right now. In times like this, children grow up faster. Their inquisitiveness propels them into unknown terrain and they put pieces pf the puzzle together pretty fast, and well (of course it’s up to us to help them and not mislead, over-protect, hide). Yet, they remain innocent. It’s a wonder that flies in the face of our belief that certain things are ‘adult’ and other things are for kids….
Sometimes life simply overwhelms me. Interestingly, these are not the occasions when something momentous, fantastic or traumatic, have happened. That sense of life being larger and more complex than I am able to comprehend overcomes me without warning, swiftly and sharply. Caught unawares, I bumble around for a while. Reason some. Eventually, the feeling passes, but not after the collateral damage (mouth ulcers, kids screamed at, spat with the husband) has already happened.
At work though, the feeling of the insurmountable drives me to make more effort. The more nebulous and threatening the brief, the more I resort to the simplest of strategies. To use the powers of logical reasoning, the steps of problem solving, the confidence in my intelligence.
But what happens when you set out to do something you have never done before. And that something is an opportunity you have waited for, one you sense will change the shape of the future.
I am currently embarking on a research fellowship in which I know I will have to synthesise all the knowledge and skills I have, and some. At this point, I am struggling for clarity. How do I resist the urge to fit the vision and scope into the boundaries of my knowledge and skills? If I presume I can acquire the skills I need but do not currently have, would that be compromising my research? How do you ‘think big’? How do you imagine a future you haven’t seen?
I flit between feeling inadequate and knowing that the clarity will come. I know that, after years of anchoring in a safe harbour, I have taken myself out to sea and there will be rough weather to face. At some level, this is a test of discipline and survival as much as it is an exploration of my capability to find data, critically analyse and find solutions. But most of all, it is about letting go of self doubt, of soaring above the clouds and making the impossible possible.
To retain the passion and idealism that I feel even as I negotiate the harsh realities of urban planning and governance will be the mother of challenges. To evolve a template for an inclusive city seems like taking a crack at an unresolvable problem. To shed the skin of socialism I live in and approach the issue of migrant housing with a market-based solution that can be sold to government and private sector alike is a tall order indeed.
You would agree then, that this time round, the feeling of being overwhelmed is entirely understandable! While I go on with the rituals of my weekend (music class, family outing, errands and chores,doses of mainstream and eclectic entertainment), I carry inside me the excitement and fear of the huge distances I must travel and the leaps of faith I must make. The calm on the outside belies the tempest within.
Yesterday, our family spent a few hours of sheer innocence and happiness in J Block of Shikshantar. While the big school presented the 10th anniversary of the school to parents in an exhibition mode, the pre-primary block’s experience was more like a mela. Teeming with people, sounds, color, activity, smiles and conversation, an air of abandonment and unbridled joy.
The theme of stories was enjoyed and experienced to the hilt by little children, whose uninhibited imagination and simplicity endows them with the ability to engross themselves completely in the world of stories. They identify strongly with fictional characters and effortlessly merge reality and fiction, art and narrative, the world of depiction and that of performance.
In these kids, aged between 3 and 6, I saw a certain freshness, innocence and lack of pretension that revived my spirits. Since kids this young do not think too much about what others’ might think of them, the content of the stories was much more varied (than in older classes, where I think they chose themes that found approval with the school philosophy to some extent). Cars, parents, friends, spaces they experience, fears, dreams, nature, color, journeys, conversations, we saw all these elements in their little stories. One class had illustrated their little stories using tiny clay sculptures and it was a joy to see how well those little hands had created forms as complex as an octopus, a car, a snake, a house and many others.
We were drawn into their world this afternoon. In one classroom, we created stories out of rhythm emanating from different people playing a variety of instruments in spontaneous sync with each other. In other rooms, we drew, painted, cut and pasted to create our own imaginary worlds. We became little children again and thoroughly enjoyed it.
All of this was wonderful, but the most magical thing about the J Block in Shikshantar still remains the Vanar Vatika. I have watched Udai and his friends connect with it since he was in Raindrops (Playgroup) five years ago, and how much they continue to miss that space even now, when they are in Grade 3 and over eight years old! They recreated this space so well in the model they made for the birthday, the nostalgia was evident!
This is a play area full of little physical challenges. No super fancy swings here. We are talking stuff like a giant pipe under a mound of mud, you can climb over the mound or walk in and through the pipe! Or the concrete beams at varying heights and angles that you learn to balance on. The little brick wall with punctures in different shapes. And the bean pole that you shimmy down and eventually, perhaps, learn to shimmy up as well! The swing, the tyre swing, the guerilla obstacle course stuff…..Vanar Vatika is an unmissable call to become a child again. Aadyaa too, I can see, is in her element here. She complained bitterly on the days it rained heavily and Vanar Vatika was out of bounds for them.
From a professional perspective, Vanar Vatika always makes me think about the intimate relationship we share with spaces we experience. Why some spaces click while others don’t has been studied extensively. Vanar Vatika clicks because it is designed as an intimate space, with a scale suitable for young children. Everything is simple, nothing overwhelming. No swanky, shiny stuff that says ‘touch me not’, no manicured flower beds. All softscape, no hard ground where kids might hurt themselves. Surrounded by green edges. Offering challenged simple and tougher, making it something they want to go back to every day.
As a planner, I wish our cities were filled with Vanar Vatikas. Such spaces should be public, accessible to all. In 2011, we visited Barcelona and visited many public parks with spaces like this for children. When children are happy, they draw in adults into a world of peace and enjoyment. In India, a nation with the youngest population in the world, we certainly must have more happy spaces for children. We must consider this an investment in our future.
The world has changed immensely since we went through the motions of being ‘educated’. not just in terms of technology and the amount of information available, but in the perspective of educationists now viewing the student as an active participant, one influential in the process of education rather than as a mere recipient of knowledge.
Today’s youth, in my perception with the interactions that I have had through teaching in an architecture college (SPA) and through interactions with schoolchildren at various stages, are fitted with bright and super-agile minds. However, there is a wide variety in background which impacts their ability to perform in an academic environment.
One one hand, many students may come to the education system with handicaps. In architecture college, for instance, kids from rural or peri-urban backgrounds often have a hard time understanding references to lifestyles and expectations that teachers assume are obvious and simple to comprehend. Language of instruction is another common challenge for non-English speakers.
On the other hand, most kids love rising to a challenge and lose motivation when the system does not challenge them. So you have a split situation, in which some students are struggling to come to a reasonable level, while many others are barely making an effort, complacent that the minimum effort will be enough! The only way the conventional education system has to tackle this is to dumb stuff down. Keep expectations at an average, make things simple and obvious, make process overarchingly important so as to almost relegate content to the backburner.
I do see the benefits of giving kids a free hand though. Almost every one of my friends who has taught design studio has expressed that their students were motivated when they were allowed to be innovative and could take some decisions about their work for themselves. Even so-called average students produced exciting results when they were pressurized, encouraged and cajoled to better themselves. The trick appears in offering a framework for problem solving and allowing the solutions to evolve rather than a top-down approach of asking kids to pick from a menu of pre-made existing solutions.
For the field of architecture and urban design, this ability to weave in elements of research, design, planning and policy into a cohesive and workable solution is critical. By continuing to dumb down architectural education, we run the risk of creating yet another generation of incapable professionals who will end up becoming slaves of unworkable bureaucratic visions or worse, of the rampant profiteering schemes of vested interests. If we aren’t investing in the professionals of the future by offering them an academic environment fraught with challenges, where risk is possible and even welcome, we should numb ourselves and be prepared for the possibile demise of the increasingly urban economy that India is becoming.
The brain is an amazing piece of equipment, isn’t it? I have a particularly overactive one and I am always being told that I think too much. Well, I do. And most times I am perfectly fine with that. So do most of us, whether it is about work or about what to cook for dinner is immaterial. We use our brains constantly and very few of us know how to give this particular organ some rest. Nor do we use it to its full potential.
This was brought home to me recently by someone I met, who described in an incredibly funny way his complete failure to meditate, despite several attempts. I could so relate to that. The first time ever I tried to meditate was when I visited my to-be in-laws in Macau on my way to start grad school in Texas A&M University. My to-be mother-in-law used to teach yoga and I attended her class. At the precise moment that she urged us to blank our mind and focus on our breath, I recall by brain taking off into the wildest journeys, crowding up with visual images and reminders for tasks undone (she is my mother-in-law now and still urges me to meditate). Over several feeble attempts over several years, I reached some sort of understanding of what I was aiming for, but never really got there.
Last year sometime though, when I was learning yoga from a really patient teacher, I discovered a fresh way to blank my brain. Perhaps I was at that stage in life when I recognized the value of destressing, but I really wanted to overcome this meditation challenge. I felt it was getting in the way of learning yoga better. So I used the power of visualization to create abstract forms that I could focus on. So I would start like that and in some time, initially thirty second and then sooner, the forms would give way to a sort of colored blankness before my shut eyes and I could stay like that for a few minutes. Did it really calm me down, make me a more focused person? I don’t know. Perhaps.
For various reasons, I fell out of that yoga routine this summer. Last week, I attended my first class of Pilates, which I have been wanting to try for a very long time. I discovered that Pilates uses the power of visualization too, to very good effect. Terms like ‘tuck your ribs into your back pocket’ and ‘tuck your tailbone into your nose’ help you achieve the right posture that is necessary for your body to benefit from the exercises and strengthen your core.
Essentially, all of this is about the mind-body connection and visualization can be a great tool to get your mind to push your body to do new things. For me, exploring this connection has become a very interesting project. In dance, in music, in whatever I do, I am experimenting with using the power of visualization to achieve my goals. When I cannot get a particular note during my riyaaz, I visualize it in as a point in space (in relation to other notes that I have been able to get right) that I have to travel to directly, speedily and with precision, and I find it is easier to get it right. In kathak, which is a far more directly visual form, I have the mirrors as an aid and a guru whose demonstrations are so good that it is much easier to reach for perfection. It’s an exciting experiment and will really be successful when I learn to understand what sort of visualization can turn a negative thought to a positive one, or chase away a bad feeling.
We all have to work this stuff out for ourselves, I know. Would be great to get some feedback on how all of you have overcome physical and mental challenges! I am sure if we can share these tips, it would make it easier to deal with the increasingly stressful and crowded lives we lead (and even crave for).
The first half of yesterday was spent attending the school PTM. Fortunately, in Shikhantar, its not a typical deal where you hear what the teacher has to say about your child, where she can improve, how good or naughty she is, etc. We usually have a short group session in each classroom where general observations and concerns are shared and curricular goals discussed. Then parents of a single batch are brought together to discuss something relevant to the age group. I always complain that many of these sessions become criticisms of modern parenting methods and laments on current lifestyles and not much constructive emerges.
This time was different as the session was conducted by E K Shaji from Jodo Gyan, an exemplary non-funded, non-profit organization that focuses on making math fun for kids. They work with kids in government schools and train teachers at some private schools including Shikshantar, which is a liberal institution, one of very few in perhaps the entire country that isn’t scared to break the mold and act in the true interests of children.
Shaji is an entertaining teacher, using humor, drama, narration and discipline in equal measure to hold his audience. He demonstrated simple ways to teach grade 3 kids the concepts of fractions and multiplication.
Here is some stuff that struck me particularly:
- Concept of math for children is totally different from the adult conception of math
- The entire objective of primary school math education should be to make children fall in love with math
- To make kids understand math, it has to be set in a familiar context and have some emotional content. Also, the problem has to be worth solving. He demonstrated by narrating a story of a kid who loves cake going to another child’s birthday. There he finds several tables, each with identical cakes on them, but with different numbers of people, 3, 5, 7, 9 seated at each table…Where does he sit? I tried it at home and bang on…the kids knew the table with the least number of people would mean you get the biggest piece of cake! Ingenious 🙂
- Challenge is what drives kids to learn. The idea to expand their horizons and make them see the limitlessness of math, not give them repetitive problems to solve…..
Shaji emphasized the role of practice in being able to develop math skills. He also enlightened us about recent research that shows that even right brained people, previously thought to be not as good at math at the left-brained variety, go on to become brilliant at math if they have good math teachers during pre-primary schooling.
Essentially, the foundations of good math are being laid in nursery and kindergarten, through conceptual clarity. I picked up a couple of Jodo toys yesterday for Aadyaa who is 4 and I’ve had several at home for Udai as well. They are simple and allow young children to make endless patterns, strengthen their fine motor skills, make connections and have a lot of fun while at it. Its like having many variations of Lego-type blocks (which I think are the best ever toys for kids!).
For grade 3, they have games focused on place value, fractions, multiplication, division…strengthening concepts that are essential to moving to more abstract mathematics and algebra in middle school.
We spent our Sunday at home playing another math game, that coincidentally my mum got back with her from a recent trip to the Netherlands (that’s where one of the institutes that collaborated with Jodo Gyan is based; 55% of their content is adapted from R&D in Netherlands, Scandinavia and Belgium). I played Rummikub too as a child and it’s great for developing the concept of sequences and its super family entertainment. Like Scrabble, it will challenge all age groups. In the first round today, Udai seemed to be just abut getting comfortable, but I predict many hours will be spent playing Rummikub in the soon-to-commence summer vacations!