Youth activist, social worker, passionate thinker and entrepreneur Kavindya Thennakoon ’19 is truly the embodiment of an inspiring and driven Wellesley alum. Thennakoon came to Wellesley from Sri Lanka and founded Without Borders, an organization that turns unused rural spaces into community hubs offering education, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. After Wellesley, Thennakoon pursued her masters at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, where she launched Tilli, a game-based learning tool for children that focuses on social emotional learning.
“Tilli aims to infuse the power of play and use the help of tech to create social emotional learning tools to help teachers and parents understand children’s pace of learning, keep track of the child’s strengths, weaknesses and areas left for improvement,” Thennakoon explained.
Designed for teachers as well as parents, this semester-based system contains 12 modules covering a multitude of areas like bodies and boundaries, trust, and personal space to test five to 10 year olds’ empathy, critical thinking and metacognitive skills through games and classroom activity. Through a mobile app, children are then able to continue this learning at home with their parents’ involvement to allow a synchronized learning pattern between schools and homes.
Although Tilli is presently successfully up and running, its establishment faced a fair share of pandemic-related difficulties. User testing had to be moved online just two months after it began, which meant a highly emotional and personal learning experience had to be adapted to be executed online. Teachers were placed in group training sessions and taught to adapt to the creative amendments made to Tilli’s games and stories. Nonetheless, Thennakoon states that the “physcological, emotional trauma and loss [caused to children during this time] is unimaginable.”
To make Tilli suitable for diverse audiences, a variety of social, economic and cultural backgrounds have been tested. Interestingly, Thennakoon noted that although both parents in South Asia and America were hesitant to engage in conversations regarding emotions with children, South Asian parents had less of an inclination to do so. This finding had to be factored in when activities and lessons were designed to make them more culturally relevant: language, symbols and stories were used to localize activities, while the packets were designed by adaptability of the school into low tech, high tech and medium tech to reach a larger economic scope of schools.
Thennakoon also spoke extensively about how her experience at Wellesley contributed to the creation of Tilli. Thennakoon emphasized the power of the liberal arts education.
“Having [a] liberal arts environment and being able to see problems with a 360 perspective was so important because there’s so many moving pieces. And I think Wellesley really helped with that thinking,” Thennakoon said.
Thennakoon also mentioned that Tilli had its very first intern from Wellesley this wintersession.
“Having people who are on the same wavelength as you [and] have the same work ethic, values and ideals as you was really nice. We would love to create a pipeline of having more Wellesley interns work with us,” Thennakoon said.
Finally, Thennakoon was able to connect with Wellesley’s education department in order to access several resources. These resources helped her improve Tilli in several ways, as she took advice from a couple of Wellesley professors who are working in social and emotional learning.
“Being able to have resources like professors and being able to come [to Wellesley] for advice and mentorship has been just phenomenal,” Thennakoon said.
When asked about her aspirations for Tilli in the near future, Thennakoon expressed her excitement to focus on school expansion and start a public launch with the schools that Tilli is working with. However, Thennakoon also expressed her hope for investors, which could greatly boost the operations, expansion and success of Tilli.
“I think our whole focus this year is starting the public launch with the schools. [We are also] trying to figure out how we can bring investors who are vision aligned with us and are impact focused, so that we can have a more long term relationship with them. And so those will be our two biggest priorities for 2022,” Thennakoon said.
With Tilli adopting innovative methods to address the crucial need for children’s social emotional learning today, we are all excited to see Tilli grow and expand under Thennakoon’s admirable passion and leadership.