The Year That Was: Learning about Life Skills

“Isn’t everything we learn in life, a life skill?” questioned my best friend as I explained to him my Fellowship project. I didn’t have an answer. My project as part of the AIF Clinton Fellowship was to be able to streamline, compile and re-organise a Life Skills Curriculum for the Balsena program at my host organization Shaishav, a child rights organization. Over the course of the fellowship, I’ve reflected on the question “What are life skills?” through much thought, research, and deliberation and developed my own understanding of the same.

Children building on their problem-solving, communication and teamwork skills during the activity ‘Cross the Ropes’.

Life Skills may be viewed as a range of psycho-social and cognitive abilities that equip children to make informed decisions and choices, manage their emotional well-being and communicate effectively.[1] These can be interpreted in many ways. It can consist of teaching children a functional hard skill such as riding the cycle or changing the light bulb or it can mean a vocational skill that teaches the children how to gain skills required to excel at a particular job. Life skills education represents a shift in educational focus from information to methodologies. Children are empowered with skills rather than knowledge, that can help them to function and make sound personal choices in areas of education, health, careers, and social interaction.[2]

Life skills, as part of Shaishav’s Balsena program, aims to develop the internal capacities and behaviors of the children to make them responsible, socially aware and active citizens of the society. By inculcating values such as equality, friendship, religious tolerance amongst others through the engagement of children in activities, the children are encouraged to actively make decisions about matters in their own lives and surroundings. Ultimately, these communities of children, who are the future of India, shall learn to be change-makers in their communities and therefore, the country. Thus, it’s the “children leading change” at Shaishav.

Children learning problem-solving through the ‘River of Life’ activity. (Photo Credits: Shaishav)

The necessity for the revitalization of the content was urgent. The needs of the children have changed in the slums of Kumbharwada, and Shaishav was trying to deal with that. With everyone having or wanting 4G enabled phones, there was an urgent requirement to develop new content that was engaging, fun and contextually relevant. It needed to get the children out of their homes in the evening, away from the pull of television sets and mobile phones. So what did the children really want?

Three big events and a lot of planning helped bring in clarity and work in that direction. With patience and an uncanny ability to handle my anxiety, incessant questioning and huge doses of skepticism, my colleagues pushed me to try my hand at designing the activities, training the trainers, facilitation and conducting reflective feedback sessions. As a team, we brainstormed, piloted and assessed what activities and games worked and didn’t work with the children.

A session we did on body image failed miserably. Using ads and a soap advert drama, we tried to introduce the ideas that the media portrays and to understand and accept our flaws through this lens. Possibly due to the large group size, the children refused to touch on any vulnerabilities. The boys boasted about how they thought they were perfect. “I’m like Salman Khan,” said one flexing his muscles as laughter erupted from all corners. The girls smiled and nodded to everything. They refusing to speak up, looking nervously from one to the other. This clearly needed to be done in smaller groups and in a way that we could make it less material heavy and more reflective.

Children discussing how to sell the soap after watching ads to understand the psychological effects of media on body image.

A session designed on decision making using a game called ‘Mafia’, which I grew up playing with my friends (we still play actually), was a huge hit with the staff and the children. I facilitated sessions for the first time, with the help of a senior Balsena team member who translated and learned to manage energies in a room. The game is a complex one involving a few gangsters who ‘kill’ someone in the village. The entire game involves ‘whodunnit’ with accusations, defense and ultimately the banishment of someone, who may or may not be the gangster. The word ‘Mafia’ stuck with the children, and I got requested to facilitate the game in bus journeys, over lunch and even in English classes. But what was interesting to note of was the boys were livewires through the game who had to be calmed down, while the girls had to cajoled and pushed to put forth accusations. “I don’t know, I can’t accuse anyone” was the most common response. The girls were scared of speaking up, speaking against, and speaking for themselves. In an insidious way, it showed me the need to create a space for the acceptance of opinionated, fiercely strong women without anyone feeling threatened.

Facilitating ‘Mafia’, a game on influencing and decision making in the group.

On Holi, we tried to introduce primary and secondary colors to children, by mixing colors and an origami activity. But I watched the session descend into chaos as lack of the required number of facilitators and paints led to unsupervised painting and zero knowledge of the color wheel. Children were making all sorts of shades, using too much or too little paint and it ended with a hospital visit, with one little boy sneaking off and breaking his arm. It taught me the need to understand the space of the training, the level of the facilitators, resource estimation, participant-to-facilitator ratio, and other organisational details that I never took into account.

Learning about primary and secondary colors through a mixing of colors activity.

Slowly but surely, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, it all started to come together. I learned to take failure in my stride, forge through uncertainty and learned how to test and tweak the activities.

Working on this project taught me the importance of contextualization of content to the demographic. All the activities found from the various resources must be customized and contextualized for the participants at all times. That is the true indicator of its efficacy and relevance. Change is a slow process; but it begins now, in the everydayness of our thought process.

Life skills thus are the means to approach life through our thinking. This is what I’d tell my friend in response to his question.

Children participating in build-the-tallest balloon tower activity. (Photo credits: Shaishav)

[1] Singh, B., & Menon, R. (2015). “Life Skills in India: An Overview of Evidence and Current Practices in our Education System”. Retrieved from: http://www.centralsquarefoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Life-Skills-Education-in-India.pdf

[2] Patel, S. (2006). “Skills for Life: Developing a Sustainable Life Skills Education Program in Bhavnagar, Gujarat”. Retrieved from: http://blog.indicorps.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/Shreena..pdf

Maitreyi pursued her postgraduate degree in Psychology from Ambedkar University, Delhi. After a short stint as an Event Associate with Little Black Book, she joined Vasant Valley School (Delhi) as a Special Educator. Here, she spent her time creating Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for children with autism and Down syndrome and made use of a multi-sensory approach in teaching. Being interested in alternative education, she has volunteered at organizations such as SECMOL in Ladakh and Marpha Foundation in Nepal, where she employed activity based learning in the classroom. A trained Bharatnatyam dancer, she is keen to explore different mediums of teaching. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, she also hopes to build her own understanding of the myriad ways in which children learn and assimilate knowledge. In her free time, she loves to travel, read and bake.

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