In 2016, armed with a bachelor’s degree in education, Rajrani Thigor joined an anganwadi centre (AWC) at New Dhanari village in Pindwara block, in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district. In initial days: she spent her time distributing rations, contacting pregnant women for health services, and handling administrative duties.
Though more than 40 children between the ages of 3 and 6 had enrolled at the centre, only five or six attended regularly. Mostly, they came for the free meals. Ms Rajrani , who then had a two-year-old child of her own, had no formal training in early education, nor was she interested in the children who attended the anganwadi centre. It didn’t help that her supervisor wasn’t very supportive either.
Ms Rajrani is not an exception; most AWC workers in remote tribal areas have similar stories to share.
In many parts of rural and semi-rural India, the communities struggle to make ends meet. AWCs are focal points for the delivery of key government services to children aged less than six years, including immunisation, nutrition, and early childhood learning or pre-school education.
Most AWCs in rural and tribal areas face challenges such as limited accessibility, and a lack of infrastructure, educational supplies and trained human resources. This affects the quality of services offered, especially in the sphere of pre-school education, which is one of the most neglected services at AWCs.
Though in Rajasthan, access is not a problem – the state has over 62,000 AWCs. However, like Ms Rajrani, a majority of the AWC workers lacked skills and formal training in early childhood development.
If the AWCs were to function as intended, something had to change.
Catalyst for change
The Centre for microFinance (CmF), an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts, has been working on early childhood education (ECE) in Abu Road block of Sirohi district since 2015. Seeing the immense improvement in ECE outcomes in Sirohi, the district administration requested CmF in 2019 to conduct a similar intervention in Pindwara block. Currently, CmF works across all 433 AWCs in both Abu Road and Pindwara blocks.
CmF’s ECE intervention focuses specifically on:
- Building the capacity of existing human resources, i.e. AWC workers, helpers and supervisors, through training and onsite demonstrations, and developing sector-level resource teams of trained workers and supervisors.
- Transforming anganwadis into vibrant ECE centres by setting-up sector-level model anganwadis (five in each sector), and creating a conducive learning environment with printed material and learning resources.
- Empowering the community and parents through awareness-building activities and active engagement.
Along with other AWC workers, Ms Rajrani went through the motions of the monthly sector-level ECE trainings and periodic onsite demonstration visits by the CmF team members. Initially, she had little interest in participating in ECE-related work. But as the monthly training and interaction sessions at the AWC continued, she realised the importance of ECE to a child’s overall development, and she began to participate more actively. She also learnt how to conduct various ECE activities with children.
Her growing interest and the training inputs led her to contact parents to ensure that children who were enrolled at her AWC attended regularly. With the technical help of the project team, she conducted regular ECE activities at the anganwadi. She also developed learning corners for children where they could engage in educational and fun activities.
“The learning corners in our AWC were developed with the support of Rakhiji,” says Ms Rajrani, referring to Rakhi Mishra, the CmF block anchor. The corners often hold items such as pebbles, stones, and wooden blocks which are used in free play and ECE activities. The AWCs can have a language corner, a cognitive development corner, a library corner with books, an arts corner, a toy corner, or even a children’s hospital corner, containing hospital toys. The corner is set up to let children access learning and play materials which encourage them to stay at the AWCs for 3-4 hours, so they can socialise and play longer.
The monthly training inputs gave Ms Rajrani the confidence and skills to conduct themed, age-appropriate ECE activities. Having understood the importance of language, she uses the local dialect (Marwari) as well as Hindi to encourage children to participate. Ms Rajrani also conducts regular meetings for mothers at the AWCs. She shares the childrens’ progress and asks the mothers to ensure that the children attend classes regularly.
The metamorphosis has not gone unnoticed. “I have observed a lot of positive changes in Rajrani during the last couple of years,” says Ms Sunita, the AWC supervisor for Swarupganj sector in Pindwara. “She has started taking an interest in ECE. She has also taken innovative steps to engage with children and their parents through WhatsApp groups, home visits, and teaching/learning material (TLM) development. The print-rich environment and learning corners at her anganwadi are very encouraging for other workers,” adds Ms Sunita who regularly sends other AWC workers to Ms Rajrani to learn new activities and develop a similar environment at their AWCs.
The parents are equally appreciative. “Earlier, we did not know about pre-school education at the anganwadi. It is through Rajraniji that we learnt about its importance for our children,” says Ms Vimla, whose four-year-old daughter Riya attends the anganwadi.
A new challenge
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March 2020, the AWCs were shut down and children stayed home. Ms Rajrani was provided with online training inputs and resources during this period. When the lockdown ended, Ms Mishra motivated Ms Rajrani to start interacting with parents and children while following safety and prevention measures.
Ms Rajrani began by engaging with selected parents to increase their awareness of Covid-19 and to deliver key safety messages such as wearing face masks, regularly washing hands, maintaining physical distancing, etc. Then, she taught parents how to involve their children in different learning and fun activities using household materials like vegetables, wooden items, or grains.
As parents began to comply, she provided them various TLMs in the form of posters, cards, and colourful pictures. She has even created a WhatsApp group of parents who have smartphones and, with the support of the CmF team, shared pictures of the learning materials such as posters, chart papers and videos of ECE activities. During her home visits, she conducts demonstrations for groups of 5-6 children in the presence of their mothers, followed by other learning activities that the parents can conduct at home. Seeing her enthusiasm, an AWC helper, Ms Jamna Bai, was also motivated to engage with the children and their parents. Now, with Ms Jamna Bai’s help, Ms Rajrani regularly engages with 35 parents and their children .
Ms Mishra is all praise for Ms Rajrani’s efforts. “Rajrani has developed a very good understanding of ECE and is always ready to create new materials to enrich the learning corners,” she says. “She really likes to demonstrate her work to other AWC staff and helpers, which encourages them to improve the environment across all AWCs. Now, when children don’t come to AWCs, she proactively engages with parents through home visits. With CmF’s support, she is also engaging with parents and children virtually,” adds Ms Mishra.
Ms Rajrani’s journey has been an inspirational one. Her efforts to improve the conditions at AWCs have inspired others to do the same, laying a foundation of learning for hundreds of young children.