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Is your child still singing Wheels on the Bus?

For generations, we have been learning the same old children’s stories and songs, be it ‘Wheels on the Bus’ or ‘Chubby Cheeks’ with characters that have blond hair and blue eyes, with British or American accents, living in houses with picket fences and fireplaces, eating ham and jam. They are far away from the realities of Indian children; the language we speak, the food we eat, the clothes we wear and the festivals we celebrate. This has a big impact not only on learning but also the sense of identity and self-esteem of a young child who has just set out to discover the world around him/her.

Manu’s first visit to a market with his Papa
Manu’s first visit to the market

Manu’s first visit to a market with his Papa

Why does it matter, you ask?

We all know how curious young children are. But when they are learning something new, they first try to look for what they already know and automatically make connections to what they have experienced. This makes their mind comfortable and able to take on new information and ideas. Knowing this simple sequence in which the mind works — from the familiar to the unfamiliar — when children feel comfortable with what they know, they will feel confident to use this as a platform to explore and understand something new. The real world, culture, and contexts that children actually experience are the seed from which all learning stems.

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Setting the right cultural context

When children listen to stories and songs with characters that look like them, their parents and grandparents, eating the food that they eat, speaking the languages that they speak and celebrating festivals that they celebrate as a family, there is an almost automatic emotional connect. The feeling that somewhere out there is a person who might feel like me and look like me; makes them know that they are not alone and that they are understood and this quietly boosts their self-esteem and confidence. These stories and songs subtly tell them that their voice, too, is worth hearing; their experiences worth knowing. So, let’s take a break from ‘Chubby cheeks’ and ‘Cinderella’ and unabashedly explore counting with pooris; or learn shapes by finding bindis that match Ma’s dress; or sing songs with Dada and Dadi or Thatha and Paati because the culture is the fabric of all our learning experiences.

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Why is culturally relevant content important for early learners?

A lot of families have come back to us saying they enjoy the fact that Kutuki’s content is culturally grounded. Children are happy to see characters like them and to hear and see songs and stories involving parents, grandparents and the Indian family cosmos. Given this almost automatic connect that children and parents are feeling, We thought it would be interesting to look at the importance of culture in a kids learning app from both the cognitive and socio-emotional perspectives.

When we are learning something new, we seek out what we already know and automatically make connections to what we have experienced. This makes our minds comfortable and able to take on new information and ideas. Knowing this simple sequence in which the minds works — from the familiar to the unfamiliar — educators ensure their students are comfortable with what they know and use this as a platform to introduce something new. The real world, culture and contexts that children actually experience are the seed from which all learning stems.

And then there is the importance of connecting socially and emotionally to stories. There is something magical about knowing that somewhere out there is a person who might feel like me and look like me; it makes us know we are not alone and that we are understood and this quietly boosts our self-esteem and confidence. Children are definitely in on this magic, and these stories subtly tell them that their voice, too, is worth hearing; their experiences worth knowing.

So, whether it is learning to count by deciding how many pooris we want to eat; or learning shapes by finding bindis that match mama’s dress; or singing songs with dada and dadi or thatha and paati — culture is the fabric of all our learning experiences.

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Why the fuss about Phonics?

Children as young as six months may say their first word. By one and a half to two they start talking more, and by three, their vocabulary suddenly sky-rockets. Amazing? Spectacular? Marvellous? — none of these words begin to touch upon how full of wonder and discovery that journey is; and how thrilling it is to watch. But often this excitement with language, expression and communication suddenly falls flat when those same children go to school. Why?

When you are a baby, every sound you make is met with excitement. And then you join school, and most of the time you are just reproducing letters that no one is excited about. Where did all the love for your language learning go? When did that thrilling ride crash into such a bore?

kutuki-phonics

 

‘Phonics for Indian children with Kutuki’

Phonics is about learning letters and their sounds.

Every word we say is made up of sounds and each of these sounds can be drawn on the page as a letter. Some sounds we make are gentle and soothing, like the /m/ in mama and amma and the /b/ in baba and abba, or /p/ in papa and appa. These are often among the first sounds babies make. Other sounds we make come from the back of our tongues, near our throats, like the ‘hahaha’ that comes out when we laugh. And then there are sounds that we make by rolling our tongues so they touch the roof of our mouth, like /r/. The hardest sounds for little kids to make, /r/ is in scary words, frightened, afraid; r is in angry words and exclamations grrrrrrrrr! /r/ makes us loud and scary!

The way we use our mouths to make sounds is so much fun for us to learn. Our mouths are like a theatre — we can make our emotions boom and thunder or come out gently and as soft as ever. So let your preschool kids sound out soft and sound out free, all the sounds they can conceive.

When we learn the English alphabet, it is important that we connect

1) Letters and how they are written [the letter R r, for example] to

2) their sounds [/r/] to

3) Interesting , meaningful words that have this sound [rabbit] to

4) Fun, rich contexts that give these letters and words an exciting meaning for children

These are the 4 pillars of any strong phonics program. Does your school’s phonics program cover this?

Take a look at Kutuki’s phonics program, tailor made for Indian preschooler kids on the links provided below and do share your feedback.

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Learning in the time of COVID – with a little help from Kutu, Ki and Minku

These are unprecedented times and nothing seems to be the same anymore due to the COVID Pandemic. Mothers have to suddenly take on the role of early educators, preschools are grappling with the use of technology to go virtual and children are losing touch with the rhythm of their daily routine.

We at Kutuki have been asking ourselves, how best can we support India’s youngest learners, our mothers and educators to make learning accessible, flexible and meaningful. These are some of our endeavours :

1) Creative and Educational Preschool Resources

Kutuki’s Digital library is like a Preschool on an app. It has 100s of educational resources such as storybooks, rhymes, animated videos and interactive activities that cover all the important learning milestones for children between the ages of 2-6 years. From Phonics to Counting, Health and Hygiene to Colours and Shapes, S.T.E.M to Moral stories, we have content as per 30+ preschool themes carefully designed by early childhood experts. Kutuki kids learning app can give parents and educators a constant flow of creative ideas to engage with preschoolers every single day at the click of a button

2) Contextual and Flexible

Apart from English, Kutuki provides the flexibility to learn in Indian languages. Our content is available in Hindi, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil with more Indian languages being added soon. We understand that in a multicultural and multilingual country like India, mother tongue can be used as a source of strength to teach English, Counting, Science and even talk about Emotions and Feelings. Our content is deeply rooted in everyday Indian experiences with Indian characters and accents, so that children, educators and parents in India can connect with it. Our content is also available in multiple formats such as e-books, music, videos and interactive content to suit every type of learner.

3) Apply learning in the real world

Every single day we get feedback from preschool educators and parents about how they are using Kutuki kids learning app in their own unique way to make learning fun for young children. From virtual storytelling sessions to S.T.E.M activities, from bedtime stories to using our songs to teach vocabulary, educators and mothers have made our content their own. For Kutuki’s mothers, screen time is not ‘scream time’ because it gives them the agency to use technology in participative, collaborative and meaningful ways. Our content is also interactive with questions at systematic points to check if children across different learning stages have understood and internalised the different concepts

With Kutuki, fun and learning never stop!

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Lack of context is letting down India’s 200 million early learners

In early 2017, when Kutuki was just a fledgling idea, our founders met a veteran teacher who was employed at a preschool in Bengaluru. She had worked with thousands of children. She was soft spoken, patient, very involved and aware of how to make a child feel comfortable and excited to learn something new. She was a treasure trove of examples and stories.

Of the many interesting and valuable insights, there was one example that really struck us. Almost every year, 25% – 33% of children in the preschool were being screened for a learning disability. There were concerns that these children were not able to comprehend English.

However, given the perceptive educator that she was, she realized that this had nothing to do with the children’s abilities but more to do with difficulty in understanding the accents, language and references mentioned in the learning resources being used at the school. The same concept when explained in familiar accents, their mother tongue while using everyday Indian contexts and objects prompted a flurry of questions and participation among the very same children.

culturally-relevant

When your very first book of fruits and vegetables has grapefruit and artichoke and names like aubergine for our humble, local brinjal; when breakfast consists of ham and jam; pancakes and cereal and when a picture of a home or family looks nothing like what you see around you, with characters that have blond hair, blue eyes and speak only in English that too in an accent that is completely unfamiliar to you, you are bound to feel confused and disconnected from your everyday life. Can you imagine what that could be like for a young child growing up in a multicultural and multilingual country like India?

As illustrated above, this has a big impact on learning, but more so, on the sense of identity and self-esteem of a young child who has just stepped out to discover the immediate world. The example above was an issue in a preschool in a Tier 1 city. Can you imagine how much more of a problem this could be in Tier 2 , Tier 3 cities and rural India?

India is home to approximately 200 million children under the age of 7 with only 40000 preschools that cater to their needs. The lack of access to good quality preschools coupled with learning resources that are force fit from the West without any contextualization, grossly impacts a child’s foundational learning.

At Kutuki, we approached this problem from the ground up. We looked at best practices from different early learning philosophies, created our own proprietary creative curriculum and contextualized every piece of our learning content to suit the Indian context. Here’s what we have found :

  • 75% of our core users come back after the first 30 days and what they like most about Kutuki is that their children immediately connect with our stories and songs and enjoy seeing their names in our stories, learning about shapes through bindis, counting with Pooris and singing songs about their Dada and Dadi and Thatha and PaatiLearning through storytelling and music is far more appealing to children than mere instruction.
culturally-relevant
  • Mothers have observed that children apply what they’ve learnt through our stories and songs in their everyday life and engage in elaborate discussions and imaginative play. Kutuki’s stories and songs allow them to understand and internalize things in context.
culturally-relevant
  • Preschool educators have become our biggest cheerleaders. They chance upon our app as parents and start using Kutuki to get ideas for their lesson plans and activities since it is aligned to a preschool curriculum. From educators working with first generation learners in remote villages in Assam to those in premium preschools in Tier 1 cities, they see value in Kutuki’s contextualized content to create engaged classrooms and also recommend Kutuki to parents to supplement learning at home.
culturally-relevant
  • Engagement with our vernacular content is 2x that in English
  • In Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities, where there is limited or no exposure to English, young children and mothers find it easy to understand and connect with the English stories after they have first watched them in Hindi. Children were able to connect खिलौना with Toy , नीला with Blue and more complex vocabulary like slender with पतला more easily.
  • In Tier 1 cities, our stories and songs have helped young children learn their first words in their mother tongue, especially Hindi. To illustrate, a Bengali speaking mother who moved to Noida was struggling to help her 4 year old learn Hindi which she believed was a necessity. She tried to converse with him and read dozens of books but nothing worked until she found Kutuki. He enjoyed the Hindi stories and kept narrating them to her during bed time. She picked up a 1 year subscription specifically for our Hindi content.
  • Another common pattern that we observe across demographics is that there is a strong sentiment of trust among mothers towards Kutuki over You Tube. We’ve had mothers refer to Kutuki as घर का खाना and liken content on YouTube to junk food. Mothers feel that they can participate in their child’s learning journey through Kutuki because of how relatable and ‘Indian’ it is.
culturally-relevant

The real world, culture, and contexts that children actually experience are the seed from which all learning stems. Knowing this simple sequence in which the mind works – from the familiar to the unfamiliar – when children feel comfortable with what they know, they will feel confident to use this as a platform to explore and understand something new.

Appreciating other cultures and understanding how people live across different parts of the world is certainly important. But when that becomes a norm and gets force fit as the aspiration across cultures, it becomes a serious problem.

When young children listen to stories and songs with characters that look like them, their parents and grandparents, eating the food that they eat, speaking the languages that they speak and celebrating festivals that they celebrate as a family, there is an almost automatic emotional connect. The feeling that somewhere out there is a person who might feel like me and look like me, makes them know that they are not alone and that they are understood and this quietly boosts their self-esteem and confidence and leads them on the path to be curious information seekers and lifelong learners.

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Screen Time that is Guilt Free

Do you use a mobile phone? If your answer is yes (which we’re 100% sure it is), it means that your child is a digital native. And that is the hard truth. There is no escaping technology, whether we like it or not.

‘Screen time’ is a big concern among parents but ironically the use of digital mediums among children is only increasing.

And as a team of educators, storytellers, musicians and psychologists, we’re saying that instead of focusing all your energy on trying to find ways to ban screen time (which is exhausting & never works), we need to think about how to use technology effectively.

Here are some thoughts :

1) Have a clear goal

Before we download an app or go to a YouTube channel, it would be good for us to think about why you’re doing so? What is the goal? Is it to find new ideas for bedtime stories? Is to use a video to explain the life cycle of a butterfly? Is to find a song about Diwali that your child can perform at an upcoming celebration at school? These are all meaningful and apt reasons for using technology as a medium to access content and can lead to purposeful discussions with your little ones with a clear goal. From early on, it will help your child inculcate good digital habits and use technology with a goal in mind rather than aimlessly browsing for content without any end in sight.

2) Set Limits and be consistent

The American Academy of Pediatrics has outlined clear guidelines for screen time :

Under 2 years – No screen time

2-4 years – Less than an hour / day

5-17 years – No more than 2 hours / day

3) Choose Good Quality Content

This is the MOST IMPORTANT piece of the puzzle. Just like with food, you have healthy and junk food, it’s important to know the difference between healthy and junk content. And this difference needs to be understood as early as possible because once the choice is made, it is impossible to go back.

Here’s a simple checklist –

  • Just like you check the ingredients that go into making a food product it is important to read up about the background of the content creators. Do they have experience working with children or creating children’s content and what’s their motivation to do so? If the individuals involved are genuine, passionate and credible, then you know that the content would be thoughtfully done keeping a child’s interests in mind.
  • A lot of children’s content today is plagued with noisy, flashy, violent, sexist undertones in the name of entertainment. From showing little girls with pink cheeks making rotis, to boys picking a fight at the drop of a hat, to unboxing videos that compel children and parents into buying things, these stereotypes can deeply affect a child’s self esteem and world view. These should be an absolute no no.
  • Content that has a good balance of education and fun. They should be short and focused on specific themes and topics so that a young child can understand one thing at a time. Content that is hours long without any focus, can lead to passive consumption and addiction.
  • Listen to the lyrics of the songs and the meaning of the stories. It’s important that it is age appropriate and nurtures a child’s curiosity. Singing Bollywood songs and pop songs, even though they might be catchy, can expose kids to inappropriate language and mindless passive mimicry of things that are beyond their comprehension.
  • Use multiformat content such as books, animated videos, audio books, songs etc to adapt to your child’s interest and learning style.
  • Content should lead to interaction i.e. the content platform itself could invite interaction from the child in the form of answering a question or figuring out a tricky puzzle or learning new words. Or it could lead to interaction outside the platform where a child applies what he/she learns in everyday life like planting a seed or knowing when to cross the road.

Content should be culturally relevant. The real world, culture, and contexts that children actually experience are the seed from which all learning stems. Knowing this simple sequence in which the mind works – from the familiar to the unfamiliar – when children feel comfortable with what they know, they will feel confident to use this as a platform to explore and understand something new. When children listen to stories and songs with characters that look like them, their parents and grandparents, eating the food that they eat, speaking the languages that they speak and celebrating festivals that they celebrate as a family, there is an almost automatic emotional connect. The feeling that somewhere out there is a person who might feel like me and look like me; makes them know that they are not alone and that they are understood and this quietly boosts their self-esteem and confidence.

If you are looking for content that meets the above requirements, don’t forget to give Kutuki Kids Learning App a try. You can download it from the links below for Android or iOS.

About Kutuki

Kutuki is a team of award winning educators, artists, storytellers and musicians creating fresh, original stories and songs tailor-made for Indian preschoolers. Trusted by 200,000+ educators, parents and children across India.

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Baby Talk

Tell us, do you know how a child’s mind functions? Their non stop questions and ideas are nothing short of wild, imaginative and sometimes downright strange.

Unlike adults, a child’s mind does not function according to a chronological checklist put inside constrained boxes. It is free from the fear of rigid rules.

Children, very innocently , ask questions ranging from “Why does our hair grow?” to “What did it feel like on your last day of being a child?” These questions could appear silly but they are ,in fact, layered with depth and emotions.

From Kutuki’s story ‘I have a question for you’

 

At Kutuki, we try to stay conscious of their intelligence and never indulge in baby talk with them. As storytellers and songwriters, the tone and treatment of our writing may be simple and easy but the complexity of the topic is something that even their adult parents can relate to. A thought is a thought and it can be expressed in very complicated words and plot twists or in a very simple way in a children’s story — but it’s important that the essence of the thought is never lost or ‘dumbed down’.

We do not look at children as infants and mollycoddle them. In fact, drawing from personal experiences, as a child you tend to be more open to family members who are not over protective and who speak to us as equals. This removes the pressure or fear to impress them. We trust to speak our mind and that gets carried forward to adulthood.

Image from Kutuki’s story ‘Zuberi and El’

 

Trust is hard to build between two people that don’t hold equal power. We like to write stories that allow children to understand different relationships with different characters from varied backgrounds. And build stories and plots that allow them to make their own interpretations of those relationships and emotions. You will be surprised at what children come up with on their own. We like to avoid forcing a conclusion down their throat with a ‘Moral of the story’ at the end.

A child becomes what she/he reads, thinks, eats, wears, dreams, speaks, whispers and most importantly feels. When he/she is allowed to express it in their own way, they know their voice is heard and that they are valued without us oversimplifying things for them.

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Fear of Math

When I was a child, I was terrified of Maths the way some people are terrified of heights or being stuck in a narrow elevator or being attacked by a gang of bees. I was phobic. Maths-phobic.

This seems strange in retrospect, because as an adult I use maths a lot, and use it reasonably well. I calculate my taxes correctly, I draw household budgets, and I compute taxi fares based on distance and rates pretty fast in my head. In other words, I turned out ok at maths.

So why was I so scared of numbers?

Maybe it was because no one told me what the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears was really about.

Huh? What does an old European fairy tale have to do with maths and my childhood fear of numbers? Stay with me to find out. I’m going somewhere good with this, I promise. When we read the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears with our children, we think it is about many things. It is about a girl’s curious discovery of a cottage in the woods. It is about her finding just the right sized chair to rest in, the right porridge to eat and the right-sized bed to sleep in! It’s about the thrilling imminent danger of being discovered by the three bears, and Goldilocks’ escape from the forest.

But there is one important aspect of the story that we don’t immediately catch onto, which in fact, is one of its primary themes. Goldilocks and the THREE Bears is also a story about counting. It’s about counting to three, in specific. The story features three beds, three chairs, three bowls of porridge, and three bears. Again and again, Goldilocks counts up to three objects. When they discover her trespasses, the bears each complain about the three eaten bowls of porridge, the three sat-in chairs, and the three slept-in beds.

The tale is told in this way to establish a cognitive recall of the number three for most children. While we are on the subject of mathematical concepts as themes, Goldilocks and the Three Bears is also about qualitative comparisons. A chair is too big, a bed is too narrow, and so on. It encourages a child to move beyond cardinality or pure numbers into the realm of comparative analysis, the jump a young learner makes to start thinking in terms of one and many, large and small.

But who would have thought the story of Goldilocks had maths in it? We don’t make that association easily because we are conditioned to think of maths and stories as the opposite ends of the learning spectrum.

Like many learners, I learnt best through stories, but no one around me was putting maths in a story. On the contrary, I was being told that the faculty for maths and the faculty for storytelling belonged in different galaxies altogether. If I didn’t understand maths as hard numbers, I just wasn’t “mathematical” enough. No wonder I started to sweat at the thought of subtracting three digit numbers!

I’m happy to report now that these stereotypes about maths and stories are exactly that. Stereotypes. Maths and stories aren’t unrelated concepts but instead two versions of the same impulse: to make sense of the vast, unknowable world that crouches over us.

We tell stories to establish meaning in chaos. And we quantify for the exact same reason. We number time into days and hours to deal with its infinity. We tell stories about where we came from, and where we are going. We count. We tell stories. We make patterns. We are creatures who crave narrative. Without our stories, we are nothing. So essential is storytelling to our survival as a species, that the brains of children and grown-ups have evolved to learn through narrative structure.

That is the first reason storytelling is a great learning tool for maths. The other?

Stories are fun! They have imagination, humour and ups and downs that hook the learner and set her imagination ablaze. They inspire emotion and thought. Stories stick around in your head. Who wants to get up and walk away from the grip of a cracking yarn?

As a writer of educational content for preschool children between ages 2 and 7, I keep dipping for inspiration into the narrative-math continuum! When told as a narrative, Maths is immediately relatable, especially for early learners who are both highly visual and interested in stories. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of using stories to help early learners understand math concepts. Stories are the bridge that can take your child from simply mugging up numbers to actually understanding how counting works in real life!

The Hand Monster
The “Hand Monster”

One example: Recently I wrote a few scripts teaching early learners how to count. In one of these scripts, The Hand Monster, which is about how to count to Five, a small boy imagines his hand as a famished five-horned monster who won’t stop at eating five of anything. Five rocks, five laddoos, five leaves — everything is game for the hungry beast. I tried to put classic storytelling elements — fantasy, role play, humour, a plotted adventure — in a Maths story to make it more absorbing.

I wrote it for my inner math-phobic child. You can watch this story on the Kutuki App with your child/ niece/ inner math-phobic child to see if it works!