Through her education curriculum and initiatives to build a healthy relationship between students and their community, Kiran Bir Sethi is changing the experience of childhood in Indian cities. Kiran believes when children are raised in nurturing environments, they in turn, create such environments for future generations and ultimately build a culture a citizenship between children and adults.
Kiran has developed an innovative educational environment at Riverside School that focuses on “nurturing a spirit of curiosity and…opportunities for exploration in a safe space within the spirit of community.” Riverside offers a curriculum and experiences of engagement with the city that enables children to better understand their skills, potential, and responsibilities as citizens. Kiran is also developing social intervention initiatives in the city, community quality-of-life and after-school programs to provide a wide array of activities (cultural, instructional, and recreational) to synchronize with the regular school curriculum.
Children at Riverside and as part of Kiran’s A Protagonist in every Child (aProCh) campaign learn how to be protagonists in their environment, to exercise full citizenship, and to find affirmation for their needs and ideas. Kiran promotes children’s rights to move independently and safely from home, choose their friends, and experiment. With the assumption that a child-friendly, welcoming society breeds socially-oriented, responsible caring citizens, Kiran has created systems of learning, campaigns, and initiatives that enable children to socially interact in their community. Her curriculum in the classroom hones individual potential which, paired with the experience of engaging their city and community, prepares them to become active stakeholders in society. Kiran believes by making children visible and active members of communities, they will later understand the importance of citizenship as adults.
Urban India is failing to provide a nurturing environment for its children. An urban child is typically influenced by three institutions: Her family, her school, and her city. Among wealthier families, a majority of children are often strongly encouraged to pursue parental-driven aspirations; while underprivileged children are often left with no choice but to work to support their families; and middle-class children are singularly driven to do well academically and to later climb the socioeconomic ladder.
The academic institutions of India are, at best, highly competitive and stressful with a focus on rote-learning and an exam-based curriculum. Additionally, government schools suffer from a lack of resources and outdated curriculum. In spite of innumerable interventions in non-formal education to enrich children with learning though experience, the education system neither focuses on developing a child’s potential nor does it prepare the young to be autonomous, responsible citizens in their country.
Compounding these issues, India is a rapidly urbanizing economy. In the race for exponential economic growth, developers and civic institutions do not consider children as users or stakeholders in the process. However, systems oriented to children’s well-being, such as traffic control for street crossing outside schools are disappearing and there are few opportunities for children to engage with a city’s broad social infrastructure. Ultimately, the absence of these experiences during childhood produces adults who do not feel responsible to contribute to their society or nation.
In 2001 Kiran founded Riverside, a mainstream school for students through Grade 12. It was her unique curriculum that led to aProCh, an initiative to create the necessary environment and opportunities for children to engage with the social infrastructure in their city.
Riverside’s curriculum gives students the tools and opportunity to explore and hone their visual/spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, naturalist, and intrapersonal intelligence. The school has several programs which focus on education with both relevance and rigor. The curriculum is built around a series of themes, beginning with “Identity” for kindergartners—to explore who they are in relation to their environment. Although the classes are unconventional, the students achieve at a high level in competitive exams. Riverside also promotes activities with diverse areas in society to build a sense of social responsibility among students. For example, students participate in a yearly exchange program during which they spend a few days in schools of varied socioeconomic and cultural contexts.
This learning is paired with opportunities for the students to interact with their communities, their city, and their society in a constructive manner. Along with programs that encourage students to work with the underprivileged, engagement with diverse social sections is considered integral to the culture of the school. For example, students, teachers, and support staff eat together and spend time playing games together; offering students the opportunity to teach the support staff English.
In her efforts to create opportunities for an exposure to the immediate city environment, Kiran discovered how unfriendly her city was to children. Not only were children unwelcome in the city’s usual activities—places such as busy stores—they were also nearly invisible in the vast machinery of a complex living environment. This discovery led to aProCh—a multifaceted campaign that makes children a stakeholder group in the city’s operation.
In partnership with the city municipal cooperation, city police, leading news agencies and business and design universities in Ahmedabad, aProCh attempts to organize cities to create the necessary, secure environment to facilitate children to engage as citizens with its stakeholders. She launched aProCh with Street Smart—a day every month in which the city of Ahmedabad closes one main road for children to participate in fun activities and be a visible population in the city. Another initiative, Friends of the Children, partners with businesses, news agencies, and institutes, to open their premises to children so that they can explore and appreciate the social infrastructure of a city. A third initiative, BUS KARO, has partnered with a businessman and a celebrity car designer to build an eighty-five seat bus to give street children safe access from the heat or the cold, as well as for them to play and learn in. In another initiative, twenty children along with experts from design institute have begun to create a children’s park in the city. The Centre for Environment and Planning in Ahmedabad and the AMC have also signed up to have children design two parks in the city.
Kiran is actively spreading her approach through out the country. Besides franchising the Riverside curriculum to several schools, she is working with the Army Education Leaders to improve the army schools based on the design of Riverside. She will also work with the Bhutanese government to setup five Riverside schools in Bhutan by 2010. Kiran is in the process of signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Municipal Commissioner of Ahmedabad to introduce English curriculum in Grade 1 in Municipal schools, instead of Grade 5, with the municipal schools adopting the Riverside curriculum.
With aProCh, Kiran’s vision is to see these efforts become a natural part of the cultural ethos of a city. She and her team, which consists of her partners and involved parents, are currently working on a template that will allow institutions across the nation to build this campaign with little developmental effort. In the past year, Rajkot, another city in the state of Gujarat has launched this campaign, while Kiran has made significant progress in her conversation with the state government to launch aProCh across the state. Further, she is working with the NID to create a course on Design for childhood; she has also signed an MOU with Stanford University Design School to integrate design into their curriculum.
Kiran was born and raised in Bangalore. Her father was one of India’s first machine tool designers to graduate from IIT and went on to set up his own enterprise. When Kiran was young, her father was a key influence, and to him she credits her integrity and unwavering commitment toward whatever she sets out to do. She places a premium on quality and strives to create uniqueness. From when Kiran was a graphic designer until she began Riverside school, she has demonstrated the ability to understand complex issues; from founding a world-class school or convincing the administration of Ahmedabad to partner with her to achieve her vision.
Growing up, design and innovation were pervasive in Kiran’s environment. It was while visiting her older sister at the National Institute of Design (NID) on winter vacation that she became smitten and applied to NID—abandoning her plans to study medicine. Though NID accepts students only after having completed class 10+2 studies, they made an exception for Kiran, and after a difficult administration process, accepted her during her eleventh year of school.
Kiran is a vibrant go-getter and does not hesitate to step out of her comfort zone. While starting Riverside, one of her close friends and partners had to withdraw before the projects completion. This was a crucial moment, and Kiran realized that she had to trust herself and move forward.
Kiran has successfully carved a niche for herself in every area. For example, as head-girl at her school or her courage to manage a design studio that integrated consumer experiences, and did not consider design a stand alone element of a product or service.
When Kiran became a parent she realized what children were missing as far as experiential learning. She also realized that urban spaces are no longer safe and welcoming of children. It was from this concern and a strong desire to contribute to finding a solution that she began her journey both with Riverside and aProCh.
Kiran lives in Ahmedabad with her husband and two children.