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Building a community of young readers

4th July 2015

- The Hindu

Building a community of young readers

J. Uma Meenakshi shares how she strikes a chord with children by nurturing the reader inside them

Reading is not just for schools, declares J.Uma Meenakshi, first a passionate 42-km full marathoner who is also by choice the brain behind a Children’s Reading and Activity Club in small town Sivakasi.

In between her dance, bakery and piano classes, she is totally dedicated to introducing children between three to eight years to reading good books. “Children these days read only their school text books…nothing more,” she rues. “But I want them to grow into book lovers,” she adds.

Inside Kinder Park -- a play school she started more than a decade ago -- it is a sight every Tuesday and Thursday evening you cannot avoid admiring. The session starts at 5.30 p.m. but many of the three-year-olds walk in smiling much before time and Uma doesn’t mind at all. With a loud chirpy voice, she greets each of them by name and the children straight head for the book shelf to pick up a book of their choice. Some look intently at the pictures, some read quietly, some struggle to read while some others read aloud to another friend. Some just talk about a book they read or saw elsewhere, some flip through the pages of not one but several books and some fight too.

Uma does not interfere in the cacophony. She just watches them and let them be because, she says, they all are able to engage themselves instantly.

Once all the children arrive, Uma sets aside 30 minutes of ‘Me-Time’ with books. And later for an hour she reads out to them either a story or any other theme-based book. The session is complete with props, matching toys and puppets and filled with laughter and emotions as Uma enacts out every dialogue and every scene. Sometimes she leaves the story halfway and asks her young listeners to give their own twist to the end and then read about the actual ending later either at home or in their school libraries or at the club.

This way, says Uma, their curiosity, imagination and interest levels remain high. The fact that she has been able to run the reading club in this small town for two years now with an ever growing number of members speaks of her efforts, sincerity and popularity.

It was her maternal instinct with two pre-school kids at home that guided her to this venture. Dissatisfied with the facilities available in her hometown, she visited schools in Chennai and Bangalore and came up with her own fun-based curriculum for tiny tots. Given the dearth of good playschools and English teaching skills in Sivakasi, the school topper and an engineering graduate lost no time in getting students.

Since she can’t manage more than 45 in one batch, Uma says her heart aches to reject applications during admission time every year. What she, however, guarantees is the quality and confidence of her students who are easily grabbed by some of the best schools later.

But as she pre-schooled the little ones, she realised reading was nowhere in their list of activities, crazily hooked on to gadgets that they were. “It is very crucial to inculcate the reading habit in children in their first five years,” says Uma, “and parents have to understand their children’s need to learn and enjoy reading independently.”

Uma remained focussed on the children she taught or met at different places in Sivakasi. A small survey with the parents of her school over the years left her appalled as she found neither the regular schools encouraged nor parents gave importance to reading beyond classroom textbooks and school hours. “Adults are so syllabus and marks-driven that they forget to even pause and think how animated reading makes a child happy and encourages bonding and socialising,” she says.

“You don’t just read to sound like an intellectual but it helps to refine so many other aspects of your personality,” says Uma. Two autumns ago, she decided to gather a group of children in the evening after her play school hours to discuss stories ranging from fantasy to adventures and classic.

To her pleasant surprise, half of her own school children turned up promptly without any persuasion though she had to keep reminding some parents that the reading club was not a class but a creative relaxation forum for the children.

“There is no greater impact on students’ reading growth than giving them time to read,” asserts Uma. Likewise her ‘Read to Rock’ Club opened a fascinating world of books and possibilities for the kids.

Today, there is such an over-crowding at her reading club that she has been compelled to divide the children into two batches. She gets 45 kids in the three to five years group and another 35 in the six to eight years category.

Her work is creditworthy because surrounding cities and districts lack such an effort.

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