Shivani Dhama, Fellow at HumanQind | Safe School Zone Project
Two things reminiscent of the environs of this Government Boys school in the North-East District, where we had the opportunity to lead sessions for the crosswalk initiative, are tyranny and togetherness. Tyranny on the part of the attitude of indifference towards children, lack of support for the young bloomers to realize their true potential and keeping them bereft of their right to play and explore their creative side. However, as you meet the cohort of 60 energetic kids from class six and traverse with them through the journey of nine workshops, each focusing on varied aspects of a safe school zone, you begin to sense appreciation for experiential-based learning, their yearning to be creative and critical and most importantly the spirit of togetherness they exude throughout.
Creating a dignified space for learners
Their bewilderment at anything remotely associated with the notion of child rights explains the subtlety with which their aspirations and dreams are stifled and stymied by constant criticism and lack of faith in their aspirations. But one honest nudge in helping them reimagine everything about and around them can go a long way in raising their capabilities. What has been observed is that teachers who are supposed to be constant supporters and believers are usually not oriented in this manner and therefore lack perspective in seeing their students as immense possibilities.
On the other hand, children have keen observation, are mindful of their surroundings and eager to develop newer perspectives. They were vocal about challenges and safety concerns elderly and people with disabilities faced while using the poorly maintained stretches around the school and showed sensitivity towards the need of other gender and what, according to them, could be plausible solutions to mitigating these challenges. Behind the cacophony of their voices lie ideas and intentions that are waiting to be capitalized for a better tomorrow.
A teacher who teaches by being and believing
Amongst many was one such teacher who truly believes in his students and therefore strives to create an atmosphere of learning by doing. What needs further strengthening is enhanced engagement of parents, not just at the level of SMC. Although the next phase of the project intends to do just that, my three months of sojourn was limited to interaction with school leadership, teaching fraternity and children.
Chaos versus Communities
The Northeast district in which the school is located represents some grave challenges such as a lack of proper infrastructure and increasing crime rates. It is a confluence of migrant and minority communities who scramble for employment opportunities and a dignified way of living. Hence, it is important that institutions such as schools represent a system of safety, security, and opportunities for children whose parents continuously strive for a chance at a better future.
Engaging communities and building inclusive infrastructure start to change the dynamics of the district. Seeing children as constructive participants sends out the message to the systems and society in general that they matter. To start with, integrating experiential-based learning such as the one witnessed in the pilot phase of the Safe school zone with the school curriculum. Each student should be able to participate, be vocal about their ideas, learn by doing and eventually build products of sustainability and utility. Through such incremental steps, they can develop further capabilities and skills.
Also, developing metrics that can assess the socio-emotional well-being of communities can help understand behavioural changes and reforms required for safety and security at the district level.
Let us start afresh!
The initiative presents us with a fresh perspective of looking at physical infrastructure with values of inclusivity and dignity embedded in them. It is also a coming together of architects who are striving to communicate the demands of communities through their designs. Interaction with them has helped broaden the horizons of fellows and school fraternity by taking the learning “outside the school”. Children have readily lapped up the idea and are eager to participate in the ‘School Mela’ where they will get to display their design model which they built with immense creativity and love.
However, what further must be kept in mind while carrying out these efforts is interaction with students that revealed the involvement of their schoolmates, especially the senior students in physical fights, usage of abusive language and eve-teasing. This also results in younger children imitating them and displaying insensitivity towards themselves and the other gender. In a district that has gained infamy for crime against women, there lies a danger of ignoring behaviour-based transformations at an early age.
Even though the above observations and suggestions are confined only to what has been understood through the workshops, parent-teacher engagement, hopefully in the next phase that begins from the upcoming academic session, can lead to a nuanced understanding of the prevailing issues. Aspirations and challenges that parents and teachers face as they strive to nurture their young ones will be instrumental in enriching the curriculum and determining the other expanse of the project into geographies beyond NCT.
A recent report named The Rights and Agency of Children (TRAC 2022) brought out by Save The Children have highlighted the absence of safe play zones as a significant cause of concern and obstacle in the psycho-social well-being of children. Hence, can school safe zones fill in that space and create opportunities for children to engage in play-based activities or is it a far-fetched thought? The administration must investigate the issues of non-provision of games/sports period of children in schools (especially in our project school) and ensure that inclusive infrastructure also means that a child’s right to play is secured and empowered. Can the tangible infrastructure ensure the intangibles such as emotional well-being taken care of? Can the answer to the above-mentioned question be a YES? Well, it depends on our ability to see children from the eyes of Nietzsche as he, through his famous work of “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, said that “the child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-rolling wheel, a first movement, a sacred YES”.