Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999
No place to run and play
The author is a Delhi based students' counsellor.
One of my fondest memories of childhood is of playing "seven tiles" in the street. Two teams of equal numbers (boys and girls) would take turns in trying to break down the seven tiles (placed one on top of the other) with a ball, and then try and restore it to its original position before the other team member got hold of the ball and hit you or touched you with it. Other indigenous games included digging two parallel rows of 14 holes in the yard or outside the front gates and using seeds of custard apples to fill them up to play. Tamarind seeds and shells (kauri) offered a "Ludo" substitute. Hopscotch, hide and seek or "chain-chain" were also fun. Games, playmates, time and space were aplenty.
Alas! none of this is true today. Correction. Games are still aplenty but they are of a different kind. They are mechanical, electrical or electronic. So, more children are playing video or computer games (rather than hockey or football or even "I spy"). These are basically solo and sedentary games. These are also asocial play activities and it encourages children to go into an unreal world of thrills. It is also spending money to keep up with the Kumars and being able to tell peers of their new acquisitions, expertise and accomplishments. Another new high are the bowling alleys. These are few in number and very expensive at that. Why are our children not going out into the open spaces any more? To begin with do we have that many open spaces? When urban areas are becoming crowded concrete jungles, where encroachment and building is the norm, open spaces are disappearing by the week. Streets are becoming narrower with cars parked on both sides of the road, so that there is hardly any room to walk, let alone play. Besides, parents are constantly telling their children not to play on the streets because of the sheer danger of reckless drivers and speeding cars. In spite of all those speed-breakers, drivers - particularly young drivers - do not get deterred, because speeding is what gives them the thrills, not chasing a friend in the park, down the road or on the field.
Bimla Verma/ Fotomedia
What about the parks? Well, technically, there are several plots that are earmarked as parks, but how many of them are really developed as parks? Often the area is identified by a wall, a corrugated iron fence or barbed wire fence, and that is all. This not only invites encroachment by the homeless, but soon develops into a slum. Or, it becomes a dumping ground for garbage, leading to a meeting ground of dogs and cattle. Failing this, the untended ground is full of weeds, wild vegetation and stones and sticks that is hardly conducive to play.
Playgrounds in schools are rarely used after school hours either because it is not permitted or they is too far from the homes of the students. A few living in the neighbourhood may use these, time permitting that is; because with the amount of homework, together with tuitions or lessons in dancing or music or tennis or judo or painting, children do not find the time to play.
Let us assume that there are still some children who have the time and a developed park at their disposal, but even they are often not allowed to go to the park because of the lack of personal safety. With the rising crime rate and the increasing incidents of kidnapping, molestations and rape, not to forget drug related problems, parents do not feel comfortable about sending their children off to the parks to play. And, how many can really accompany their children or send a servant with them? Play is just not easy anymore.
But children are children and they never say die. So they do find space for themselves. These turn out to be the little courtyard in the middle of a set of apartment buildings. It could be the balcony of one of the flats, and failing all else the drawing-dining or even the parents' double-bed will do. The dining table is converted into a table-tennis table or the bed into a boxing ring. Who said anything about the children of today having no imagination? But all hell breaks loose when the neighbour's window in the next flat is hit by a cricket ball, the polished teak dining table is covered with scratches, and the porcelain bed-side lamp is shattered to bits. And the chorus from parents is: "why can't you go out and play?" A typical case of Catch-22.
Is there anything that can be done? Theoretically if there is a problem, there have to be solutions. So what is the solution? Perhaps the local residents' welfare associations can be approached, a committee formed to cater to the playing needs of the neighbourhood children. Perhaps the local authorities can be pressured to develop playgrounds with all-round safety measures. Perhaps schools can open their grounds for children other than their own students. Unfortunately, none of this is done because in our country collective efforts are non-existent. It is high time civic responsibilities are taken seriously and we think beyond our own immediate needs. Let us make a concerted effort to find spaces for our children to play. Without it our children are not only going to be physically unfit and unhealthy, but they are not going to be able to work out their stresses and strains through clean, healthy fun-filled play.
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