Connection, community and agency: Building a village preschool in India

Bondalawada Anganwadi Source – Roberto Rodriguez Reyes, 2019 @rober3

Bondalawada Anganwadi. Source – Roberto Rodriguez Reyes, 2019 @rober3

I recently had the opportunity to experience answers to these questions by volunteering in India for six months. Through the Anganwadi Project (TAP) I worked alongside fellow architect Allison Stout, the community of Bondalawada and local partner Rural Development Trust (RDT) to design and build an anganwadi in rural India. TAP works with communities at a micro level to construct projects that strengthen community itself by empowering those involved and building sustained and persistent interdisciplinary connections. This is a small way of reinforcing parts of the complex and often fragile community fabrics of informal settlements and villages, contributing to their overall resilience in a world of increasingly changeable external forces.

Anganwadi means ‘courtyard shelter’ in Hindi and, since 1975, has come to mean a preschool or early childhood centre. TAP is an Australian NGO founded in 2006 with the specific goal of building anganwadis in disadvantaged communities in India. Since that time through the work and dedication of volunteers, partners and beneficiary communities TAP has constructed eighteen anganwadis, seventeen in Gujarat and now one in Andhra Pradesh. 

The universal importance of preschools

Preschools seed community connections. Global north or south, wealthy or disadvantaged, communities everywhere tend to congregate around their shared experience of child-raising. In rural India especially, where brides leave their own family networks to move to their husband’s village, the bonds formed with other women around motherhood – with sisters in law, friends and ‘aunties’ – are crucial to each young woman’s quality of life and to her agency within her new community.

The direct impact of preschools on children’s lives in developing countries is well researched and it’s known that children who attend preschool tend to stay in school longer and will probably have higher earnings as adults1, but anganwadi teachers do much more than teach. Alongside education they provide vital nutrition to children, babies, nursing or expectant mothers and older women. They record growth statistics and act as vaccination centres. They teach parents about children’s health, nutrition and the importance of ongoing education. They create safe environments for young children so their mothers can take on employment without anxiety. In many cases they develop programs for mentoring teenage girls and they reinforce and strengthen the all-important bonds between women of the community.

Nutrition program in Bondalawada Anganwadi – children receive one full meal and two snacks every day and are weighed and measured to combat malnutrition Source – Sarah Schoffel, 2018

Nutrition program in Bondalawada Anganwadi – children receive one full meal and two snacks every day and are weighed and measured to combat malnutrition. Source – Sarah Schoffel, 2018

These small projects are large in impact. A typical anganwadi will serve around thirty families at a time with each child attending for three to four years between the ages of 2 and 6. This means that many new families will connect with the anganwadi each year as their children reach enrolment age. Parents and extended family (especially mothers, grandmothers and older siblings) will also have regular contact with the anganwadi teacher and class community. Over a ten year period a conservative estimate of up to four hundred people are likely to have had their lives touched by a single anganwadi so that a whole rural village or slum sub-community will feel its influence.

Formal Community Engagement Session with models, drawings, laptop and colour charts Source – Allison Stout, 2018

Formal Community Engagement Session with models, drawings, laptop and colour charts. Source – Allison Stout, 2018

Being there

TAP is all about immersion. There’s no quick ‘fly in fly out’. Volunteers work with the community from day one until the delivery of the anganwadi. Projects may change en route due to unforeseen circumstances but TAP won’t walk away with the job undone. This approach has many obvious advantages such as a deeper understanding of the community’s hierarchies and internal structures but most importantly it grows trusting relationships

From the outset it was our intention to engage the teacher, children and wider village in the most authentic participatory process possible. Mostly because this is TAP’s approach, built on the experience that active participation generally improves design outcomes, uses local resources and makes projects more sustainable, but also because no matter how immersed we become we must acknowledge our role as catalysts – agents of change. Although we belong to the ‘community of the project’ we’re not ultimately part of the village community itself and one aspect of our task is to seed and grow community agency to support and care for the anganwadi in the future.

Our project was a new direction for TAP. Instead of working in an urban informal settlement in Ahmedabad, where all the other TAP anganwadis have been built, we were in a rural village in southern Andhra Pradesh. This brought its own set of challenges plus a whole new raft of relationships to be formed with the partner NGO. TAP’s working model has each project realised by a new pair of volunteers. Our situation meant that we had to set up parameters with the partner group as well as make connections with the beneficiary community. In some ways the professional relationships were more difficult to build than those in the village, mostly because our small agile NGO works differently from the more institutional RDT. Nonetheless we pushed through, broke through some barriers such as distance from the community and unfamiliarity with a genuine participatory approach, bridged others like caste complexities and language barriers and built solid relationships with all involved.

Engaging the community

Acceptance by the anganwadi teacher was key to acceptance in the community. Sree Lakshmi our teacher was fully committed and her approval, respect and eventual friendship made all other relationships much easier. At the same time we witnessed her agency within the community, and with RDT, grow through her involvement in the project. 

We used many different participatory techniques for engagement and some of these are tabulated below but we soon discovered that a foolproof way to engage community members was simply to ‘sit and do’, essentially to start doing something, anything really – writing, sketching, mapping, designing, drawing, making things – even playing games. Visibly engaging in activities invited curiosity and participation even when language barriers didn’t allow for much explanation.

Typical diagram used to describe design ideas without language – in this case the shading benefit of a second roof Source – Allison Stout & Sarah Schoffel, 2018

Typical diagram used to describe design ideas without language – in this case the shading benefit of a second roof. Source – Allison Stout & Sarah Schoffel, 2018

Of course we had more structured engagement sessions as well but we quickly found that when we were involved in any kind of active process (which essentially happened each day we spent in the village) people of all ages, roles and status levels came and sat with us and joined in. They joined in design processes, observing and commenting on design options. They showed us things that did and didn’t work in existing village buildings. They accepted and rejected our drawings, models and materials samples. Later in the process they helped to make decorative floor and wall mosaics actively engaging in both design and construction. If there was an interpreter present a more detailed dialogue might take place but so much could be learned without an interpreter, it was a question of being open and receptive. Being led by the hand to be shown something in the village or understanding that the drawing, model or sample that was lovingly collected and shown to others was the ‘one’. Listening always, reading body language and constantly observing all kinds of behaviours which signified trust, satisfaction, happiness, excitement and acceptance – or otherwise.

Participatory Tools – the key thing to remember in using them is that the tool is just a tool – if it’s not useful adapt it or abandon it Source – Sarah Schoffel, 2019

Participatory Tools – the key thing to remember in using them is that the tool is just a tool – if it’s not useful adapt it or abandon it. Source – Sarah Schoffel, 2019

Working with the children

The children within the village community have lots of freedom within invisible bounds. They engaged easily and with great interest. Little children revel at being at the centre of things and enjoy doing small jobs – sorting tiles, carrying dishes of dirt, sifting sand, moving small rocks and stones. Their approval, or otherwise, of the project was almost entirely contingent on how much they were permitted to engage in the process. The things they joined in with they took ownership of – as evidenced by squabbles that broke out if one child grabbed another’s closely guarded paint brush!

The creative activity of painting mosaic designs combined with conversation unexpectedly led to a descriptive diagram of the village Source – Sarah Schoffel, 2019

The creative activity of painting mosaic designs combined with conversation unexpectedly led to a descriptive diagram of the village. Source – Sarah Schoffel, 2019

The older children had more language and more questions. They sat beside us, asked what we were doing and chatted. We discovered the English language skills of primary school children in the community were quite good. They shared their opinions and they built bridges every day between Allison and I, their parents and other adult members of the community. A core group of these older children, mostly older siblings or cousins of the anganwadi class, came to see us every day before and after school. They sat in on community meetings and became actively involved in making mosaics, painting parts of the building and planting the garden.

Sifting sand and painting – children joined in at every opportunity Source – Sarah Schoffel, 2019

Sifting sand and painting – children joined in at every opportunity. Source – Sarah Schoffel, 2019

The importance of time 

Spending slow time is key. This might mean that some processes take twice as long as they ‘should’, but it’s an investment. Sometimes it’s essential to sit with community members, share food, be prescribed Ayurvedic remedies and hear stories. As women we particularly (though not exclusively) heard women’s stories, of their families, marriages, joys, tragedies and milestones. Just being present for these conversations built trust and often proved to be a much better way to spend an hour than abruptly asking questions about some project problem. Once the trust was established resolving most issues was comparatively easy and all kinds of mysterious back stories were uncovered, like why the beautiful tamarind tree we were banking on for shade was suddenly cut down – because it was a ‘devil tree’ which attracts ghosts and can only be planted at the edge of the village, which our new building had just redefined!

What we created together

At the end of the day we completed a robust little building, that is cool, colourful and useful. We made lasting friendships in the Bondalawada community and we galvanised the community for a while on a collaborative project. Those who became involved in the project, especially the women, modelled agency for all the younger women and children in the community. Our anganwadi teacher took a leadership role and there was a deep sense of pride and achievement at completion. It was quite difficult to leave.

Bondalawada Anganwadi Source – Roberto Rodriguez Reyes, 2019 @rober3

Bondalawada Anganwadi. Source – Roberto. Rodriguez Reyes, 2019 @rober3

In the world of international development much deliberation is given to upscaling project delivery to reach more beneficiaries and complete more projects. This is very understandable and often crucial but there’s a lot to be said for being small, involved and closely engaged to create good outcomes. Participation researcher Sarah White calls a project ‘that results in the empowerment of those involved, and as a result alters the structures and institutions that lead to marginalisation and exclusion’ transformative2. Our project was tiny, a little building of less than fifty square metres but on reflection I think its process and its impact may be transformative at least in the lives of those involved. The women and children especially, were empowered and in a way that’s difficult to pinpoint – social structures shifted a little as many individuals reassessed their capacities. Over time it will touch the lives of hundreds of people within the Bondalawada community and many of them, adults and children alike, will remember building it. The beauty of the TAP process is that it works with communities on projects that inherently strengthen and grow community.

  1. World Bank. (2018). World Bank Education Overview : Early Childhood Development (English). World Bank Education Overview. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group.
  2. White, Sarah C. (1996) Depoliticising development: the uses and abuses of participation, Development in Practice, 6 (1), 6– 15.
Sarah Schoffel The Design Between

Sarah Schoffel

Sarah Schoffel is an architect with 30 years’ experience who has also worked in school and early childhood education, operations and management. She is especially interested in the role early childhood care and education plays in forming and supporting communities and facilitating the connections that make this possible through grassroots placemaking. Sarah has undertaken child related projects in India, Bangladesh and Fiji and believes in the creative power of design thinking when it’s used to reinforce connections with people rather than creating solutions in spite of them.