March 10, 2008

Building schools with colour

Express India

On most evenings, architect couple Kabir and Preeti Vajpayi of Vinyas take a break from their flourishing business to track the progress of an impossible dream that’s suddenly grown wings. The Vajpayis are creators of a concept called Building as Learning Aid (Bala) that has a simple target—to make drab government schools the stuff of every child’s dreams.

“There is nothing more boring for an imaginative child than going to a school that is a block of grey concrete. Children learn best through games and interactive experiences,” says Kabir, 39. The Bala concept is currently revolutionising education in states like Gujarat, Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir. In Delhi, the couple has worked on the Sangli Mess NP School near India Gate and the Mandir Marg Navyug School and is currently working on two more city schools.

“In one government school on the outskirts of the Gir forests in Gujarat, students have to be bribed to go home after classes. Absenteeism is down and the playgrounds are teeming from early morning,” he adds.

The Bala concept uses simple but effective methods—the classroom walls have green board running along the walls for students to scribble, the window grills have interesting curves, unlike the steel rods in most places, and the stained glass windows are patterned with maps that come alive in different colours when the sun’s rays fall of them. The playgrounds are embossed with board games and rulers. “Children often improvise jump games. With rulers marked on the playground concrete, children can measure who jumped further and by how much to the exact decimal. This way they learn numbers and decimals without even realising it,” laughs Preeti, 38.

Most of these innovations emerged 10 years ago when the couple was working on a project called Lok Jumbish to renovate 60 schools in Rajasthan. “By the end of 20 schools, we were bored of repairing the cracks and concrete. So, on our next school we painted a wall in bright colours and engraved it with alphabets. Not only the children but their teachers also loved it. Children gathered near the wall during interval and took turns to run their fingers on the alphabets,” says Preeti.

After Lok Jumbish ended, the couple initiated a research into the ways to enhance the educational value of buildings in 2000. “We were architects and knew nothing about child psychology or educational techniques. But, we realised a need for an interdisciplinary study into the issue,” says Kabir.

The study, initially supported by Unicef, stretched to two years and involved over 150 educationists, toy makers, students, architects and other experts. The result was 150 ideas, which today, form the foundation of the Bala concept.

But, the acid test was convincing the government to introduce Bala in schools. “The red tape nearly choked the project. We got used to making presentations, chief ministers and education secretaries gushing over it, making huge promises and then nothing happening. Our report gathered dust for close to two years,” says Kabir.

The turning point came in January 2005 during yet another meeting, this time of the education secretaries of states that had introduced the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan.

“We had a 20 minute slot in the morning, but there were so many questions that we finally talked for an hour and a half. By lunch, six states had decided to implement Bala in government schools. One education secretary even announced that he would not sanction any schools that did not include Bala methods,” says Kabir.

The Vajpayis are now looking at another ignored sector. Preeti, who graduated in architecture from Bhopal in 1991 along with Kabir, is now pursuing her PhD in moulding Bala for children with special needs. “Another dream, another struggle,” she adds. And another success story, we hope.

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