My journey In Search Of A Perfect Learning Space!

Source: The Hitavada      Date: 17 Jun 2018 11:25:32



I reckon that I’ am a child at heart and aspire to remain so, till my last breath! Children and the way they think just never ceases to amaze me… My journey into their world started in the serene mountains of Ladhak, way back in 1988. As an art college student I was an ardent trekker and mountaineer, my career path was all planned and decided! I was already shortlisting the names of the advertising agencies I would be interning at shortly.

It was during an international Himalayan expedition that I heard my first calling…. Lamayuru in Ladhak,while taking a short break during a long trek and gathering energy for yet another steep climb, I rested my rucksack and sat under the beautiful lush green peach trees to observe a few young children playing.

They were so happy! Some were writing on big rocks with charcoal and some playing with twigs, leaves, stones and mud. I was impressed as they tried to use the rough texture of twigs and the roll up leaves to balance the irregular shapes of stones in a perfect pyramid. The ease with which they assessed the sizes and shapes of the stones, their perfect judgment on weight and the amazing fine motor skills…. A perfect way for a child to learn, I thought to myself.

Observing the constantly changing expressions on their faces and then the final gleam of triumph when they succeeded in their exercise made me realise that this perfect setting amongst the beautiful colour palette of nature, the interaction with the activity, lending an hands on learning experience, was the reason for their happiness, unmatched motivational levels and the zest to learn.

I realised that I had never seen this kind of happiness on the faces of my young kindergarten going cousins. In fact it was a task to pack them off to school every morning. Maybe there was something missing , something that kept these village children motivated and involved . Was it the environment or was it the simple unstructured method of play that had resulted in learning!! It made me wonder about what made the children happy. In that moment my journey began, my search of what made children happy! Henceforth, I started observing the expressions on the faces of children I met during my treks and tried to capture them in the form of photographs and sketches.


Once back at the college where I was perusing a bachelor degree in Applied Arts, I choose children as the subject for most of my projects. The first leg of my journey began when I was the youngest illustrator hired by Oxford University Press, to design a series of books for children. I free-lanced as an illustrator of children books and designed for many international publishers. My fascination for children and the purity of childhood grew with every illustration I created. While designing academic books, I would always try to think of the lesson from a child’s perspective and to make the accompanying illustration more fun, thus turning the pages of the book into a more pleasant lesson format.

My stint in UK to pursue a specialisation in child illustration gave me the opportunity to enlarge my canvas and convert my rendering into life-sized wall murals. During this period I observed the methods of teaching used abroad and realised that they were very different from how education was imparted in India, especially in the early years. My interaction with the teachers in UK and other countries I travelled to and my observations of various curriculums encouraged me find ways to give my wall murals a more interactive dimension.

I also observed and learnt how the forms and the palette made a difference to the way children reacted in a classroom. I learnt that design had a very deep impact on learning spaces and that it was for us to decide if we wanted a positive or a negative impact. I came back to India with a mission to change the look of learning spaces! It was not easy as the preschool concept was very basic. A classroom consisted of a black board and a few wall charts. When I talked about my concepts, some looked through me, as I was invisible and most ridiculed me.

My desperation to showcase my ideas was very frustrating. The happy faces of the children I had seen playing in the Himalayas haunted me. I would sit and sketch different concepts for hours, from wall ideas to activity concepts. Always thinking of ways to figure out ideal space a child would vibe with and where learning would be a volunteered action and not a compulsion. It was sheer luck that I met an NRI gentleman in search of a designer for the school he had acquired in Mumbai 25 years ago. He had lived in the USA for 40 years and wanted to settle down in India. His ideas about education were very different and no architect wanted to touch such a complicated project.

He was very impressed with my ideas! Finally someone understood my concepts and gave me the freedom to use my design ideas. Back in those days I incorporated unstructured concepts like role-play, Cognitive corner and math lab in the learning areas. I worked day and night with the carpenter to design and fabricate furniture that encouraged collaborative learning. The wall murals for this entire school were single handedly rendered by me. It turned out to like no other and was an eye-opener for many. Leading newspapers covered the project and my concepts extensively! The first leg of my journey was a success !

My design company, Once Upon My Wall completes 25 years of existence in 2020. In this journey I have seen how the education system has evolved in India and abroad. How we have adapted various educational theories into our curriculum and how a child’s holistic development has become a priority for any institution. When I look back, I see that we have come a long way and I a m happy to see that educationists are more receptive to new ideas and are not afraid to experiment.

My design philosophy

Explore, Play and Discover are the keywords in my designs and the colour palette is the core essence! The psychological effect of the design and the colour palette of any space is undeniable. I strongly believe that designing for children is a science and not just another interior design project. There is a lot that goes into creating a child-safe learning space for the little ones, one becomes a supportive and nurturing zone for them physically, intellectually and emotionally.

It is important to understand what factors make the design of any children space good or bad. It is imperative that we visualise the design from a child’s perspective. In the design process we should not deviate from our focus. The main purpose of the design is to motivate a child and facilitate positive action; learning will definitely happen in due course of time. It is setting that has to be appropriate and as designers we are responsible for providing that. A design that might appeal to an adult may actually seem very intimidating to a child. In context of designing for preschoolers, I always advice, “Forget your age, think like a child, go on your knees and visualise a space from 3-ft , you will realise that the whole perspective of the space is different from that height.” Another important thing that I have learnt over the years is that children are not interested in if you are using the most expensive finishes in the interiors.

A simple design element that may have cost almost nothing can overwhelm a child. I always advice that we should break away from stereotype selection of finishes and try to explore. Something good doesn’t have to be something expensive. It is just a matter of using ones creativity & imagination. Colour is a major factor in wrapping up a good design. It is also important to understand the background of the end users when defining a design language for any space. The socio-economic factor determines the palette a child would react positively to. A colour scheme that seems very loud for a child in an upmarket school in the metro, might just be the right kind of colour tone to lift up the spirits at a school in a smaller town.

India is a very vast country with a variety in cultures and geographical locations. Due to extensive exposure to certain tones of colours in different cultures, children react differently to different colours. A thorough study on the end-user, before one sits in an air-conditioned office and decides the colour palette, is a must!! Incorporating natural elements as much as possible is a great idea. In a recent childcare project for a very large corporate, I based my entire building design around a Bottle Brush tree, instead of chopping it down. If I spot a crooked tree or natural rocks on a site, my mind starts planning different activities I could design around them. Using these elements to create sensory play areas lend and ideal backdrop for the activities.

For me, it is important to understand the curriculum of the school that I am going to design. Amalgamating the design theories with the curriculum results in a unique looking space, that can be very beneficial for the learning process. Since I believe in customising my design and concepts, it is important for me to understand what the curriculum is thriving to achieve and what methodology is being applied to achieve it. I base my entire design on this and also try to suggest additional concepts to enrich the learning experience. Over the years my understanding of various educational curriculums, concepts and methods of teaching helps me create a space that supports learning in a holistic manner. While doing the interior design of schools, I emphasise on the orientation of different spaces, in order to facilitate maximum explorative learning and interaction. Introducing a lot of play and explorative elements into my designs resulting in a space that is more interactive and activity-oriented.

The furniture that I design is not only ergonomically appropriate, but also ensures the possibility of versatility in terms of application and usage. Using elements like nooks and activity fences to convert a simple storage into an activity zone in itself. Thematic treatment of a children space is very important as that encourages visualization in a child. A child might visualize what may seem like a curved line for us, as different things. The very base of imaginative play derives from this.

Sensorial treatment

My experience has taught me that wall murals can prove to be a very motivating element in any area and that children relate positively to carefully chosen simplistic forms and a carefully chosen colour palette. If carefully designed, it ceases to be a distraction in the classroom and can also be designed in the form of an interactive wall to support learning. To break the monotony of wall murals, I also customise hand-painted changeable wall panels, cutout kits and wall size canvasses with themes, as these can be easily installed on to the walls without much base work on site.

Having designed over 200 projects all over the country and abroad, over last the 24 years my company OUMW has been instrumental in shaping some of the most prestigious and innovative children’s spaces across India, Presently I’m designing an outdoor multi-sensory play space for MKH Sancheti School. Here the concept of extending the indoor learning into the outdoor spaces will not only make children spend more time closer to nature but also ensure that the children get a hands-on experience of what they will be learning theoretically in classrooms.

I feel very happy when I receive enquires from smaller cities and towns, it only proves their awareness and willingness for adapting innovative educational methods in their institutions. Budgets may vary but the aim should remain the same, of providing ideal space to every child to learn and grow! As I continue to translate spaces into ideal learning environments, fulfilling the mission of my life to colour every child’s world and to create the perfect Learning space. My journey is far from complete! (The author is design consultant, Once Upon My Wall. She can be reached at [email protected])