Many children around the word still spend too much of their time in classrooms memorizing and repeating phrases without true exploration or passion. This reliance on rote-learning methods is a major contributor to the global learning crisis, and innovators around the world are working to inject creativity and flexibility into education. These efforts are manifesting themselves inside schools and through the curriculum-design process, but many non-school based interventions are working to make a more immediate impact. The Magic Bus program in India is one such organization, stepping in to fill the gap between the skills students need and the education they are receiving.
Skills like leadership, critical thinking, or negotiation, often referred to as soft or non-cognitive skills, go beyond the more traditional subjects of literacy and numeracy. And these kinds of soft skills are the types of skills emerging economies increasingly demand.
The Magic Bus program recognizes that children need more than rote memorization. They use activity-based learning methods to engage children and help them develop valuable work-skills, good health practices, better understanding of gender equity issues, and more. The program has developed a robust monitoring and evaluation framework, one that benefits from enthusiastic buy-in at multiple levels throughout the organization.
In April, I met Santosh Kumar Gupta, Magic Bus’ Training and Monitoring Officer, about an hour north of New Delhi’s city center. As we walked to Kachi Park, where the Magic Day’s learning activities were being held, Santosh told me about his “long journey” with Magic Bus; a journey which has seen the program expand from reaching about 30,000 children 5 years ago, to now helping over 400,000 youth develop holistic skills.
Once at the park, Santosh and I passed a few scattered cricketers and made our way to where Magic Bus’ activities were taking place. About two dozen children, aged seven to fourteen, were organized into four lines, with two lines facing north and two lines facing south. They were having a relay race, but a relay race where the kids dribbled a ball as they ran.
“You’ll notice” Santosh explained to me, “that while we use a little competition to engage the children, all of our activities are designed not to be overly competitive. That’s one reason most of our games are team-based, rather than individual, so we can avoid stigmatizing children who may finish slower.”
And sure enough, when the relay race ended both teams laughed and clapped, clearly unconcerned with the order in which they finished.
Ensuring Games Add Value
But what differentiates a simply fun game from a legitimate learning activity?
Often, the answer comes from who is leading things. The Magic Bus program deploys staff to lead their programming, but the organization also relies heavily on volunteers to maximize its impact in low-resource areas. As the children broke for refreshments, Santosh introduced me to Puja, a Youth Mentor leading that day’s activities.
Puja, which means prayer or holy worship in Hindi, is from the same Bhalswa Resettlement Colony that nearly all the children at the park that day call home. Several years ago, a friend of Puja’s brought her along to one of Magic Bus’ community events. The emphasis on educational advancement and female independence resonated with Puja, and soon she was not only attending Magic Bus activities, but also their trainings. By investing in community events and trainings, Magic Bus was able to develop Puja from community member to participant, from participant to volunteer, and eventually from volunteer to Youth Mentor.
Puja’s experience is not by accident. Magic Bus prioritizes recruiting its volunteers directly from the communities which they serve. Youth Mentors are identified directly from participants, allowing the program to seek out youth with the right combination of joy, intelligence, and responsibility. This pre-selection criteria, mixed with ongoing training in data-collection, providing emotional support to children, community outreach and more, allow Magic Bus to expand their operations sustainably while maintaining a high level of competency in their programs’ facilitators.
Volunteer leaders like Puja also keep Magic Bus deeply interconnected with the communities where they serve. After the children’s activities concluded, Santosh, Puja and I walked through the informal community where many of the program’s participants reside. One of the many neighbors I was able to meet there was a mother named Vindu, who’s daughter Sonaly was forced to leave school earlier last year due to an illness.
For many girls in India and around the world, leaving school due to illness can mean a stop to any and all further education. This may have been the case for Sonaly too, if not for people like Puja. Puja quickly recognized that Sonaly was no longer attending Magic Bus activities, and thanks to Puja’s role within the community, she was able to seek out Sonaly’s mother directly. Once Sonaly’s health recovered, her mother Vindu did not know how to re-enroll the child in school. Luckily, Puja has a firm understanding of the public enrollment process, as well as ongoing relationships with school officials in the area, and was able to secure a spot for Sonaly back in primary school.
Each step of this experience, from Puja recognizing Sonaly’s absence, respectfully offering a solution, and helping to facilitate its conclusion, came from Puja’s embedded role within the community.
Magic Bus is just one of many programs finding creative ways to better develop children’s skills. In the CEI Program Database, there are over 80 interventions profiled that focus on Learning through Play, and over 140 committed to Skills for Employability (and we are identifying more each month). Improving learning outcomes for children may not be all fun and games, but programs like Magic Bus are demonstrating that a little creativity, playfulness, and community engagement can go a long way.