Yesterday, our family spent a few hours of sheer innocence and happiness in J Block of Shikshantar. While the big school presented the 10th anniversary of the school to parents in an exhibition mode, the pre-primary block’s experience was more like a mela. Teeming with people, sounds, color, activity, smiles and conversation, an air of abandonment and unbridled joy.
The theme of stories was enjoyed and experienced to the hilt by little children, whose uninhibited imagination and simplicity endows them with the ability to engross themselves completely in the world of stories. They identify strongly with fictional characters and effortlessly merge reality and fiction, art and narrative, the world of depiction and that of performance.
In these kids, aged between 3 and 6, I saw a certain freshness, innocence and lack of pretension that revived my spirits. Since kids this young do not think too much about what others’ might think of them, the content of the stories was much more varied (than in older classes, where I think they chose themes that found approval with the school philosophy to some extent). Cars, parents, friends, spaces they experience, fears, dreams, nature, color, journeys, conversations, we saw all these elements in their little stories. One class had illustrated their little stories using tiny clay sculptures and it was a joy to see how well those little hands had created forms as complex as an octopus, a car, a snake, a house and many others.
We were drawn into their world this afternoon. In one classroom, we created stories out of rhythm emanating from different people playing a variety of instruments in spontaneous sync with each other. In other rooms, we drew, painted, cut and pasted to create our own imaginary worlds. We became little children again and thoroughly enjoyed it.
All of this was wonderful, but the most magical thing about the J Block in Shikshantar still remains the Vanar Vatika. I have watched Udai and his friends connect with it since he was in Raindrops (Playgroup) five years ago, and how much they continue to miss that space even now, when they are in Grade 3 and over eight years old! They recreated this space so well in the model they made for the birthday, the nostalgia was evident!
This is a play area full of little physical challenges. No super fancy swings here. We are talking stuff like a giant pipe under a mound of mud, you can climb over the mound or walk in and through the pipe! Or the concrete beams at varying heights and angles that you learn to balance on. The little brick wall with punctures in different shapes. And the bean pole that you shimmy down and eventually, perhaps, learn to shimmy up as well! The swing, the tyre swing, the guerilla obstacle course stuff…..Vanar Vatika is an unmissable call to become a child again. Aadyaa too, I can see, is in her element here. She complained bitterly on the days it rained heavily and Vanar Vatika was out of bounds for them.
From a professional perspective, Vanar Vatika always makes me think about the intimate relationship we share with spaces we experience. Why some spaces click while others don’t has been studied extensively. Vanar Vatika clicks because it is designed as an intimate space, with a scale suitable for young children. Everything is simple, nothing overwhelming. No swanky, shiny stuff that says ‘touch me not’, no manicured flower beds. All softscape, no hard ground where kids might hurt themselves. Surrounded by green edges. Offering challenged simple and tougher, making it something they want to go back to every day.
As a planner, I wish our cities were filled with Vanar Vatikas. Such spaces should be public, accessible to all. In 2011, we visited Barcelona and visited many public parks with spaces like this for children. When children are happy, they draw in adults into a world of peace and enjoyment. In India, a nation with the youngest population in the world, we certainly must have more happy spaces for children. We must consider this an investment in our future.
Yesterday was Eva’s birthday party and Eva is my daughter’s best friend, neighbor and daily playmate. From the moment the kids woke up, they were in the party mood and wanted to be part of everything, hanging out at the neighboring house watching the balloons go up, the streamers being put, the food being cooked. We had to drag them home for breakfast and barely was she bathed, Aadyaa was back at Eva’s place!
As a new mom when my son was two or three, I thought kiddie birthday parties were the most boring events ever. Of course, now things have changed and I look at them with a completely different eye.
Yesterday, I was struck by the innocence of the children, the sheer joy they got from each others’ company and how deep their friendships and loyalties run! All the little ones there (average age 5) went out of their way to make the birthday girl happy, rallying around her and participating in every activity with gusto. Some kids were shy, others were remarkably outspoken and there were some who were simply on their own trip! Aadyaa waited politely for all the ‘guests’ to get their tattoos done before she got hers. Avandeeta thoroughly enjoyed the pasta, eating on her own silently and with great focus. The boys from Eva’s class explored the house, while the girls had great fun at a messy glue and paper sticking activity.
Later at dinner, we talked about other older children we know- the teenage variety and the kind of showdowns they were having with their parents. In a classic generation gap situation, the girl we spoke about was being subjected to unreasonable curfew times because she saw hanging out at a coffee shop a worthwhile thing to do while her parents simply do not understand it!
I wondered about what was going through the parents’ mind? Fear for our children and suspicion about their activities are closely interlinked and while no one denies we parents take action only in the best interests of our children, are we, by complicating the rule book, actually forcing them to lose their innocence earlier than necessary? When I tell my child he needs to fear and be suspicious of everyone, I am forcing him to think ‘why’? And kick-starting the sort of thought process that explores a variety of possible negative scenarios.
So what do we do? And how do we achieve the right balance between providing our kids with a secure environment and yet offering them sufficient exposure and presence of mind to recognize danger when they face it? I don’t think we will find an answer, every family would have to set their own rules.
As for me, every night, I look at the innocent faces of my kids when they are asleep, and thank the powers that be (which, ironically, I’m unsure I believe in!) that they experienced another peaceful and happy day!