It is going to be an eventful day for the seven-year-old Preet, who is packing his 'fun' bag. His teacher had asked the class to bring a few toys to school today, and they would be allowed to just play with them ¬- an annual activity. Last year, Preet had taken his favourite toy train. This year, he is packing his puzzle board and the windmill he built with his father's help. He can't just wait to show it to his friends!
As he enters school, the same rows of wooden benches and desks greet him. He can still see the timetable and hopes that the class will not follow this today. He glances through the colourful charts of fruits and vegetables, like he does everyday, before making his way to his allotted seat. Like all his other classmates, his teacher asks him what his 'fun bag' contains. And off he goes explaining how a windmill works!
The teacher looks pleased to see his creation, and instead of asking questions like 'where does the Sun rise', she surprises him by asking if he had fun learning about windmills. This is a forgotten question for so long - are kids having fun when they learn? "If it is not fun, it is not learning. Play is very serious business," opines Arvind Gupta, a well-known toy inventor and populariser of science, who is famous for his science education initiative called Arvind Gupta Toys that turns trash into toys for kids to understand science better. "In schools children are taught, but do they really learn? That is the question we need to ask," he says.
Not much experimentation
Our education system has relied on rote learning for a long time now. Lessons in textbooks are merely about learning facts rather than understanding the rationale behind them. There are still Physics classes popping out definitions, Mathematics classes churning out equations and Chemistry classes spelling out the hymns of chemical reactions. But is it making real sense? Can children understand the 'Science' behind them? For many, it is a no, and this system of rote learning is not making them any smarter.
By and large, schools stick to the old and safe ways of 'mug and spit', without much experimenting with different ways of teaching. On the contrary, studies have shown that a learning environment with a lot of hands-on exploration is conducive for children to learn new things. We are born to 'touch' and 'feel' anything we come across to absorb and understand it better.
And science lessons are no different! Hence, engaging the children in activities can enable them to relate science with the real world and their immediate surroundings more easily.
And learning is never confined to the walls of the classroom. Children have the ability to learn from everywhere. They learn from parents, siblings, books and nature. A child's mind is inquisitive and her ears and eyes are always on the lookout for anything interesting and fun! Children spend only a few hours in school, so life outside school is perhaps more important.
As evidence to this, a recent study by researchers at Plymouth University, UK has observed that when incorporated in the curriculum, outdoor learning can have a positive impact on children's development. Busy family lives and the pressure to be successful academically provide very few opportunities for today's children to explore their surrounding natural environment. Needless to say, this has hampered not only their ability to learn, but also their social skills, emotional development and well-being as well. Unfortunately, once they start going to school, the same inquisitive minds are promptly moulded to start mugging, and preparing for tests and exams.
The good news is that some schools today support learning outside the classroom, like that of Preet's. There are days when students are taken out for a walk in the parks, or to a museum. But that is a rare find. There is also a cost associated with making science-learning fun. The numerous schools that advertise fancy labs and teaching equipment to give a 'hands-on' experience to the kids often tend to be unaffordable for the majority.
Does learning right have to be so expensive? May be we must move beyond the idea of a stereotypical science lab - with fancy test tubes and pipettes locked up in the glass cupboard with a grime of dust, meant for the school inspector! So how about replacing an expensive 'electroscope' to explain to a Class 7 student about detecting the presence of electric charge, with a self-constructed simple instrument using some wool, paper, cardboard pieces, plastic pipes and copper wires that cost close to nothing? That is what the toys made by Arvind Gupta are all about!
Simple and better
There are many such activities that children can learn from. The concept of educational kits made from simple, everyday things are now increasingly available in the market. There are experimental methods of teaching that a few teachers and schools are willing to try. In the age of Internet, making things fun is even easier. Consider Arvind's website www.arvindguptatoys.com. It has documented over 1,500 Science projects, activities, toys, photographs and books.
The good news is that some enlightened teachers are searching for better ways of learning, and seeking out people like Arvind. Parents also have a very big role in making learning fun. In the age where spending quality time with children is the best gift they can provide, making it fun and educational would be the icing on the cake. Outdoor activities that stimulate the mind and body bring kids closer to nature and provide a fun platform to learn.
Is there hope that this would all change one day and children start learning science like they should, with loads of interest and fun? Arvind is hopeful. "The great hope is not with teachers but with children," he says. As the late Professor Randy Pausch put it, "Never, ever underestimate the importance of having fun." A key message for all our teachers and parents, perhaps!