A crop of new-age schools in India now boasts of seamless designs, flexible furniture, and collaborative spaces

Meet the Indian designers doing away with cramped classrooms and dull walls and prioritising schools with flexible furniture, collaborative spaces, and interactive elements

April 14, 2023 04:43 pm | Updated May 01, 2023 12:09 pm IST

A snapshot of the Stellar World School

A snapshot of the Stellar World School | Photo Credit: Devaki Dhuldhoya

Think of a school and the image of narrow corridors and cramped classrooms with wooden benches comes to mind. Not anymore, with a number of design firms upping their game and looking at early learning institutions as seamless spaces that encourage independent learning. Think vibrant, collaborative spaces, flexible seating arrangements, and classrooms that double up as libraries. 

Stellar World School kindergarten, Mumbai

Year: 2022

KSD Studio’s latest project — the Stellar World School kindergarten in Mumbai — stemmed from the idea to create a fluid space for children. Something that most international schools lack, says Kshiti Shah, the project’s principal designer. “Schools are restricted by solid classroom walls and furniture. We approached this project differently. We wanted to fade the boundaries between educators and learners through extensive use of transparency and collaboration spaces throughout the building,” she says of the school with flexible classrooms and a fluid design. Kshiti adds that this project — spanning 12,000 sq.ft. and which took 1.5 years to complete — forms the campus’ first phase, with two more phases in the offing for higher-grade students.

The design brief was very simple, she adds. “The client wanted a learning space where students felt like a second home with unrestricted learning outside of classrooms.” And so, the team moved away from the idea of narrow corridors. Instead, a collaborative learning space with classrooms on the periphery was created. Keeping today’s digital era in mind, Kshiti explains how the library was also designed differently. “Instead of stacking books in an enclosed space which is conventionally done, we introduced a vertical library on all the floors that became a connecting thread between the floors. It makes children more accessible to the books and also encourages non-readers to flip through books of their interest. The walls of the collaborative area encourage children to explore sensory, cognitive, imaginative, and group play together,” says the architect of the firm now working on residential interior spaces in Mumbai, holiday homes in Aamby valley, and a few workspaces in Pune.

Children at the Stellar World School

Children at the Stellar World School | Photo Credit: Devaki Dhuldhoya

Elaborating on the project’s non-linear nature, the architect says the classrooms have been designed to have different seating options “to give the educator freedom to conduct the class in different ways”. “There could be times when the educator wants the students to face the screen/ board or make clusters of 3-6 students for a group activity or clear out the entire floor for a performance. The storage designed at the periphery of the classroom acts as seating when the classroom needs to be cleared for an activity,” says Kshiti, adding how a few classrooms have an acoustic sliding folding partition which when opened, could become a congregation space.

What also sets the design apart is the pastel colour scheme, atypical in spaces for young children. “We wanted the space to be natural, earthy, biophilic with a pop of colour. We chose only two shades — peach and green — which bring calmness to the stormy, loud atmosphere that the children bring in.”

The collaborative area, Kshiti’s favourite space in the school, features several interactive and educative elements: the alphabet wall, follow the grooves, colour wheel, peg board, and a textured wall, among others. “The walls of the collaborative area are designed with individual learning play. Each of these elements triggers the sensory, and cognitive development of the children. The seating in the collaborative space is made of soft foam to enable children to move it around as per their use,” she says. As for the furniture’s light and flexible nature, Kshiti says the pieces can be rearranged into different configurations. We used two colours to break the monotony and also the length of each of the arcs is different to give variation in usage. For instance, a child could lie down on a longer arc and read a book, or a group of 3-4 friends could make their own cluster with smaller pieces.”

An aerial view of Kai Early Years

An aerial view of Kai Early Years | Photo Credit: Noughts and Crosses

Kai Early Years, Bengaluru 

Year: 2019

A resource-rich environment that “doesn’t necessarily dictate when to learn, where to learn, or even how to learn”, Kai Early Years is starkly different from a conventionally modelled school, says Bipin Bhadran, Managing Director, Education Design International, the firm behind the school’s design. The early childhood campus in Whitefield comprises two independently functioning departments: the Learning Centre and the Community Centre. While the former features learning pods, activity spaces, and administrative zones, the latter is home to day-care facilities and research areas. 

The need for agile, flexible spaces for teachers and students was always a priority. “Following a classroom-based school design wouldn’t have met any of Kai’s educational aspirations. Our former research in neuroscience, findings, and experiences from 54 countries has continuously allowed us to push the boundaries of learning space design,” says Bipin, explaining how, in a learning community model, students are encouraged to set their own goals, and learn at their own pace wherein teachers act as facilitators. “Students are encouraged to explore, be curious, and are on their feet most of the time allowing for free movement in a safe environment. A majority of the walls and floors are tactile in different textures, patterns enhancing sensorial experience,” he says.

Children at Kai Early Years

Children at Kai Early Years | Photo Credit: Noughts and Crosses

Addressing his key design features, Bipin says the kitchen garden is a prominent design element, allowing students to understand a farm-to-fork concept. “The exterior sound garden and internal slide from one floor to the other are other interesting elements for adults as well as children who indulge in creative play on a regular basis,” says Bipin, who is now working on similar projects at Inventure Academy in Bengaluru, Greenvalley International School in Chennai, and Pune’s Wellington College.

Heritage International Xperiential School, Gurugram

Year: 2021

A school sans classroom walls or corridor bifurcations? If you are wondering if this is perhaps an institution abroad, think again. Gurugram’s Heritage Xperiential Learning School’s junior campus (for students until Grade 2) that launched in October 2021, draws from Scandinavian design: warm tones, straight lines, ample natural night, and seamless spaces.  

“The designs of our schools haven’t changed much in the last 150 years,” says Vishnu Karthik, Director, The Heritage Group of Schools. He explains how the core structure of a school is similar to the designs we have had since the first industrial revolution. “Not many know that the core school design is pretty much a design of hospitals and prisons which need a ‘cell and a bell’ model for control and supervision. Classrooms are stacked like cells across long corridors and there is a bell to regulate the movement of cell inhabitants,” he says, adding that their project (designed by Manit Jain, co-founder) was a step to question this traditional model. “Space impacts the way humans think, cooperate, reflect, and learn and we wanted to design a school space in such a way that it is used as an aid in learning and not as an impediment.”

The Heritage Xperiential Learning School

The Heritage Xperiential Learning School | Photo Credit: TAJ MOHAMMAD

Elaborating on the project’s interactive features, Vishnu says with no classroom walls, and corridors integrated into the classrooms helped make one large learning unit. “Students and educators can move seamlessly across these learning spaces. Another feature is multiple space formats in each learning unit. There is space for whole-class instruction, small group work, silent reflections or self-reading, etc. There is also flexibility built in to integrate music, art, and movement into the daily lesson plan,” he says of the school wherein the middle and senior campus for grades 3 to 12 will open this July.

However, finding working models of such spaces to draw from during the planning stage was a challenge. And so, the team visited schools in other countries like Finland, Singapore, and the USA. “We realised that it is relatively easy to design and construct a Scandinavian-looking school but the bigger task is to ensure a culture among educators and children to use that space effectively. Our bigger efforts were around professional development and workshops for not just teachers but also parents,” says Vishnu, adding that while the construction took about 18 months, the design took three years to complete. 

An interior view of Heritage Xperiential Learning School

An interior view of Heritage Xperiential Learning School | Photo Credit: TAJ MOHAMMAD

Rane Vidyalaya, Theerampalayam,Trichy

Year: 2018 and 2021

Situated in a village with no proper schools within a 5km radius, Rane Vidyalayawas built to inculcate learning beyond the classroom’s four walls. Ramya Sankara Raman, Director, Shanmugam Associates, explains how construction techniques from a regional context, a structured pedagogy of the Indian educational system, and limited construction costs formed the underlying basis for the design development. “The kindergarten classrooms are designed to have individual gardens that encourage seamless outdoor and indoor integration of space. With every increase in grade, classes become more functional to induce structured learning,” she says of the school which is a CSR initiative by the Chennai-based Rane Foundation. Small assembly areas on each floor, seating arrangements in between the corridors, and garden pockets abutting the library area are provided for students to engage in collaborative exercises and group work.

Rane Vidyalaya

Rane Vidyalaya | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“All corridors and connecting bridges are planned such that they are not stacked one on top of the other but rather stepped to ensure a visual connection is maintained,” says Ramya, adding that they felt the need to include a closed multi-functional congregation space as well. “We drew inspiration from temple mandapams where huge gatherings take place. The school has an enclosed 11,000 sq.ft. central courtyard planned with perforated light wells on the roof. The covered courtyard, which is the heart of the plan, runs almost through the entire length of the building.” 

Elaborating on the school’s eco-features, the architect says they used materials from nearby quarries, and fly ash bricks. “Natural lighting and ventilation reduced the use of artificial lighting and HVAC, and we provided ample garden pockets that provide a comfortable microclimate,” says Ramya, who is now working on The Northstar School’s Phase 2 (Rajkot), Vidhyashram (Jodhpur), and DAV School (Puducherry).

Rane Vidyalaya

Rane Vidyalaya | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The Outdoor Classroom, Pune 

Year: 2017

When The Outdoor Classroom’s team approached Tushar Kothawade, co-founder, Studio Infinity with the project’s design brief, their requirement was clear-cut: to design a pre-primary school for about 80-100 students on a site that was part of a commercial building abutting a large residential colony. “The client, already having two operational schools, stressed on the maximum utilisation of space available across three floors.”

Given the age group they were designing for, Tushar realised that “confining them within the four walls of a classroom for a long time” was not an idealistic scenario. This was the starting point for our design deliberations, he says. “We formulated a space that offers opportunities to learn and grow, inside as well as outside the classrooms. The idea was to create an environment for a kid to absorb, explore and learn right from the point he/she enters the school premises via a number of ways, which eventually will become a part of their learning system,” he says of the school that uses ample green features. Think bamboo, ‘kavdi’ flooring, cement boards, and agro-wood aesthetics.

Children at The Outdoor Classroom

Children at The Outdoor Classroom | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The material palette played a major role in defining how eco-friendly our spaces would end up being, adds the designer. “The choice was to be local, earthy, and cost-sensitive while making every decision. The salvaged mosaic floors, local tiles, raw bamboo, cement boards, and recycled wood formed a large part of our palette.”

Customised graphics, minute detailing, and a child-centric approach formed the backbone of their designs. All, of his favourite design aspects of the project. “We created a new pictorial representation of A to Z graphics, and splashes of color were strategically used to highlight certain aspects of design,” says Tushar, adding how a play of shadows cast by various pergolas helped in creating interesting visuals that keep changing as the day progresses. All spaces are multifunctional and have kids-centric graphics, blackboards for them to draw, pin-up panels for displays, and elements inbuilt for children to sit, read and play. Provision of blackboards to write, scribble, and doodle all along the corridor, various cozy sit-outs, and inbuilt play zones also function as independent zones for children to play in.  

A snapshot of The Outdoor Classroom

A snapshot of The Outdoor Classroom | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Having said that, connecting the structure’s three floors was not easy. “While designing, one of the initial challenges was to deal with a total area being spread across three levels. So a seamless connection between floors and activities was important. Secondly, out of this total area at our disposal, only about 50% was covered, and enclosing the remaining area of making it more usable was a challenge.”

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