Papagoya is a unique kindergarten started by Helen Issar and Darshana Rajaram. It follows the Barnehage model and aims to help working women not choose between work and their child.
In a quiet part of Frazer Town, the happy squeals of children break the silence. The driveway leading to a regal house that speaks of old world colonial charm is littered with toys and toddlers compete with Labrador Penny in running around the lawn.
Papagayo is no ordinary kindergarten. Founded by Helen Issar and Darshana Rajaram, the playschool takes from Norway’s education system. Papagoya started in November 2016, and a year hence has 35 children enrolled from ages one to six years. The team currently employs nine educators. The kindergarten was awarded the Emerging Pre-school of the Year at the Global Education Awards in Delhi.
Working for a social media company in Norway, Helen was impressed by the country’s education system. “I remember sitting with my friend and I saw her daughter eating independently. She was a year old and that was amazing,” says Helen.
Norway, as a policy, gives new parents a year off to care for the child and at the end of one year, all children formally enter the government education system. This brings women back into the workforce.
Helen and Darshana believe that women in India need a similar support system so they could get back to get back into the workforce if they wanted to, and this led to the idea of Papagoya.
The two approached The Embassy of Norway and took their support in the endeavour. Papagoya has a sister kindergarten in Tonsenhagen, Oslo, which is headed by Hanne Kristin Faye. She also serves as an advisor at Papagoaya.
Helen and Darshana have adapted the Norwegian kindergarten curriculum to suit local needs and requirements.
Taking from her personal experience when she had a baby, Helen realised most kindergartens operated for only two hours and that would not allow her to get back to work at the social media agency she had founded. Darshana had seen a similar issue first hand when her niece was born.
Most people in India are forced to completely change their lifestyle after they have a child as most mothers take over as primary caregivers.
The curriculum at Papagoya is based on the Barnehege model and is entirely play-based. It is based on learning concepts, as opposed to numbers and letters. There are no classrooms or specified study hours. As Helen explains the concept, children in the adjacent room sing songs to learn shapes.
A core belief of the curriculum is that children use their entire body to learn and need to run, touch and feel things.
“People assume that children from the ages of zero to six are just babies, and there is nothing that we can do for them and teach them. From a neurological perspective, that is when your neurons are firing and that is when you form connections in your head
You are learning about the world and it is the time where your brain develops rapidly and how we nurture that and stimulate it is what makes the child. This has been around for 30 to 40 years and it has been proven.”
With Papagoya, the team tries to ensure parents are at ease with flexible pickup and drop timings, and even starting out with alternate days at the kindergarten.
Children intermingle with each other, and work at learning through play. They are also taken on field trips to parks and gardens nearby.
Children are introduced to the alphabet, numbers and shapes, but in different ways. Citing an example, Helen says the children are not made to write until they are three years old and are taught alphabets with easily-relatable words like their names.
The children are taught to eat by themselves, and activities are focussed on improving hand-eye coordination. Papagoya focuses on providing parents insights on the child, as opposed to merely an account of what they did.
“We sit down with the parents once every six months and the conversation is more about what their child is like, as opposed to what they can do. It is the approach that is different, not the content,” adds Helen.
Educators also have an app on which they update parents on children’s activities. Achievements sheet chronicles what children did for the first time.
At Papagoya, the team works with the philosophy that a child’s bad behaviour is because she is unable her feelings. “If a child is naughty, we probably just have not broken down what he or she is feeling,” adds Helen.
“You can observe a child throughout the day and really understand the core of their personalities. We get to know these children so well that when they are not feeling fine, we will know immediately. We never treat a child in isolation,” she says.
At Papagoya, all children eat the same food and everyone waits for everyone to finish.
“It is often said to me that while we have got this Norwegian curriculum, the child still has to go into the Indian education system. To that, I say that if the child is confident, she would have no trouble adapting to the Indian education system where each class has 40 people. The child will also flourish in that system,” adds Helen.
Papagoya does not employ housekeepers and nannies and all educators are trained to be caregivers, which ensures sensitivity and individual care for each child.
The kindergarten charges Rs 2.5 lakh per child per year and wants parents to understand and identify with the philosophy of the kindergarten.
“We sought households where both parents were working because people would not see the advantage of this if there was already a caregiver at home. We tell people that we are not just a day-care. We treat them as individual people and respect children,” adds Helen.
The task of building and setting up Papagoya has not been simple. Many told Helen and Darshana that teaching without a blackboard and traditional practices cannot be done. She adds,
“We have no rules like what a person should wear to work. We see everyone as equal, and children do not have any pre-conceived notions. We do not conform to any ideals as to how a teacher should be. Our only requirement is that they are responsible and can take care of children.”
Apart from hiring the right educators, the team also found it difficult to find the right space.
“When we told real estate agents we wanted to start a kindergarten, they would show us these strange two-bedroom houses with a tiny kitchen space. That gives you an idea of how pre-schools are built in this country,” says Darshana. It took the duo eight months to find the right space.
The house took Helen and Darshana three months to refurbish. “We sat and read how to do it and we pretty much became experts at it. We now have a working knowledge of electricity, wiring, waterproofing, roof leaks and plumbing. There was also a lot of unpacking of stuff from all over because we were funding this ourselves,” says Helen.
With 35 children currently enrolled, the goal is to have 50 children and 14 educators by the end of 2018.