Millennium Post

Missing out on childhood

Three 'encounters' in a span of a month brought home to me the misfortune of today's child who does not know what it is to go out in the evening to fly a kite, kick a ball with friends or pile up seven stones and team up to play pitoo (seven tiles). Not too long ago hide 'n seek, oonch neech (high and low ground) and 'rounders' were a part of daily evening play. Childhood memories are all about friends made on the play field, battles fought, games won and lost and moments shared in innocent mischief. But for children today these are things they do not know about because most of them have no where to run out and play.

Let me start with encounter No 1. A guest came in with her three year old son. To make the little one comfortable I started with the usual question 'so, what game do you like playing'? I expected him to say cricket, what with the IPL fever raging across the country. Angry Birds, he said and asked expectantly 'do you want to know my score'? He reached for his mother's iPhone and started to work the keys at an enviable speed to access the gaming applications. 'That is what he plays all the time' told the mother with unabashed pride. I decided to unload a slice of my childhood on the obvious outdoor- activity- deprived kid. The result was 10 minute session of laughter, shrieks of joy and wild clapping as he ran up two steps to stand on high ground and jump down on low ground as I pretended to nab him in a game of
oonch neech
. He forgot to pester his mother for her mobile phone and while leaving made a plea that tugged at my heart 'please teach me how to climb a tree like your brother taught you when you went out to play oonch neech. Then you will not be able to catch me so easily.'

Encounter No 2. There was an unusual commotion in the service lane behind my house. It was not the usual cry of 'out' or 'bowled' which rings out at 4 pm every day as boys turn the lane into a cricket pitch for the evening limited over match. There was plenty of incomprehensible yelling and shouting followed by someone banging with urgency on my back door. I opened the door to see a nine year old lying on the road, clutching his leg while his friends splashed water on his face to help him come out of a faint. The injured boy was lifted into my car and rushed to hospital. His worried parents were called but by then we knew that he had fractured his leg. Relieved that it was not a head injury or anything more serious, it was time to inquire how he had injured himself. As he dashed out of the lane and onto the road to retrieve the ball he was hit by a motorcyclist. The man did not stop. The colony guard had no clue about the hit-and-run culprit though he had witnessed the accident. While everyone rushed to help the injured boy, the man made good his escape.

Encounter No 3.  A park in the colony was inaugurated after it had been given a make over. The Residents Welfare Association invited all to see how a patch of fenced ground, surrounded by houses had been converted into a beautiful garden. Two waterfalls now adorned the corners and fancy lights edged pathways for strollers. The lawn was green and manicured with flower beds on the edge. A few benches had been placed for residents to rest and chat. It was indeed a change from what it used to be. Gone was the fence broken to make a short cut for children who thronged the patchy uneven ground every evening to run around and play. There was no sight of the bricks that substituted as wickets for the cricketers. In fact the new park was out of bounds for them now. For all to see was a freshly painted sign 'Dogs and cricket not allowed. By order RWA'. Obviously those who had had their window panes smashed by enthusiastic Dhoni in the making batsmen or their evenings disturbed by excited shouting kids were a relieved lot. But the children of the area were a sad lot. They stood on the margins of the inauguration
tea party asking for all to hear 'Where should we play now'?

As concrete buildings and development projects swallow up space in urban and rural India, our children have no where to play. According to the National Playing Fields Association of India (NPFAI),Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, of the 700 million children, adolescents and youth in the country, only 50 million have access to playing fields and sports facilities. The National council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) more than 50% of our one million schools lack playgrounds. That is why children are forced to miss out on outdoor activity and sports. Others try and make up for the absence of playgrounds by spilling out on roads and by-lanes leading to accidents sometimes fatal. Playing on uneven surface, more so if it is a high impact sport like basketball, leads to injuries. According to estimates 200,000 children are treated for injuries caused in unsafe playgrounds. Records of the Spinal Injury Centre at Delhi's Safdarjung Hospital show that 35% of patients they get are class XI and XII students with knee injuries caused by playing without proper guidance in unsafe playgrounds.

Free, open space for children and the young to play and exercise is vital for their all round development. It is in the play field that children learn discipline, fair play, healthy competition, team spirit, make friends, imbibe a sense of sportsmanship, learn how to deal with defeat and victory and get fresh air. A playground is an outdoor classroom, providing them lessons they will need in life. Should the greed of builders and real estate business fed by a growing demand for housing deprive the coming generation of no fuss outdoor play? It is a question we all have to answer.

The early May proposal by Union Sports minister Ajay Maken to make school playgrounds available for children after school hours is a solution but not an easy one. It throws up issues like their maintenance along with financial implications, supervision of children as well as their safety while at play. The NPFAI idea of compulsory compensatory playing field development where existing play grounds have been lost to development projects,on the lines of compensatory afforestation,  can be hope for our children and our future generation.
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