A visionary leader in the development sector, with a understanding of how to harness the power of media for social change, Sonali Khan leads Sesame Workshop’s educational mission in India to create innovative and engaging content to help children grow smarter, stronger and kinder.
Sonali is a multi-award winning, global advocate for human’s rights. She has recently taken over the reins at Sesame Workshop India, which has incubated and implemented ground breaking programs to reach children everywhere – especially those who need it most.
Here are her some of her insights and thoughts that contribute immensely to the learning-through-play ambition for children in India.
Q) Learning and play go hand in hand. How would Sesame Workshop’s work best exemplify this. Give us a birds-eye view of programmes undertaken to innovatively educate children.
A: “Sesame Street was built around a single, break-through insight: that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them.” – Malcolm Gladwell, about Sesame Street’s impact on the children’s television landscape in his book, The Tipping Point.
Our objective in India is to positively impact the lives of all children, especially those that are marginalized, by bringing joyful early learning. Our programs draw in families with lovable characters and culturally-relevant themes and stories that promote healthy habits, gender equity, and academic readiness in most engaging innovative ways —crucial in our context.
We continue to use the power of media and our lovable furry, funny Muppets to reach children wherever they are.From using a repurposed vegetable cart equipped with a television and DVD player that engages children of all ages in narrow alleys, educational apps and games, and interactive print materials make learning fun and joyful for children and adults alike in classrooms, homes and communities.
Our programs like –
1. Play Connect Learn– engaged children and families to show improvement in early grade reading in Maharashtra through an app that made learning to read a joyful experience with our Muppets.
2. Play Every Day – Engaged families in low resource communities in play workshops to help them understand the link between play and learning. Parents learnt how to be a play partner to their child to effectively impart a learning outcome, taking into consideration the barriers of resources, education and time they face.
3. Dream Save Do – yet another project where Sesame took on the responsibility to build financial literacy in children in early years and help understand the concepts of saving, spending and sharing by using innovative playful strategies.
We continue to adopt strategies to empower children with knowledge and skills through ways that they best learn – playful engagement.
Q) How does play-based learning help children in vulnerable circumstances for example, children living in conflict, in refugee camps, as migrants? Share stories with us.
A: In India, an estimated 9 million migrated between states annually from 2011 to 2016 (India Ministry of Finance, 2017) and many are living in conflict areas leading to a livelihood crisis.
With economic hardship comes added stresses, such as hunger, uncertain housing, and a parent absent. Studies show that exposure to these kinds of traumas can hold back children at a critical time in their development, putting barriers in the way of their education and emotional wellbeing in the long term. So our efforts aim to fortify families in the face of these all-too-common challenges. Our pioneering work in the face of the largest humanitarian crisis in the world in Syria and with Rohingya communities in Bangladesh is path breaking effort that leads the way for many to think about tackling stress in early years through continuous, playful engagement.
We at Sesame know from decades of tackling some of the toughest challenges facing children that if we reach them early, we can help change their trajectories. Through our programs and show we’re helping teachers, and caregivers give children a strong and healthy start.
With their warmth, humour, and friendly personalities, colourful characters like Elmo, Grover, make difficult topics much easier for parents and kids to talk about. Parading through our GGSS show , these Sesame friends model how families can connect through everyday moment and daily routines: learning their ABCs and 123s, choosing tasty and nutritious foods, and opening up about serious topics like divorce, bullying, grief.
By reaching vulnerable children, we can help them reach their full potential. Our materials promote the kind of engagement with a caring adult and nurturing care that has been shown to strengthen children’s resilience and mitigate the effects of traumatic experiences. We also equip vulnerable children with language, reading, math, and socio-emotional skills that can set them on a path to thrive into adulthood.
Our #PlayEveryDay program shows that playing with your child everyday can relieve stress, create strong parent-child bonds that extends beyond just education. It can also create emotional support systems, safe spaces for expression, and support systems to help children process systemic trauma, and structural problems such as poverty.
#BringingChange in Kashmir is an effort by GGSS to help children in recurring conflict hit Kashmir to help build resilience and life skills. The children in the region often miss schools, our carefully compiled episodes help children not only learn concepts but build resilience through with our muppets who engage with the children in most playful manner and connect with them at their level.
Q) Sesame Workshop India has pioneered the use of technology as a tool for learning. The mobile phone has been an amazing medium accelerating the pace of innovation for children whose education cannot wait. How have apps like Bharat ka Bag and Grover ka Number Special engaged with children differently? How important is the use of tech-based solutions for education and play? How far has India come vis a vis other developing country?
A: Every year in India, 40 million people are signing on the internet for the first time. Most of them are accessing the internet on mobile devices. We have to admit that there is an entire generation for whom the internet isn’t novel, but a natural part of their lives. This opens new avenues to educate children and create a strong base on which further education can be built. It can also be a powerful tool to connect with cultural roots.
A 2018 report titled ‘Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018’ indicates that, in rural India, only a quarter of all children in Std III are at ‘grade level’. This means that a majority of children need immediate help in acquiring foundational skills in literacy and numeracy. Sesame Workshop India is addressing this need by providing innovative and engaging literary content that is aligned with the National curriculum, to make a meaningful difference in children’s reading outcomes. An example of this is our Play. Connect. Learn app that helped us reach 12000 families in Maharashtra to address the children’s reading and learning needs of Marathi as a language.
The PCL project was successful in improving children’s early grade reading skills – specifically, foundational literacy skills and reading comprehension – in their mother tongue, Marathi. Given the promising results and the potential for the PCL project model to be scaled, SWI looks forward to continuing this important work especially considering the estimated upsurge in smartphone penetration and connectivity over the next few years.
Q) Learn. Play. Grow. aims to build the capacity of Anganwadi Workers (AWW) to prepare children for school by using Sesame Workshop India’s early literacy materials in a play-based manner. Tell us more about this play-based approach.
A: Sesame Workshop India aims to change how children learn in classrooms, early childcare centres such as anganwadis, and at home. Through our project Learn, Play, Grow, in Anganwadis, we helped children the fun and engaging classroom and at home materials complimented with radio broadcast over All India Radio on the themes of Education, gender sensitization, sanitation, and health. We also provide teacher trainings to anganwadi workers to train them on Sesame Workshop materials and build their overall capabilities on interacting with children helping them to better engage with children. We supplement the educational curriculum provided by the making it instrumental in creating more powerful materials that can teach children in a more engaging way.
As part of the Learn Play Grow, a 3rd party research indicated that, children from AWCs that received the GGSS kits showed greater than 10% improvement over control AWCs in 4 out of 6 indicators – Object classification, listening comprehension, reading readiness and print awareness.
Q) “It is paradoxical that many educators and parents still differentiate between a time for learning and a time for play without seeing the vital connection between them,” said Leo F. Buscaglia. In context to India’s education system, how do you believe this vital connection needs to be created. Give us 3 ideas that need to be advocated for in order to change attitudes towards the importance of play in childhood.
A: It is heartening to see Indian education policies increasingly recognizing importance of play in a child’s holistic development. However, lot needs to be done to see it widely in practice, while there have been welcome initiatives like Delhi Government’s Happiness Curriculum, there is a need to strengthen systems that put this in effective practices. A lot more focus on teacher training and skill building is needed. There is also a need to build capacities of parents and provide an enabling ecosystem.
Focus on developing life skills is extremely critical for children in early years to help them succeed in life, these skills can be developed through more “child-centered” pedagogy, wherein teachers will prompt them to explore their feelings through stories and activities. Children are engaged in group work, imaginative storytelling, problem solving and more experiential play-based activities.
The mind shift will take a lot more demonstration of best practices and results of ‘play based’ education, interventions and engagement. Our Play Every Day is shows us how such demonstrations can lead to change in perceptions around play and increased confidence in parents in their ability to play with their children.
Q) How does play-based learning assist in the holistic development of children? Please illustrate with examples from your grassroots work.
A: One of the messages we spread to caregivers is that “Today’s play is tomorrow’s happy reality.” While play is an important tool as mentioned above, play-based learning can not only be a critical tool in improving children’s math, reading, vocabulary and creative skills but also serve as tools that empower families to build stronger bonds, creation of safer spaces, and support systems. Play-based learning also helps in teaching children good values and shapes them up for the citizens that they’re going to be tomorrow.
Our programs, lovable characters and culturally-relevant themes and stories work in tandem wherever children are, to promote healthy habits, gender equity, and academic readiness in most engaging innovative ways —crucial in our context.
Moreover, our children who participated in our #PlayEveryDay program show a 33% increase in creativity when it comes to use of common household objects. One of the factors that stopped parents from playing with children has been that they can’t afford expensive toys. By showing that common household items can be used to create engaging games, the program instilled in them, the confidence that the solution to their problems could be found in the simplest of things.
One story we like to share is the story of Sakina. Sakina is a parent based in a slum in Seemapuri, New Delhi. She heard about the #PlayEveryDay workshops organized by Sesame Workshop India. At first glance, it didn’t seem like much, but Sakina decided to give it a shot. In the workshop, Sakina learned the benefits of guided play and how it can help her be a more effective parent. Sakina uses the tools she learned in the workshop to improve her daughter’s cognitive skills and build a powerful bond with her. She exclaims gleefully that now her child can’t wait to come home and tell her all about her day. A bond that simply wasn’t there before. It has also given her confidence to complete her own education and look at her world in a very different way.
Q) What efforts does Sesame Workshop make towards incorporating play-based learning as an integral tool under the RTE? What needs to be done?
A: Sesame Workshop India works with various stakeholders to ensure that all early childhood developmental needs are met. We work on building the field and disseminating the need and messages to various stakeholders such as media, government, broadcasters, parents and children.
Thankfully, there is an increase in the need to include play-based learning as a part of core curriculum as demonstrated by the National Education Policy, 2019 presented to the Government of India. At The Play Conference, organised by Sesame Workshop India, we saw a glimpse of the Happiness Curriculum that the Government of NCT Delhi is implementing in its schools right now. These are extremely encouraging developments and gives us cause to celebrate.