In every idyllic image of an Indian village, there is a big tree, under which children gather to learn and village meetings are held. These age-old trees are often the focal point of rural communities. Even today, children of many villages across the nation learn under the canopy of a mighty peepal tree. While the idea of an outdoor classroom may sound refreshing, villages continue to employ this method only because there is a need to remain frugal, owing to lack of resources. This setting does not provide the right environment to nurture learning. In some cases, the students don’t have surfaces to sit and write on and have to bend to the ground for hours.
Drawing on the psychology of space, social designers Sanjana Paramhans and Aditi Kedia created a solution to this concern, which is called the Learning Tree. Through this platform-based open school, they created a design that is easy to execute, cheap to build and can also host a multitude of activities for the village, it was built in.
While both of them have worked separately on creating design-led innovations, their shared values brought them together to create projects that combine their collective skills to improve social concerns and Sanjana said, “With an interest and focus in social design we wanted to use design for the greater good of society.”
Both the designer behind the project are graduates from Pratt Institute, New York. While Sanjana studied Interior Design, Aditi studied Industrial design. However, they both think that design is much more than pretty lights and wallpaper, but rather is an enabler of social change. According to Aditi, she is a strong believer in a design-led approach to innovation, where problems are solved using a nonlinear thought process.
The path towards the project
As students who went through rigid school systems themselves, the Learning tree project stems from a very personal space for the designer duo. After studying in a system where the teachers are considered the disseminators of information, and students are merely passive absorbers of this, there exists no space to promote creativity. This project was their attempt to break the student-teacher hierarchy and design a more unconventional space.
The project started when Aditi was a teaching assistant for a class, where the project brief was redesigning classroom furniture for rural schools in Nepal. The nonprofit organization works to create schools across Nepal that provides support systems to children. During Aditi’s time there, the organization was finishing up a school that needed a playground. As a place that gets quite cold during the winter, outdoor classes were commonplace. Combining the idea of play and learning, Aditi and Sanjana decided to design a playground that can double as an outdoor learning space and in the process, disrupt the idea of a conventional classroom.
The Design process
To realize their project, the designer duo used their on-field knowledge as well as the collective experience of the people behind Kids of Kathmandu who has been doing their work for over a decade. By weighing in their suggestions, it was easier to understand the specific needs and problems that could be solved by their design. When they got the actual design process, there were many factors to consider such as the average height of the platform, to ensure the safety of children. While the initial designers were complicated, they later created a more modular system that is both cost-effective and easier to build.
The prototype for their design was built using locally sourced wood, coated with paint. The materials used were based on availability, as wood was easily available and did not require welding equipment. But to create a more enduring structure, they hope to create a welded metal structure, with a wooden platform. The realization of the project was done with the help of a team of 12 volunteers, who worked through 3 days.
Impact of the Learning Tree
Using their design-led approach to social causes Sanjana and Aditi are still working to implement their projects in various locations and are constantly working to better their designs to suit the needs of the students. For them, the learning tree is a project that can be extremely effective in both rural and urban education spaces. In the latter situation, it could provide a break from rigid classroom structures to promote more open-minded learning. In rural settings, the project is a solution rather than an addition. According to them “it all comes down to the psychology of the space. By creating a structure, we are creating a sense of institution. With its design, the structure also brings more comforts to students and teachers. One might argue that why not to create a permanent structure instead of but that requires buying land and going through a ton of red tape, followed by coordinating with contractors who may or may not build the school. A temporary structure like this can be executed within a week, providing immediate relief and a sense of institution.”
In addition to their dream to bring their design to more locations, the designers are trying to identify demographics and to develop a funding program. They hope to create a network of these schools and connect them via a website, thus creating an online community that uses the Learning Tree approach to classrooms and thrives by sharing.
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