S Subbalakshmi and Anu Kurian
Arvind Gupta is well known for his innovative science and mathematics teaching aids. He prepares the aids from material that is accessible. He currently works at the children’s Science Centre of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune. He has done several translations too. He has set up the website arvindguptatoys.com where he shares his entire work for all of us to make good use of.
Arvind Gupta conducted a workshop at the IIIT, Hyderabad recently. For the initial hour he was requested to talk about his personal journey. As he walks in, the group looks with wonder at this simple, khadi clad person with a disarming smile. He quickly gets to the point and speaks the story of his life, just as he would start the workshop of activities an hour later!
His childhood memories, he said, are of indebtedness – to his mother who was determined to educate her four children and to his sister, who was ever caring of Arvind. Arvind’s brothers were studying medicine and chemistry. Although they were on a‘standard’ path, his mother always had encouraging words for Arvind’s unconventional passions. After graduating in 1975 from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur as an Electrical Engineer, Arvind joined TELCO. It was a good training period but after two years he realized that he could not continue to make trucks! He took one year’s leave and went to Kishore Bharati (Hoshangabad, MP), engaged in rural development and developing child-centred science ‘learning by doing’ initiative in village schools. He recalls that the first object that opened new windows of opportunity in making things was the cycle tube!
Arvind Gupta remembers that the period of the Seventies were full of influencing social forces and revolutionary movements. He quotes Kosambi, “In a stagnant society, only the scum floats to the top”. He was part of a churning society and had the opportunity to meet inspiring people – Laurie Baker, the architect who touched the lives of the Indian poor and Anil Agarwal who set up the Centre for Science and Environment.
After the exhilarating experience at Kishore Bharati, Arvind returned to TELCO. The question “Why does the hardest working labourer get paid the least?” haunted him. He was not able to continue working in the corporate world. For three years he worked with a Trade Union in Chattisgarh.
He left TELCO in 1980 and since then has been in the area of science education, as an innovator of low-cost, enjoyable learning toys. When he decided to leave TELCO, there were several different remarks but he received spontaneous appreciation from his mother. She said, “Good, he left the job. He will do honest and good work for the world!” Such was her trust in her son. He concluded saying that it is very important that we show trust in our children and sow the seeds of confidence in them.
After listening to him for one hour, the audience quickly reassembled for the workshop. Arvind started by demonstrating some practically useful things that could be made with the newspaper, like a box and a baseball cap. Having got the audience to make the box he announced that it could be used to store all the toys that were going to be made that evening!
Arvind gave out the raw materials needed for each toy, soon after each demonstration. He then moved through the crowd helping them along before showing them how to make the next toy. The raw materials used were everyday waste–straws, broken Hawai slippers, etc. Some of the things used were materials that we almost always have at home like a piece of string or the midrib of the coconut frond. Only that we never think of using these things innovatively.
Using a simple straw he made a reed and demonstrated how it works. He then cut holes along the length of the straw and made a flute from it. Even better, he played on this flute! He took a softer and wider 2” length of another straw. The open ends of this straw were flattened and stuck. Then angled cuts were made at diagonally opposite ends of it. A hole was punctured in the middle of this and a ‘Frooti straw’ with a hole punctured at one end was passed through this. When air was blown at the other end of the ‘straw’ the piece that was perpendicular to it spun like a propeller.
Next, he took a five inch length of the midrib of the coconut palm frond, broke off a piece and tied it at an angle less than 90 degrees to the first. He then stuck the longer piece into a piece of a Hawai slipper. Then, placing his finger at the angle, he spun the thing around. He then made two lengths of string about two feet long, tied its loose ends to make two loops. He wedged a piece of ice-cream stick into one loop and enmeshed the second loop into this. As the second string was pulled and released in turns, patterns were made. When the audience had made the same toy all the twine was used up. The reel that remained and which we very often discard was used to demonstrate the working of an elevator. In this manner he also made us rethink about the waste we produce.
These fun to make and inexpensive toys can amuse and engage a child no end, both during its making and also later as it plays with it. Interestingly, these toys can be used to explain difficult science concepts. Arvind Gupta went on to show us several such toys.
The programme was attended by people of all ages, from school-going children to adults. All of them were interested – following instructions, distributing raw materials, and helping people beside them to make the toy being demonstrated. It was a great learning experience.
S Subbalakshmi is a software professional and is also associated with Ananda Bharathi, a voluntary organization for underprivileged girl children. She can be reached at [email protected].
Anu Kurian is an English language teacher. She can be reached at [email protected].