17/04/2015 7:59 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

How Children Can Be Empowered To Change The Future

Dream A Dream

Four years ago, Samir Devnani, now studying in Grade XI, joined HEAL - an initiative started in his school to encourage good citizenship and foster empathy amongst children. All HEAL members spend four hours on weekends with children hospitalised for thalassemia and cancer. They conceptualise and execute various activities that distract children from their suffering, thus helping them create happy memories. Samir recalls the celebrations held to mark the completion of 100 weeks of HEAL. "We convinced the entire hospital to open up their gardens for a small-scale event. We organised dance performances, plays and more. To be able to bring a smile on the children's faces felt great. Associating with HEAL helped me build diverse skills such as confidence, teamwork and people management, planning and constant improvisation. But more importantly, it shaped me into a citizen who realses that each one of us is empowered enough to touch the lives of others."

Why is it important to have initiatives such as HEAL as a part of school curriculum? Kiran Bir Sethi, a fellow of social entrepreneur network Ashoka, says, "When children are raised in nurturing environments, they grow up to create similar spaces for future generations. And schools are the best place to begin as what children learn in their formative years stays with them throughout their lives."

In a rapidly changing world, we need an education system that enables children to recognise and believe in their abilities to bring about a lasting impact in their lives, families and everywhere they go. Ken Robinson, in one of his most popular TED talks too stresses on the need to rethink the education paradigm - our children will be entering workforces most of us cannot even visualise and they need to be prepared for a life beyond classroom. Over a decade later, his talk still holds a lot of relevance.

"Once [children] start seeing positive changes around them, they also begin to see themselves as future leaders. "

Video courtesy: Riverside School, Ahmedabad

Unfortunately, India's education system continues to remain focused on producing graduates who can meet the needs of industrialism rather than those who can create knowledge economies. But with an estimated 300 million students entering the workforce by 2025, this is a unique opportunity to rethink and reform the existing paradigm.

Seizing this opportunity is Kiran Bir Sethi who founded Riverside School in Ahmedabad where education is embedded in a real-world context. Through a simple design framework of "Feel, Imagine, Do and Share'", the curriculum is built in a way that ensures children grow up to be socially competent and emotionally aware individuals who continually reflect and work towards taking the community along. Kiran says, "Such children develop skills to create more knowledge and not just accept content as king."

The school, through activities and workshops involving a wide gamut of people from all walks of life, creates experiences for children throughout their formative years. Each of these helps children to make conscious choices and not just be mere bystanders. Once, they start seeing positive changes around them, they also begin to see themselves as future leaders. HEAL is one such initiative. Another initiative is the Client Project wherein every year, students design a project for companies. For instance, Grade II children worked with the Ahmedabad Zoo to help build an audio tour; Grade VI children worked with the local Falafel Express with an aim to promote falafels as an alternative to pizzas and burgers for children.

Kiran says, "The initiatives create authentic experiences for children, enabling them to build diverse skills which are required throughout life." These skills are also shown to have a positive impact on academic performance. Riverside, in fact, features in the country's top 10 schools for Math, Science and English as demonstrated through ASSET, a national assessment for schools in India.

In 1999, another Ashoka fellow Vishal Talreja started Dream A Dream, a network of volunteers who create opportunities and experiences through mediums such as sport, art and drama for vulnerable children. He says, "We can no longer prepare children for a certain profession as we don't know if there will be demand for it 10 years from now. It's more important to teach children the ability to be resilient, adaptive, manage life situations creatively and work with multicultural people. These are the skills they need to manage their lives in a healthy and productive manner."

"Initiatives such as Riverside and Dream A Dream show how teaching skills such as empathy, leadership, critical thinking and teamwork allow children to contribute more meaningfully to society..."

He shares the success story of a girl who dropped out of school because of her weak academic skills. Her parents were deeply upset with her and her self-esteem had plummeted. However, once she enrolled in the organisation's life-skill sessions, her life started changing for the better and she ended up bagging a prestigious year-long dance scholarship. Today, she works as a dance teacher in a school and earns close to Rs 18,000 every month. Vishal says, "The sessions helped her recognise her passion and pursue it. But more importantly, she developed the confidence to believe in herself and make her own decisions. The skills she built have changed her life and she will change others' too."

In the year 2013, 5357 young people benefited from the programme and 81% displayed positive development.

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An after-school football session run by Dream A Dream. Through the medium of sport, children are taught crucial skills such as conflict management, team work and decision making. Photo courtesy: Dream A Dream

Initiatives such as Riverside and Dream A Dream show how teaching skills such as empathy, leadership, critical thinking and teamwork allow children to contribute more meaningfully to society as well as succeed in their workplaces, homes and other societal contexts. But, it's unfortunate that such great initiatives touch only a small number of students. Perhaps, it's time researchers, educators and policymakers take a cue from the insights and impact of such programmes and re-structure education in a way that shapes every child to be a changemaker.