Teachers: Astha

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Reflections on Working with Small Children

By Astha

I’ve been working for 25 years with young children in Auroville; for the past 15 years with the youngest (aged between two and a half and three and a half) group of the Kindergarten, the “Yellow Group” which has 15 children of parents living in Auroville.

The “Yellow Group” has a spacious room with a verandah which is surrounded by a garden where the children spend some time every day watering plants, picking flowers or playing in the sand. A lot of care is taken by the teachers to create a cosy, clean and serene ambiance, a homely feeling. Calmness, gentleness, patience and love provide the basis for our work to be with the little ones and then a balanced and flexible routine in the morning activities provides a sense of security for them. Most of the children think that the building of the yellow group is also the teacher’s house! (The mother of a child told us that her son said, “My teachers are shopping in the night so that the children of the yellow group have a good life!”)

“A flower is open to all that surrounds it: Nature, light, the rays of the sun, the wind, etc. It exerts a spontaneous influence on all that is around it. It radiates a joy and a beauty.”

The Mother

In the morning we arrive earlier than the children to arrange flowers in the classroom; for the children there is a large bowl where they arrange the flowers they pick in the school garden or bring from home. In February and March when there is an abundance of flowers in our garden we make kolams in the center of the verandah. A teacher draws a kolam with white chalk and the children fill it with flowers. Collecting, arranging, observing and smelling flowers enriches the children’s sensitivity and increases their love for beauty and refinement.

“From the viewpoint of the inner nature, the individual is more receptive on his birthday from year to year, and thus it is an opportune moment to help him to make some new progress each year.”

The Mother

The birthday is a special day for the children. We try to create for them a meditative atmosphere of beauty, joy and light. On that morning one or two teachers arrive earlier to arrange on a small table covered with a satin cloth, the happy birthday card, 3 candles and a lot of flowers. What a nice surprise for the child who is coming in with happy parents often bringing a cake or sweets to share. On this special occasion we allow the parents of the child to stay. We sit all together around the low table, light the candles and sing the happy birthday song in 4 languages (English, Tamil, Sanskrit and French). After lighting, blowing out and lighting again the candles, one, two, three, times everybody gets a piece of cake in our adjacent dining room.

“The educator should always remember he should not try to act upon the child, or on the needs, but upon the environment of the child.”

The Mother

Story telling is an important part of our program. For most of the children English is their second language. It is while listening that they absorb and later express themselves in the new language. When we tell the children “we are going to read stories!” they immediately rush to the place meant for story telling. As the attention span at this young age is short (10 to 15 min) we choose short stories with simple and clear pictures. The short stories are told in our own words. As they ask us to repeat again and again their favorite stories, we add new words and observations, but if we forget even a small detail they will surely let us know and we have to go back one page. After a few months, when their vocabulary has increased considerably, 15 minutes is not long enough and it will go on easily for 30 minutes, one story after the other.

“Children must be happy to go to school, happy to learn, and the teacher must be their best friend who gives them the example of the qualities they must acquire.”

The Mother

In all these years, I felt that reading stories to the children creates a bond between us, they love the closeness, the eye contact, the way we change the tone of the voice while telling a story. And in a world where there is a lot of hurry, they love to sit quietly. Listening to stories also increases their concentration and imagination and has a very calming effect on restless children. They observe and imitate us teachers, how we turn a page, how we hold a book, how gently we place a book on the table. Some parents told us that at home the child imitates the teacher with a book in its hands and with an audience of teddy bears.

Good communication with parents is important. For some of the children who didn’t attend the pre-creche, this is the first year the child is expected to stay alone without the parents, and naturally there is some apprehension on the part of the parents: “is the child eating? Is he/she playing with other children? Can he/she share toys?” Or simply, “is my child happy to be here?” When the parents pick up their children, they often ask these questions. Last year I started taking photos regularly of the children, either in a group or alone. The photos show the children while playing in the classroom, painting, making collages, working with clay, dancing, etc. The photos with comments I send to the parents by email. The idea came to me when a child started crying every morning while entering the Kindergarten with his mother, but stopped crying and started playing happily soon after the mother left. We told the mother about this, but at first she could not believe it and she was reassured only when seeing the photo of her smiling child.

A few comments on the photos from the parents:

“I so appreciate these little sneak peeks!”
“It feels so good to get a glimpse of what kids do in the school with you all.”
“It is fun to see how they are when we are not there.”

“Look carefully into the eyes of little children, and you will see a kind of light which looks at the world with wonder. Well, this sense of wonder, it is the wonder of the psychic which sees the truth but does not understand much about the world, for it is too far from it.”

The Mother

When I started working with little children 25 years ago, I got a lot of support and encouragement from the parents. I was a newcomer without teaching experience and together with another newcomer we looked after 10 children. (We replaced the main teacher who left Auroville in the middle of the school year.)

The school was a simple hut with a keet roof and without a phone. Cell phones did not exist yet, so parents could not inform the teachers when they were late to pick up a child and we had to wait… and wait. In those days life was simpler with less stress and less hurry. We went with the children for long walks and as in those days there was much less traffic we rarely met a bike!

Today, Auroville is still a small community. We often meet the children and parents outside the Kindergarten, at the Solar Kitchen or at any other community gathering. Many children and parents keep on greeting us year after year.

Frequently parents ask me why I continue working with the youngest group of the Kindergarten, instead of bigger children. It is this wonder in their eyes, and their smile and happiness that keeps me going on.

November, 2015

Astha photo 250.JPG

Astha was born in Italy, in a small town near Bologna. She joined Auroville in November 1989. Her Sanskrit name, Astha, was given to her by Champaklal, a disciple who lived in the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. She has worked in the field of education for 25 years.

Two weeks after Astha's arrival in Auroville, she started working at the crèche that later on was named Mirramukhi. The language spoken with the children was French. In 1999 she joined the Kindergarten team and started the “Yellow Group”, the youngest group of the Kindergarten (aged between two and a half and three and a half) where she still continues her work with the small ones.

Astha lives in Certitude community. Her email id is jyotiprem (at) auroville.org.in.