After too long, I finally went into the field to observe a few of the play centres BRAC IED’s early childhood development team is piloting. Two of the program planners and I visited three centres in Jirani, a town just outside of Dhaka city. The road was rough. We started at 7 AM to beat rush hour and reached the site over two headrattling, bodybreaking hours on clay/dirt roads bumpier than a teenager’s face.
The set up is basically the same for all play centres: tin shed roughly 10 x 7 x 8 feet (I have terrible space perception) with four corners, or “worlds”: Color World, Book ”, Dream ”, and Mother’s Lap. Inside walls are decorated with garden scenes cut out of paper, paper animals and shapes hanging from the low ceiling, along with any other flourishes the play leaders come up with.
It’s hard to be cynical when you see a bunch of 3 year-olds singing in a conga line around the classroom. Sure, this could all very well be a show put on for the supervisors, exaggerated to prove efficacy; but I would like to think that I could read genuine content in the faces of the mothers when they say the centre is a better alternative to the kids doing nothing at home and good practice for when the kids have to go to school later on; hear sincerity in the play leaders when they say that really, they just love playing with kids and again, it provides a job alternative from sitting at home; it’s also pretty tough to get a bunch of 1-3 year olds to do anything you want, let alone ‘act’ active and playful.
When I asked which activities the children liked to do most at the first centre, a play leader said rail gari, the conga line game, because they could choose where to go with the imaginary rail train. Often times, the young woman said, the children would pick places they didn’t get to go in real life, like their grandparents’ house, uncle’s house, or to the market when it was time for Eid. That gave me both sad and warm fuzzies.
Challenges faced include explaining to parents (and kids) that the centre is strictly meant for play and not a space for formal education because the kids don’t need that kind of pressure just yet, that play offers a unique curriculum for early development. Kids want to bring other books to read but are limited to the set that BRAC has assigned (which I agree should be allowed).
We were too late to catch the play sessions in the next two centres so my co-workers stuck to touching up decorations and advising the play leaders for the upcoming visitor. The second centre especially, though was impressively done up by the play leaders themselves, with hardly any instruction from HQ. One of the young women was largely behind this and clearly enthusiastic about her position. She excitedly explained to me how she loves playing with kids because she feels like a kid herself, so who wouldn’t want to have job where you just get to play?