A non-profit retail outlet in Bangalore is making waves with its play-based teaching techniques.

Walking into Sutradhar is like walking into an Enid Blyton novel. Colourful fish dangle from the ceiling. Wooden shelves overflow with stuffed animals, puppets, blocks, puzzles and wooden cars. A poster listing “101 ways to praise a child” marks the entry to the staff offices. This non-profit retail and workshop space in Bangalore sells toys and games and conducts workshops for children aged 10 and under.

“With young children, toys (dubbed teaching and learning materials) have an important role. Play is how they learn,” says Mandira Kumar, founder and chairperson of Sutradhar. The organisation also conducts research related to early childhood education. Their central theme is the ‘power of play’.

Sutradhar says their toys have been designed for specific purposes. For instance, babies watching the hanging fish learn how to focus their eyes on colour and movement; toddlers rolling wooden cars learn motor skills, and so on.

Kumar says that when it comes to early childhood, “India doesn’t have a great knowledge base.” Few are aware that the most critical development in children happens before the age of six — when they learn vocabulary, motor skills, and social skills essential for their future. “I’m really an advocate of the young child; If you don’t do it in the early years you’re only going to address the situation later,” Kumar says.

The lack of focus on early education first struck Kumar when she was travelling the country as the all-India education coordinator for Child Rights and You (an organisation that remains Sutradhar’s biggest funder). Although she saw many initiatives focusing on primary education, she rarely encountered programs dedicated to improving education for the early years. She founded Sutradhar in 1995 to be what she calls “a single-window resource centre” for supporting and promoting national efforts in this direction.

To this end, one of Sutradhar’s main activities is training teachers in play-based learning, an approach that Director Suparna Chattarji says “can be highly positive. It can make the classroom environment learner-friendly and informal.”

Educators are hungry for these types of techniques. Sarah Misra, the head of curriculum and training at Chrysalis High School in Bangalore, says, “Children in pre-primary are the most curious, and the biggest quality you need in science is curiosity. Yet, none of the preschool curricula has science.” Sutradhar’s science workshop gave her more than just great ideas for her classroom: it also changed her approach. “It taught me how to step back and let the child take over. Teachers usually rush in and give information, but we must let the child experience things,” she says.

Shanti, the facilitator in charge of primary grades in a free school run by the NGO Drik Pathshala, says she was amazed at children’s capabilities. “Even four-year olds can do division for three, four digits using the exercises from the workshop,” she says.

Not all educators are so optimistic, though. Kumar says that some struggle with the content. “Unfortunately in India, because the teacher has not been educated in a playful environment, play is sometimes seen as alien..”

Sutradhar’s material is especially appealing to educators and parents who have children with disabilities, something Kumar says customers revealed. In response, the staff designed everything from puppets for a psychologist to a parachute for a movement therapist to beads for a special educator.

Sutradhar’s staff routinely conduct months of research while designing materials. They also publish reports, and Kumar is writing a book.

Chattarji says Sutradhar’s training sessions unite educators — from NGOs serving the poor to elite private schools — in a common mission.

However, Sutradhar’s focus on young children excludes them from RTE, which covers children 6-14. “We are concerned that RTE does not specifically address issues of early childhood learning,” Chattarji says, a view she shares with organisations ranging from multilateral NGOs to trade unions. Including early childhood in RTE could help pre-primary educators advocate more training, smaller classes and better facilities. More importantly, it would recognise that education begins before class one.