iPads for infants and other post-pandemic early learning trends

Even as older students tackle the challenges of remote learning during the pandemic, edtech players are rolling out programmes for the pre-K years

Updated - January 22, 2021 03:21 pm IST

Published - January 22, 2021 12:00 pm IST

The very idea of a normal school routine seems to be a distant prospect, and parents have had no choice but to impart early methods by themselves

The very idea of a normal school routine seems to be a distant prospect, and parents have had no choice but to impart early methods by themselves

Being a parent of a young child during the pandemic is part hilarious, part infuriating, part anxiety-inducing and totally overwhelming. As my partner and I synced our work calendars to take turns on our three-year-old’s Zoom classes, we saw ourselves becoming the helicopter parents we swore we’d never be. The very idea of a normal school routine seems to be a distant prospect, and parents have had no choice but to impart early methods by themselves. And some of us need all the help that we can get.

Enter ed-tech. Start-ups that deal with online education have raised $998 million in funding just last year, with India having the second biggest chunk of the industry in the world — and shows terrific growth: market value increased from $409 million in 2019 to $1.5 billion in the first nine months of 2020. Apart from K-12, these companies have been setting their sights lower. Byjus, one of the largest players in the segment, launched a Disney-based educational app for two- to four-year-olds. Indian kids’ platform, Playydate, offers online sign language and Spanish classes for ages zero to two.

How early is too early?

The premise of Netflix’s nappies-meets-neuroscience documentary, Babies , is about how even newborns know and learn more than we ever thought possible. Husband and wife founders of Raising Superstars, an activity programme for 0- to 2-year-olds, Raghav and Shraddha Himatsingka, believe in this infinite capability. Raghav, a Stanford graduate and serial entrepreneur, turned to child development when he became a father. “The human brain’s ability to learn is at its maximum from the ages 0 to 2,” he says. Post that, and up to early adolescence, the brain undergoes a process called ‘synaptic pruning’: it begins to make itself more efficient by offloading synapses that are under-utilised while strengthening those that are already firing. If you’ve ever wondered why you still remember that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell, there’s your answer.

While the science is simple enough, the idea of putting an infant in an accelerated development programme feels, for the want of a better word, uncomfortable. In 2019, Bloomberg reported how some parents in China are using DNA testing to check if their infants have the potential to be prodigies. Are infant learning programmes the gateway to tiger parenting?

Raghav insists that the focus of their programme — which is a distillation of multiple learning methods — is on “all-round” development and that parents are instructed to not pressurise the child. However, parenting expert Narendra Goidani says, “Even if parents have high expectations, any child in the 0-2 age group can barely comprehend the concept of the pressure to perform. It is merely a gamified activity to them.”

Memories and melodies

As the mother of a three-year-old, the conviction that a child’s infinite potential dries up at age two gives me some grief. Dr Kripa Sundar, a learning scientist and the author of How Do I Learn? , says, however, that, “Learning is complex,” pointing out that our biology, health, sleep and even food habits can affect the way we learn. Barring cognitive or neurodegenerative disorders, children’s brains — and even our own — are always ready to learn.

Bindu Subramaniam, the dean of Bengaluru-based Subramaniam Academy of Performing Arts (SaPa), believes that introduction to the arts can help children form intercultural skills from an early age. “A four-year-old student of ours on an international flight heard that one crew member spoke Swahili. She went up to her and sang a Swahili song she knew,” she recalls. Then there is the three-year-old who teaches her grandmother to sing with her, and another four-year-old who sings Vande Meenakshi as part of his morning ritual. SaPa is now starting a parent-toddler programme for ages two to four with musical activities from around the world (₹2,400 per month) and a 12-week music and movement programme for ages three to six (₹3,600 for the course).

Bindu Subramaniam, dean of Bengaluru-based SaPa

Bindu Subramaniam, dean of Bengaluru-based SaPa

Meanwhile, some parents of toddlers have been adopting a more open approach to learning during the pandemic. They have opted out of traditional education altogether during this period. Sruti Harihara Subramanian, an independent film maker and the founder of the Goli Soda Store, is one parent who has been imparting early learning methods herself. “I have open shelves so my daughter can choose the books she wants to read, the activity she wants to do or the toys she wants to play with” she says of her Montessori-inspired educational strategy for her 18-month-old. While there is no denying the academic benefits of structured early learning, she shares that her focus is squarely on raising her child to be independent, empathetic and confident — without resorting to external programmes. After all, she points out, children are always learning, whether or not we teach them.

With inputs from Susanna Myrtle Lazarrus

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