Sufi Tabassum’s Tot Batoat, the stories of Sheikh Chilli, Ali Baba Aur Chaalees Chor, Naunehal digest, Syed Tajammul Husain Khan’s Adabi Reader and counting games like Akkarr bakkarr seem to belong to a bygone age.

Today, children capture moments of childhood activities against the backdrop of political turmoil, war and, now, Covid-19 deaths. Many village children grow up with absent fathers, earning a living elsewhere. Urban children live in mohallas, apartments or houses, surrounded by strangers.

So what do Pakistani children learn? And who or what do they learn from?

There are more than 2.2 billion children in the world. Nearly two billion of these live in a developing country. Pakistan has over 80 million children. The vast majority of these children live in rural areas. Officially, 23 million are out of school. Many who do go to school are ‘taught’ by under-qualified teachers and children may leave school without knowing how to read or write. Yet learning is a human instinct.

Formal education is only one of many sources of learning for children. One can argue that, in Pakistani schools today, the vast majority of parents focus on grades and certificates rather than the knowledge their child has acquired. Rote learning, the preferred method, is rarely assimilated as knowledge and soon forgotten. Perhaps there is a resistance by parents to the state taking over their child’s development through uniform school curricula. Locally produced children’s books, films, cartoons, toys and sports, seem to have an equally low priority.

A farmer who takes his child to the fields every day is imparting the skills he feels his child will need. Parents, who want a better life than their own for their children, depend on others to develop those skills. School is an obvious option, or they may apprentice them to a skilled worker or send them to a seminary.

Parental power has, however, rapidly eroded as children are exposed to a host of other influences. Where once family elders transferred cultural and moral values to children, and play rhymes, lullabies, storytelling, community festivals, cultural dances and customs gave children a sense of belonging, television and the internet have stepped in.

Televisions fill homes with breaking news or dramatic soap operas filled with sad or angry adults. The child may develop an image of a fearful adult world, or begin to accept violence as a way to solve problems. There is no Pakistani children’s TV channel or radio programme. Children are left to learn from observation of adult behaviour or from programmes originating in other cultures.

The internet and social media — now available on mobile phones across the country — has expanded the knowledge young children can access. However, it is mostly unmoderated by parents, who have little idea of what their children are absorbing. Parents rarely make time for discussion to help children process what they observe.

Ironically, it’s children living in poverty — unlike the sheltered children of the more affluent — who still play kanchay, gilli danda, ghar ghar and street cricket, climb trees, invent games, negotiate disagreements amongst themselves, and develop resilience.

Fred Rogers, presenter of the long-running TV programme Mr Roger’s Neighbourhood, believed that “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children, play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.”

One can only speculate what kind of Pakistani adults children of today will become. Will there be more than the current 10 percent young women and men who graduate? Will they be leading the way? Or will it be the resilient unlettered majority, creatively bending with the wind?

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi
Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 2nd, 2021

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