Delhi-based Gitika Bhagat, was in the middle of a class when she realised she had unexpected company, albeit virtually. Her five-year-old student had dragged her grandfather into the virtual session and made him sit in front of the screen. “She wanted to introduce her grandfather to her favourite teacher. And I ended up having a short chat with him,” she smiles. In Gurugram, Esha Malhotra, played an improvised version of hide-and-seek with a child, who had wandered off screen. “I could still see her in the room, so I played a game where I tried to spot her. Gradually, she started paying attention in class,” she says.
Bhagat and Malhotra work as ‘virtual childminders’ with ProEves, a Mumbai-based aggregator of childcare centres and services. The two have adapted their skills to meet parents’ demands for childcare during the covid-19 pandemic. Bhagat, for instance, used to conduct storytelling, doodling, craft and other hobby classes offline through her company Hobbylanebyg, while Malhotra was a parenting coach and a personality development expert with her brand Smart Beans. When the pandemic hit, they began conducting group and one-on-one sessions mainly for pre-primary kids, and predominantly via the platform.
By combining caregiving and learning through activities involving storytelling, arts and crafts, experimental science, phonetics and so on, such personalised sessions offer twin benefits: kids who are starved for personal attention are kept engaged, while overworked parents get some respite from the pressures of working from home.
The sessions are a bit more freewheeling. Bhagat gets acquainted with children through chit-chat, warm-ups, or icebreaker activities like ‘Simon Says’. “You have to make the child believe that he or she is going to have fun and that it’s different from school,” she adds. Malhotra likes to allow the child to have some say in what to study. “If a child is interested in clay play and I ask him to draw, he won’t listen as at that age too, they have an issue with authority.”
Juggling work and parenting
There have been multiple surveys about working parents during the pandemic and the results are troubling. For instance, according to an edition of the LinkedIn Workforce Confidence Index which surveyed 2,254 professionals in India, 42 percent of working mothers were ‘unable to focus on work with their children at home’.
Nidhi Ahuja’s work schedule extends till nearly 2 am, having to report to bosses based in the US. “My daughter, who is nearly six and a lovely child, started getting cranky during the lockdown as she literally had nothing to do,” says Ahuja, the IT India Partner Leader of a travel company. “I wanted someone who could talk to my child at her level, keep her engaged in some activity and make her feel like she is not alone by giving her a sense of security.” She opted for Malhotra’s one-on-one sessions as a childminder. “In six months, she got introduced to mathematics, phonetics and many fun activities that kept her busy after class. Her personality has evolved too. I have a sense of relief that she is in a happy space,” adds Ahuja.
Bridging a gap year
This month, KLAY Preschools and Daycare launched a 12-week ‘school readiness program’ on numeracy and literacy for kids aged between 2.5 to 4 years. “This is for children, who have missed attending their first year of school or who have taken a long break. It will help them to transition from a home to a school environment, as a majority of our parents are unable to spend time with the child. They may want support to work on specific learning goals or familiarise their children with peer learning and interaction,” explains Arshleen Kalra, the curriculum head. In batches of 10, around 200 students are taught through imaginative play, phonological awareness, hands-on activities, fine motor exercises, music and movement, and arts and craft.
Abhilasha K Prakash, a Mumbai-based chartered accountant and mom to a 2.5-year old boy, says juggling work and home without support has been an uphill task. “My hope was to help him get into a routine before school starts,” she says. “And Advay gets individual attention through the interactive sessions and enjoys the activities.”
Virtual support at work
Besides parents like Ahuja, Ketika Kapoor, co-founder and CEO of ProEves, works with more than 50 companies to help them provide virtual care for their employees’ children. According to a study where her team surveyed 51 companies, 51 percent provided care in the form of ‘camps, classes and mentors’. “This has become a sort of a trend in India because of the Maternity Benefit Act, which requires the companies to provide a daycare,” she explains.
When companies approached the team in May last year, they created group sessions—whether partially or fully-funded by these corporates—with experts like magicians, storytellers and puppeteers. By September, parents were worried about the lack of personal interactions in their children’s lives. “So we offered virtual childminders, who are essentially teachers who’d lost their jobs or were working at half their salaries due to the pandemic,” she elaborates. “Caregiving is the goal so that parents can take those one or two hours off, take a sip of tea or close deadlines.”
International players have entered the field too. "Forty percent of our clients in the APAC region come from India," says Kyle Reilly, the co-founder of the New York-based online company, Virtual Babysitters Club LLC. He, however, declines to share more details about the clients, citing confidentiality. “Corporates purchase our sessions and give out the coupon codes to their employees so that they can book sessions on our website.” The company, which was formed in March last year, allows parents to book group (with up to five kids) and one-on-one sessions with professional performers hit by the pandemic—including those on Broadway—to keep their children engaged for an hour. “We have a lot of fun, engaging sessions on dance, arts and crafts, trivia games, puppetry, and more. Parents like that the kids are kept socially engaged instead of just watching TV, while they can get on a conference call, clean up their house or just have an hour to themselves,” elaborates Reilly.
Multinational companies have been quick to adopt the virtual care model. “With the pandemic, we all understand the disproportionate burden working parents carry,” says Jaya Virwani, Ethics and D&I leader, EY Global Delivery Services, which has offered virtual camps, group sessions and childminder programmes to their working parents. “We have more than 2000 working parents and at any given point around 25 to 30 percent of them sign up for these classes. We wanted to ensure that they have a virtual support system where their child could be kept engaged by somebody and, while being able to supervise, they did not have to spend time and energy to do it themselves.”
Bulbul Virli, manager, corporate functions, Accenture India, has two kids, aged 3 and 4. Last year, they attended the company’s ‘Virtual Summer Camp’ initiative with activities like musical adventures, drama classes, puppet shows, dance and yoga. “Having engaged, happy children meant that I could let them have playtime post the sessions and focus on my work,” she says. Lakshmi C, managing director and lead, Human Resources, Accenture in India adds, “In addition to our Virtual Summer Camp, we’ve also created a resource center on our Vaahini app with a number of do-it-yourself tutorials and logic-based learning activities such as treasure hunts and puzzles.”
Meanwhile, Amazon India has had over 1,000 parent employees sign up for their virtual care services. Deepti Varma, director, human resources, Amazon India, explains that the company has tied up with global partners to provide self-learning tools and virtual classes. “Also, in partnership with our existing childcare partner in India, we have provided employees the option to sign up for complimentary sessions providing various virtual options including classes/camps, child minders, mentors and parenting coaches as per their individual requirements,” she says.
Anu Prabhakar is an independent journalist