Monday, 19 May 2014

India laughed. Pakistan smiled. China giggled

India laughed out loud, Pakistan smiled and China giggled at a joke cracked by America. Inter country happiness? This can happen only at the World Forum on Early Childhood. Welcome to the World Forum 2014 at Puerto Rico. It has been a long wait but we are back with friends, colleagues sharing our work, our dreams, our problems and our solutions. The Sheraton is the host hotel and is buzzing with people checking in and then lounging at the pool. The working groups start their meetings and the first two days are abuzz with reports, plans and reviews. I am in the Nature Action Group and we are excitedly planning for a conference in New Zealand next March. We have a stone art session and true to our passion of early childhood we all design around children.
Patrick from Zimbabwe and I are to be the master of ceremony for the opening ceremony, we meet at the club lounge. Patrick is ready with his thoughts and speech and I am still clueless about what I am going to be saying. But in around an hour we have our thoughts in sync and are ready with a ‘smile cracking’ opening! That is the charm of the World Forum, you meet a complete stranger and in the next 10 minutes you are friends forever. We then move on to our most important task…exchanging blocks! This fascinating activity given to us first drove us into a frenzy of pouncing on anyone who had the block we wanted, and then slowly we toned down the competiveness and concentrated on the real reason for the activity, exchange blocks and make friends.
It’s time for the opening ceremony and I have yet to meet Pia Britto from UNICEF, USA, who I am supposed to introduce, well it’s time for the presenters and moderators introductory session which is meticulously planned by Bonnie with the little ‘worry dolls’, the stars, the certificates and hilariously conducted by Luis Hernandez, that man’s sense of humor should be patented. I turn around and there is Pia, we introduce ourselves and realize that we were on a panel at Malaysia World Forum, what a small world!
It’s the opening ceremony and wow the planning is down to each breath, each step and every small detail. Patrick and I manage to do a great job. World forum 2014 has begun with 840 delegates from 81 countries (1 goal-quality early childhood around the world) great speeches, and votes for the UNICEF petition so passionately roused by Pia.  Receptions for the national representatives and for the international organizing committee help me meet up with long lost friends, new friends and perspectives. Henry our great astronaut leader of the national representatives is constantly making sure we are all there, comfortable and acknowledged at next morning’s national representative walk on the dais. What a brilliant speech by Henry (he even acknowledged our work on the policy comparisons) and a collection of sunrises and smiling national rep faces organized by Selena Fox.
The World Forum is then a magnificent blur of sessions, plenary, wofonet, no host lunches, dinners, centre tours, Lakeshore activity room, discussions about early childhood, deliberations on the plenary, coffees, hugs, smiles, guffaws, giggles, yawns (only because of jet lag), exchanging cards, blocks and rushing across the long corridors searching for the session rooms, book exchange, more friends and lots of networking and actual working too!
I am speaking on a session on technology, about our ipad curriculum on Van Gogh and Mahatma Gandhi and how we made it developmentally appropriate and relevant. It is wonderful that there are hard core techies and non tech softies all part of the group! This is the world of World Forum you can be for or against an idea in early childhood but you are in it together, talking, discussing, debating, convincing, getting convinced but never ignored or rejected. Angela Fowler was our moderator and Sam Hall was my co speaker and very committed to technology in the early years, he had a very strong and relevant point to make, if young kids ears can listen to music recording and not live musical instrument then what is the harm if the eyes see things on the screen? I guess when the first human drew a picture on the cave walls; he must have been heavily criticized by all others that he will destroy the world, as pictures will replace real things! That is change; we take time to adjust to it. Another perspective at the same session, young toddlers do not need screen time as they are at the stage of making attachments and so need real humans. Good point till she said, ‘but my little granddaughter has made a connection with me solely through our regular Skype sessions as my daughter is in another continent!’ BALANCE. That is what I believe we need in everything in early childhood.
Is that the Early Childhood Association (ECA) logo as an alliance partner of the World Forum? Yippee, yes it is. It is a moment of great pride to see our very own association from India, which we have nurtured for last 3 years, is an alliance member of the World Forum community with other associations like naeyc. Thank you WoFo, thanks Roger and thanks to our great team at ECA.
I was excited to read about the article by Roger on early childhood policies in the latest Exchange magazine. This project of comparing the early childhood policies of almost 39 countries was all thanks to the national representatives who sent me the information, checked, rechecked and with Bonnie and Roger’s support and encouragement, a fantastic document is ready. Why did I start the project? Good question. I was visiting schools in Singapore while back in India the early childhood policy of the government was being passed. The questions that were foremost in my mind were,
1.     Why does every country reinvent the wheel? When many countries have successful early childhood policies, frameworks then why do countries not take the time to study, compare and take the best of what has worked for other countries and adapt accordingly?
2.     Why are the basic guidelines or the non negotiable not similar in policies around the world? After all  children deserve quality, right?
3.     Now that brain research has proven the importance of the early childhood years, isn’t it time to have a dedicated ministry for early childhood care, development and education?
4.     Should there not be a ministry that invests in our future?
5.     Or are we still complacent about relegating early childhood to be a part of women welfare or education or health ministries. Isn’t it getting lost?
6.     I know it is difficult but surely not impossible?
The national representative session on early childhood policies was a unique experience. I was the moderator and Henry the provocateur. Henry was at his patient best. And I was at my excited best! We were like Yin and Yang. Roger’s presence was appreciated and required. Group discussions followed. Some were passionate about their views, some happy with the way things were in their respective governments and some were willing to start a thought process. Change always begins with a small step… maybe a decade later when the first world government dedicates a ministry to early childhood, we will think of the World Forum as the starting point.
Sessions on community involvement and family engagement were of interest to me this year as my company is launching a unique family engagement website with expert involvement from Stephen Rushton (USA), Karen Graham (Wales) Toni Christie(New Zealand) and myself (India). The sessions I attended on family engagement were all interesting with so many new views to offer. Made more connections for our website. Watch out for news about our website in June 2014. The first people to view the ‘first look’ of the website were Bonnie and Roger.
What? It’s time for the closing ceremony? Wow, how time flies when you are happy, learning and making connections. I have a unique tradition for World Forum closing ceremonies, I never sit with people I know. Just because I want the last opportunity to make friends. And I did, Lisa Goodman from USA, who invited me to her centre as I was visiting New York on the way back home.
Brain research, research in early childhood, infants and toddlers, technology, early childhood policies, curriculum in the early years, designing spaces for children, family engagement and community involvement are just some of the sessions that I learnt from and revisited my knowledge with this year. The session on twitter and face book conducted by next generation Neugebauer was extremely interesting. I learnt about the importance of # in a tweet….really, I did not know.
My last evening was spent exploring the old San Juan city with my friend Irma, it was a great evening. What did I miss at the World Forum? Just home and vegetarian food ( America needs a lesson on vegetarian food) but then when you are at ‘a home away from home’ with so much food for thought you don’t miss it so much. I joined two new working groups, child rights and family engagement. On the way back home met up with Laura Henry in London, so much sharing and caring.
Will the next World Forum be in India? Maybe India is not ready for the World Forum or maybe the World Forum is not ready for India, wherever it is, we wait with excitement. Thanks Bonnie, Roger, Selena, Henry, all national representatives and all of the fantastic friends of WoFo. And a special thanks to Dr Podar for encouraging me to go on this trip, a voyage of learning and discovery and a pilgrimage of dedication and passion for early childhood care, development and education. – Swati Popat Vats. National Representative of World Forum for India.