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Recreating the Banyan: The importance of free play for children

Recently in Goa, I passed a village surrounding a massive Banyan tree. This magnificent

tree had several strong roots hanging and other holds to climb. It was, in fact, so large that someone had placed a bench and made a quaint little park between the roots of the tree. A group of little Tarzans from the village formed their own complex world of fun within this tree. They created swings, slides and little houses for themselves. Each one hung on to a dangling root, swing as far as he/she could possibly go, then giggled and got back to business. The playspaces we build at Gudgudee are like this banyan tree; they are a magnificent opportunity for children to stretch their imaginations.

Nature was once most of India’s playground. Now, Nature has become India’s garbage dump, apartment building, industrial area or slum. Cities have no more clean, open spaces and the suburbs are constantly under construction. Children must visit an aloof, rusty public playground and once they are bored with its repetitiveness, they drown themselves in the virtual world of video games. With obesity rates, delinquency and sensory disorders on the rise, it is imperative that we make some changes.A step in the right direction while tackling these global problems is the sensory playground. First installed in Europe, these playgrounds have freed children from the unexciting rut of identical playgrounds. The success of these projects has spread worldwide and companies like ours are personalizing these playgrounds for the Indian population. With different installations across playgrounds, Gudgudee provides innovative fun that keeps children engaged for days. As designers from the National Institute of Design, we create installations that are aesthetically soothing and harmonious with their immediate environments. Other than being spatially flexible and artistic, these playgrounds are created with inexpensive, environmentally friendly or recycled materials. The psycho-pathological value of these playgrounds is most interesting, as research has found appalling problems caused due to our negligence of children’s playtime.

Pediatric occupational therapists have urged parents and schools to send their children to modern sensory and inclusive playgrounds for a multitude of reasons. These installations have no single way of being played with or in, and as a result, the children are given the liberty to come up with innovative ways of interacting with the installations. The problem with pre-­existent playgrounds is that children master the apparatus too quickly and then get bored. Children then engage in unhealthy competition and spend their energy and imagination in counterproductive activities such as bullying and aggressive behaviour. Children with learning difficulties or those who lack athleticism lose interest in social interactions and become shy and withdrawn as a result. Our installations are inclusive so that while the most athletic children can find ways to challenge themselves, even children with dyspraxia can engage with the installations.

The problem that parents face in India is that the pre-­installed playgrounds are not only

boring but also unsafe. The swings and slides in public playgrounds are rusted and uncared for, with a worrying level of hygiene. To make sure that their children can have a safer outdoorexperience parents send these children for regulated camps and classes. However, studies have shown that these classes in no way make­up for the amount of time a child spends outside in self ­directed play. Psychologists at the University of Colorado reveal just how important activities involving self ­directed play are in the development of children’s executive functioning. Well ­developed executive functioning is said to improve school performance and it gives them the power of self ­direction so that the children can learn to set and value their own goals. In fact, psychologists at Boston University feel that free unsupervised and unregulated play is one of the best learning experiences that people can give their children. We have done away with traditional structures like ordinary slides and swings and rebuilt themselves to provide more adventure in a safer setting, thus making unregulated play a safe possibility.

Besides behavioural benefits, there are several psychological benefits of free play. “In

free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by rules, and get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates.” Playgrounds such as these are also known to reduce aggression as children learn to engage their imagination and think rather than use brute force. Another problem that children face is that they become fearful individuals due to over­parenting. Parents often become over­protective of their children and due to the low safety regulations at mostplaces in India they constantly nag them even if they do take them outside to play with other children. This is what is known as helicopter parenting and although parents mean well, psychologists claim that they are doing more harm than good. Helicopter parenting leads to various psycho-pathological conditions as the child develops.

The lack of open playspaces is most unfortunate for children who do not enjoy competitive sport or are unable to make it to the team as it not only denies them a healthy outlet for all their youthful physical energy but also causes sensory defects. Research shows that children who don’t play outdoors have less­developed vestibular systems and lack a sense of balance. The playspace that we provide is a safe solution that returns the right to play opportunities to the children of India. It may not be possible for us all to have an ancient Banyan tree in our community, but we can all afford to add some inexpensive installations that promote our children’s mental and physical well­ being.

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