The year was 2004 and Shweta Chari and a group of volunteers would spend their spare time going door-to-door to collect used toys -- Ludo boards with tokens and dice, Rubik’s cubes, stackers, linking blocks, Scrabble and other play items that parents felt their children had outgrown. On weekends, they would sort these toys, pack them and distribute them for boosting learning through play among underprivileged children.
Shweta is now the CEO & Co-founder of Mumbai-based NGO Toybank, which has around 400 play centres in 12 districts of Maharashtra. Toybank's Volunteer Action and Inventory teams now coordinate and handle the collection of games and toys, which help to improve communication, creative thinking, leadership, confidence, fine motor and critical thinking skills among children.
The play sessions comprise verbal communication activities, physical games, board games like ludo and chess and hula hoop among others using recycled as well as new toys.
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In 2009, Toybank was registered as The Opentree Foundation under the Bombay Charities Act. Along with collection and donation drives that boost toy recycling, Toybank slowly transitioned to addressing life skills and behavioural skills to boost learning outcomes and lower absenteeism in schools.
“Many kids were not attending school. Even when they were, the learning outcome was poor. Hence, we decided to address this issue through play. From 2016, we shifted the model to behavioural development,” says Shweta who believes that it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men and women.
At-risk children could be having limited reading and writing proficiency, having experienced trauma or abuse, or a disability, illness, or other such factors. Toybank works with them, helping them have a better future.
As a young volunteer, Shweta would often attend workshops and events and talk about her toy collection and donation drives to get some volunteer support.
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Toybank also hosts sensitization workshops to train the volunteers. They receive a mix of corporate, retail, college, skilled and school volunteers.
“All the volunteers work with us out of the goodness of their hearts. Some skilled volunteers don’t directly work with the kids but take care of back-end operations and training,” notes Shweta.
For sourcing the toys that are an integral part of the Play2Learn sessions, Toybank organises donation drives and also procures them directly from manufacturers.
“We don’t have any control over what we get during the donation drives, and it might not suit the sessions we have curated. Hence, to ensure quality learning we also source fresh toys from manufacturers,” says Shweta.
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The team carefully sorts the toys and mindfully plans fun sessions through which the children subconsciously absorb various skills.
“We make sure that we are offering toys that have a very Indian context and the kids can relate to it, we don’t want to give them something western and tell them that they don’t have such things,” said Shweta.
Working with at-risk children
Toybank signs a year-long Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with all its partners. Before organising the sessions, they do a background check on the students and the problems the teachers are facing.
Toybank also trains the teachers on how they can interact with at-risk students and how to build trust with them.
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From 2017 to 2020, Toybank worked with around 8,000 slum kids and 250 teachers in Malad, Mumbai. “These kids came from a violent environment, they were exposed to substance abuse, domestic violence, suffered emotional imbalance and had negligible curiosity. They used to come in very angry and often lied to their teachers. This is something that many kids are facing these days,” says Shweta.
Towards the end of the programme, which included close to 1,000 Play2Learn sessions, 2,500 activities and 25 teachers training sessions, the results were clearly visible.
Toybank plans to reach out to a million children in the next 3-5 years to help them transition into responsible adults.
The Covid experience
During Covid-19, when the entire education sector went on the backfoot, Toybank was asked by its partners to organise digital play sessions. Shweta and the team churned through NCERT books and other apps to curate digital sessions that could prevent learning regression during the pandemic.
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“Earlier, we thought we should create a state-of-the-art application but we decided to stick to WhatsApp as it is available with everyone,” says Shweta, adding that Toybank continued to reach out to its partners through activity-based play sheets via Whatsapp.
Ujwala Talwaray, the Principal of Principal of Rani Sati English School, Malad, Mumbai, says teachers and children at her school struggled with virtual teaching even after many months of the introduction of online learning. “Students especially found it difficult to cope with English and Maths. Teachers then started using Play Sheet’s easy-to-follow format to build their foundation and revise lessons, which helped,” she says.
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The digital transition also helped Toybank to find a better connection with the parents and expand their services to other parts of the country such as Manipal, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and a small group in Ladakh. They have reached nearly 60,000 students digitally during the course of the pandemic.
Firoz Shaikh, a parent from Mumbai, says: “My role and involvement are suddenly more vital to ensure that my son Iqbal (name changed) is learning well and to help the teacher.”
“I can see how much he has picked up from the teacher’s earnest efforts. It’s easier for me as I don’t have to sit and read chapters to understand the answers but I know the foundational concepts are clear for my child,” he adds.
Shweta is pushing hard to strengthen learning through play and ensure that play is not neglected.
It believes in creating a very simple replicable model that other organisations from across the world can emulate. “We want to integrate play-based learning in everything one does by changing the landscape of how children grow up in our country,” Shweta says.
(Riya Singh is a Ranchi-based journalist who writes on social and development issues, environment & sustainability)
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