Nearly five years ago, a few of us took a brave and crazy decision to start a new school. Inspired by the criticism against modern industrial schooling, where children are forced to be domesticated (or you could call it forced social adjustment), we felt empowered to challenge this setup by starting a school. Before started, we did a lot of meetings with prospective parents to understand what kind of school will we start. We hoped this was a place where children felt free to “socially adjust” to society at their own pace, rather than being forced by a system. In the beginning we had no idea how many other people would be interested in such a school, but to our surprise, in year 5, we have more than a dozen other families who have decided to take the same decision.
When we started, we were lucky to find a space that was almost perfect to our needs. A small, independent structure on a busy street with 3 large rooms, a small passage and a small courtyard. The space is neither modern nor rustic, and has a genuine down-to-earth vibe. We don’t have air conditioning or jazzy interiors, staying true to our principle to keep the place as organic and frugal as possible. Of the three rooms, one of the rooms is a library, one a play zone and the third a common area for food, hobbies and other activities.
To start with, we had two parents who chose to be full-time facilitators (no there are no “teachers”) at the school, later one more parent joined. Each of them have different interests, talents and temperaments, while believing in the core values of self directed learning. We also have several other parents spending time voluntarily or as part-time facilitators adding more experience to the mix. All of our facilitators are deep believers in letting children grow and understand the world at their own pace, working with them rather than treating them as pets that need to be domesticated. Having the right space and the right people was a stroke of extreme good luck. Maybe the stars were aligned.
The first couple of years were slow. A few families who were looking for alternative schools like us had joined. During the lockdown, we were joined by a few more families who were not happy with their children missing important school years sitting at home in front of the laptop. Since we were not formally a school, we did not have to follow the state guidelines for shutting down of schools. Slowly our numbers began to grow.
Compared to adults, children in general have very high energy. They want to play, shout, fight, jump, gossip all the time. Every morning as I drop the tiffin at school, I get a glimpse of the energy of the school. A few kids might be playing football on the narrow courtyard, or they may be playing cricket in the playzone. Some kids would be swinging in the gym, or playing board games, or just running around. The decibel levels are generally very high. Even when there are sessions, the children seem restless. Sitting and thinking does not come naturally to them. They seem more excited to explore their physical boundaries and the boundaries that adults have set for them. Set a boundary or a rule, and a child is guaranteed to challenge it. While play is the most common activity, they are engaged in several other things as well. There are several facilitator-led sessions that talk about the world around us — math, science, art, geopolitics, languages are all covered, though not all children take part in these sessions. Even the level of engagement of each child is different.
Order and cleanliness is valued by adults but not by children (maybe because they have not worked or paid for the things they use). They are happy to let books, toys and art material lie around. In the first few years, one of the hardest things was to create a culture of good housekeeping. Several strategies were tried — rotations and rewards. The facilitators kept getting frustrated with the children not caring about housekeeping. While the children liked the idea of order (which is probably a universal need), they did not want to be instructed to keep things in place. It was a source of major conflict in the small community.
Through regular questioning, dialogue and collaboration, the children slowly started taking responsibility for keeping the place clean. By electing “seva” (volunteering) ministers, they are now able to manage this well. Once a few children started taking responsibility, others joined in. It took a few years, but keeping the place clean has now become part of the culture. Once when I was at the centre, a 5 year old was crying. I asked her why, and she replied that she was told to put her crayons back in place and she did not want to do the job. I said, “Let me help you”, and started collecting the crayons and putting them back in the box. Soon she stopped crying and started to help me do the clean up. Rather than using “force” or “outsourcing” housekeeping, children take collective responsibility when you work with them, and there is a genuine effort taken to create a culture. The downside is that sometimes it takes a long time for this to happen.
While things seem to be in harmony, it has not all been smooth sailing. Parents are constantly worried about how our children will adjust in society without becoming “competitive” or “disciplined”. Some parents sent their kids back to regular school (and a few have even returned, unable to adjust to the harsh culture of regular schools). Parents often ask, “how will our kids be any different?”. Will they be better citizens? Will they be able to stand on their feet in this strongly materialist and capitalist world? Even children keep asking us these questions.
From our conversations with the older kids, it is very clear that they fully understand the value of giving standardised exams, if they want to go to college. They probably don’t realise that colleges are not ideal learning environments either (specially if they demand mandatory attendance to classes). But this is a decision we have left to them. Often parents have expectations from their children, based on their own experiences. Sometimes though these experiences are very narrow and are based on their own journeys, which only represent a tiny sliver of human experience. The society gives enough signals to children on what is valued and what is not, how people integrate with society, how they get services, recognition etc from others. We believe children will ultimately learn to play by the rules.
We don’t know if we will end up raising better or brighter or more productive citizens. In my view, that is not the goal. The core reason behind this experiment is to not follow the norm blindly specially when we know there are so many flaws in the current model. Sometimes you have to step out of the current system to truly understand it.
Last week all of us (parents and children) went for a 2 day retreat near Mumbai. We had a lot of games, discussions and singing. It was a small bungalow with almost 50 of us, but it never felt too small or too big. Everyone was comfortable in their skin and around others. Going against the currents of society is hard, but it is even harder when you do it alone. When there are 50 of us, it becomes so much easier and you stop worrying too much and doubting yourself. We started the school for our children, but the experience has been transformational for each one of us, both children and parents. It has made us question our deep beliefs in life and society.
While we don’t know if we have found a better path (we believe that there are multiple paths to “success”), the journey itself has made us more aware and fulfilled. There is so much more to life than just trying to fulfil the (often false and exploitative) expectations set by society.