S01Extra09: Creating Space for Play


Deepika:It’s nice to see you!’ (laughter)

This exuberant greeting and exchange was the outcome of my second conversation with Kavitha Krishnamoorthy. Kavitha is the founder of Chennai-based NGO Kilikili which works on creating inclusive play spaces for children of all abilities. Much before this pandemic began, in the days when one could still plan and schedule things, we had decided to dedicate a month of conversation to the theme of exploring children and play – investigating and trying to understand how the cities that we live in enable and disable this most absolute fundamental need of all children.  

It was in this context that I’d reached out to Kavitha the first time when I could still physically meet her and share a conversation and walk around the park she had been instrumental in creating! I returned from Chennai, full of excitement at the promise the episode held – but then the pandemic unfolded and all schedules and plans flew out the window. 

As we were discussing and planning this months episodes on children and the impact of the pandemic on them, that conversation with Kavitha was on my mind. 

I wondered – what happens now? After this enormous effort to support disabled children to come out and play – what happens when globally everyone gets relegated to their homes? So that’s how the second conversation came about.

But I’m getting ahead of myself – let me begin the story of Kavitha and Kilikili from that rainy afternoon in December 2019 when we first met.

Kavitha: So my name is Kavitha Krishnamoorthy and I currently live in Chennai with my family, which is my husband who is passionate about books and music and understanding human behaviour. My mother also lives with us and she is an intrepid traveler. She loves learning new things as right now. She’s into weaving on a handloom. And my son Ananth, who was 18 years old now and who is passionate about music, all kinds of music, but especially Carnatic music.

Deepika: The first thing that struck me about Kavitha was the energy that she has and how much of it fuels her work- just the ability to laugh fully and frequently!

Kavitha founded Kilikili (which means the warbling laughter of a child), in 2006 while she was living in Bangalore. It started with a group of parents coming together to create spaces for children with disabilities to be outdoors, play and do the things other children were doing. From that beginning, it has grown into an organisation that works with city corporations to plan and execute inclusive parks for children. But children and working for the rights of children is something that Kavitha began engaging with when she was a college student.   

Kavitha: I grew up in Mumbai. And I think one major event that kind of transformed my life has been when I started volunteering in an organization in Mumbai called YUVA which used to work with slum and pavement children. I think that was in many ways a transformative experience for me and I I think all that I’ve learned in terms of children, children’s rights, children’s needs comes from there.

It was my experience as a parent which really brought me in touch with childhood disability. So having a son who is on the autism spectrum, more specifically, who has a seizure disorder with which goes along with some features of autism.

We happened to take my son to the park is when my husband kind of happened to remark that how is it that you don’t see children with disabilities in the park itself and that kind of set me thinking in terms of what is it? Why are children, children with disabilities not coming to the park? Of course, the very obvious one was that parks are not welcoming, they are not spaces where you know kids with disabilities could come and the immediate thing one thinks of that is okay, but they aren’t accessible. So they’re not you know, I mean so say a child who uses a wheelchair probably never comes in because you don’t have a ramp at the gate. At the most simplistic level then that is the kind of thing that immediately strikes one.

Deepika: As Kavitha was talking, I was reminded of children I’ve met in state institutional care. It wasn’t just how spaces weren’t designed for different sorts of bodies and abilities, but also how disability was viewed and spoken of in terms of the kind of language or labels used. It was a narrative that created separation and reflected a stigma. When you look around then, it’s no wonder that you don’t really See children with disabilities in public spaces because it’s hard just being in them.    

It’s something that research also points to. An article published in the journal Social and Cultural Geography by J. Horton which studied 60 families of children with disabilities in North London found that: ‘families with disabled children can often experience outdoor/natural play as a site of hard work, heartache, dread, resignation and inadequacy,’ because of the ‘multiple, compound social-material ‘barriers to fun’ encountered in these spaces; (ii) the profound emotional-affective impacts of such barriers.’

These barriers are something Kavitha describes as amplifying what keeps children with disabilities away from public spaces.

Kavitha: I think one of the things we were also looking at then is how invisible our children are in any kind of public from public spaces and the reason is that because there are no facilities that actually ends up completely marginalizing them and invisibilising them. Means they are just not there. They’re not able to be there. So I think that the thought to you know, create a space, which is a public space where other children play, so it’s like was like if all children are playing in a park why can’t our children also be there and how can we kind of facilitate that our children are also able to play in the same spaces that there peers are playing in. 

So it was also to break the kind of isolation that kids with disabilities face…They are in your special schools, special centres or therapy centres or whatever and not so much in spaces where other children are and I think the goal was also to look at why are we creating this kind of division? Can we really facilitate all children irrespective of whatever their abilities or not can play together. I think that was the kind of motivation which bound the families. So I think that is where this whole kind of thing began.

Deepika: What Kavitha and the group of parents she was working with set out to do is something enshrined in the UNCRC (Convention on the Rights of the Child), as the right of every child. 

Article 31 clearly recognises ‘the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.’ It goes on to add that ‘States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.’

In recognising the right of all children, Kavitha said the focus for her was on inclusivity and she describes what that means.

Kavitha: Basically it would mean that children irrespective of ability of class, of caste, of religion. I mean every child every child by virtue of being a child should have the ability to play there and if that we believe that that is every child’s birthright then we as a society or as a community have the responsibility to fulfil it and it is up to us to see how that can be done.

So Kilikili is basically a parent’s group which has been looking at developing inclusive play spaces, inclusive basically meaning spaces where children with disabilities are welcome…So when I say facilities, it’s not just you know, the physical infrastructure which may mean for example, things like ramps or smooth, you know pathways signages, etc, but also that they have play equipment that meets their needs, so we actually had various processes of consultation with children with disabilities themselves to ask them what they want, with parents, with caregivers, with professionals – with various people to really understand what this means. And over a period of time we actually came up with some kind of a design of some design for a space for the physical design as well as design for modifications to play equipment, which you would normally see in a park but such that they would also meet the needs of children with disabilities.

Deepika: As Kavitha and I were walking around Infinity Park, she pointed to what this meant in terms of how the park was planned–with different areas for little children and teenagers, for instance. So while there were bucket swings and wheel-chair friendly merry-go-rounds, for older children, open space by way of a basketball court with lower hoops had been planned–space that could be used however teenagers wanted to. 

What caught my attention in particular was a granite ‘singing stone’. Having just seen it at Auroville, it was all the more exciting, for the simplicity of its design and ability to create music! The other space that is reflective of keeping in mind multiple needs is the ‘quiet zone’ with a butterfly painted on the wall, where children can go when they don’t want to engage and are seeking to be quiet.

In designing for children with disabilities, Kavitha mentioned how Infinity Park, where we were having this conversation, also became popular with senior citizens because it accommodated older bodies as well. Bodies that had different needs. It was a kinder, more welcoming space. It’s something that became possible because of the years of work Kilikili has done starting from Coles Park in bangalore, but also because listening to children was embedded in their approach.

It’s actually a provision included in the UNCRC and outlined in Article 12 of the Convention which states that: ‘children have a right to express their views and have them taken seriously in accordance with their age and maturity’. 

Kavitha described some of the things that came up in one of her earliest consultations with children.

Kavitha: They talked about maintenance. They talk about things like how you know, the space should be clean. They should be a first aid box with the watchman. The watchman should not shoo them away when they play on the grass, there should not be people who smoke in the parks. We realised then that for them the play experience was not just about play or play equipments but it was actually the experience of being in that space itself, which was actually I mean it was an eye-opener for us. because we ourselves thinking they will ask for things like this and you know, how are we going to make it happen for them? But they had a more holistic and comprehensive picture in their own minds. So that is what comes when you ask and when you listen to children, because children would give you insights that you probably wouldn’t have thought of yourselves.

It was a very important exercise because we were actually defining for the first time in India what an inclusive play space in public area could possibly what are the elements it could contain and that’s how you know we sketched the broad contours and then we went to the corporation.

Deepika: Beyond equipment and infrastructure though, which is how inclusivity is largely understood, Kavitha shared how the point was to create opportunities for different sorts of children to just be in the same space with each other.

Kavitha: I remember in a M N Krishna Rao Park where again this was a group from Parikrama which coming very regularly and they just said, you know, let’s play ball and they all started playing and then they found this one child who was who uses a wheelchair, who was over there and then one of them just went and wheeled the wheelchair and they form the circle and they included her in the play also. I think inclusion is then about just really creating opportunities well, people of all hues so children of all hues can just be together.I Just creating those opportunities and making you know children of all kinds to play together has just been so powerful.

Deepika: Literature has pointed to the numerous benefits of play. In a paper published by Project Zero of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, researchers describe the benefits of play, and the central role it has to play in the way children learn, and how it contributes to social, emotional and intellectual development. It states: ‘adults should look for three indicators of playful learning: choice, wonder, and delight.’

And anything can be play. Ben Mardell, researcher and educator, says:’My take is that any activity can be play or not play. The secret sauce is playfulness’. The idea being to have fun and for play to be enjoyable! And as Kavitha says, creating opportunities for this.

Kavitha: What is needed is immense opportunity to explore—and have fun. It’s not about, you know, it’s fun and it’s also serious, in a sense for the child, play is quite serious. So are we giving them this kind of opportunity? So of course there is so much literature to see how play benefits. I mean whether it’s your muscles, your motor, your fine motor, your social skills, you know, fighting, your conflict resolution. I mean, there’s no end to what they say gives but the question really is not play gives but are we really giving our children the kind of play that they need because they say like psychologists have said, you know, that play is really the work of children. Of childhood. I mean if that is the work of childhood, are we creating the conditions for me for free play, for unstructured play, for all our children. And I think that’s really the key thing about this question.

Deepika: In terms of the response from the community around her and the people who were coming to the park, Kavitha said that it was a gradual acceptance of them seeing different kinds of children and abilities in the same space as their children. 

It’s something that you don’t see in terms of an investment made in infrastructure to create inclusivity, because it’s so critical to have support from communities. Otherwise that becomes a social barrier to accessing spaces like parks!  

So much so that she said one of the differences in maintenance of Infinity Park in Chennai and the ones in Bangalore has been how the community living around the park came together to care for it- whether in keeping an eye on what needed repairs, or in ensuring that it remained safe for children.

Kavitha: We would we would tell the parents y’all chill because volunteers are there let them take care of your children playing. You’ll chill. And for them to see that happen, so it had never been that you know, they would be the professionals like your therapist and all who were interacting with them but that was within the profession kind of a contract. But other than that in society, they were not really seeing too many people coming forward to play with their children. So for them, it was not so much the accessibility features which mattered but so but more that they were people people from regular society in a sense, who were willing to play with their kids, who were enjoying play with the kids and who also you know became their friends.

So initially lot of curiosity, you know, people will come they want to know what is happening. They want to know about the disability sometimes in sensitively asked but they were still very curious. To I think over time it moved to you know, okay, they just say they’ve accepted that these kids have as much right to be here as any other kid. Now that anyone opposed it but it was always like, you know, I mean, how come this is something strange something new? We’ve not seen kids like this coming to our park. From there it moved to I mean today it is it’s like it’s like it’s normal. It’s normal for that community to have in their Community park have these kids also come. So I think the points of change are different for different people.

Deepika: When India went into lockdown in March, it turned many things on its head. The outdoors were suddenly inaccessible to all of us and all of us have found ourselves relegated within our homes for months now. Having heard from Kavitha about the tremendous struggle it has been for disability rights activists and the movement to build spaces such as public parks which are genuinely accessible, and when they were beginning to make strides in reclaiming the outdoors – what did this pandemic imply for the disabled community? What has being cut off from the outdoors meant for children with disabilities?  

Kavitha: The whole lockdown seemed like a strange thing and I mean, we’ve never experienced anything like that ever. So I think that phase there was a lot of anxiety and it was also very sudden, you know, usually when there are the holidays, there is a preparation before. Then the children are prepared in school as well as in home. But this was so sudden that there was just no time for that kind of preparation. So one day they were going to school and one day they just stopped going. So I think that initial phase was very unsettling and I think what helped was slowly building a routine. Of course, you can’t really, you know, kind of replace a school routine but really building in routine at home itself was something that that helped.

I mean all of us have been invisibilised in the sense of being within, you know, we’re locked within our homes and we have.. I mean none of us are also accessing any public space other than for very very basic kind of necessity. So that’s been yes that that form of invisibilisation has been more accentuated and for many children, you know, there are therapies or theres school or.their therapy centres have been having some kind of an online program or supporting through an online program. But for many children that’s not been an option and I think for them it is probably much more acute because everything that they needed in terms of, you know, regular and consistent therapy may be lost and that I think would be actually isolating them much much more also because that kind of routine has been completely interrupted.

Deepika: In the absence of access to physical communities of support and care, new coping strategies had to be found. Much of this was now driven by devices but in essence, as Kavitha said, the access to a community of other parents was critical. People to reach out to who you were already connected to in a network.

Kavitha: Really, I mean the only thing that’s made a difference through all these years is the sense of community that one no one had you know, whether it is the community of special parents itself because where you know, you can share your struggles learn from others and so on or it is the larger community of you know, sensitive individuals who kind of support support us through everything that we want to do.

Deepika: One of the other things she said that was crucial was play – the continued presence of play in a child’s life, and being able to reimagine what that could look like. 

Kavitha: Yeah, so I think you know we always talk of play is something which is so important developmentally, which it is. So I mean at as all levels, you know, I mean any early childhood educator or psychologists will tell you about how important and how critical play is for the overall development of the child and you know, even if you’ve seen any of examples a disaster situations one of the first things that interventions, which is kind of, you know, when you’re when you’re in the rehabilitation phase of reconstruction phase one of the first things that you do really is always to look at how can play or education.. play and learning be re-established for children because that is what gives them a sense of normalcy. So I find that even in this period you know somewhere I think play is something that has that would help.

Deepika: She also talked about the difference between her son Ananth’s schedule before and after the pandemic and how they have set up a routine and structure to his day that includes room for play that is fun and open and sans ‘learning outcomes’.

I think we as parents and caregivers should really see how we can bring the outdoors indoors and how can we bring play into the life of the child even being indoors. And when I mean I really mean, you know, free unstructured play which is led by the child which is which which really fulfils a different function. So it’s not about teaching them a game or it’s not about winning and losing, it’s not about you know, it’s it’s not about really becoming another chore as much as just having fun and to find ways for doing that I think is very important in these times because otherwise we’re really losing that sense of connection that we would feel with other people and of course parents can’t replace other children, but really under the circumstances what can you do? 

So I think that’s very important. And I think it’s also important because you find kids are now, I mean, with with learning also moving online, they are spending a lot of time on screen for learning or learning or whatever their education program is. I think even given that for some time away from screens, some down time some kind of, you know, almost recuperation and recovery kind of time – play is very important. So in many ways for the psycho-emotional reasons, I think play has become – I mean it always is crucial – but it is something that we also need to bear in mind.

Deepika: She also talked about the difference between her son Ananth’s schedule before and after the pandemic and how they have set up a routine and structure to his day that includes room for play that is fun and open and sans learning outcomes.

Kavitha: Ananth was going out – he was going out to school, he was going to his classes, he would have a physical trainer would come in the evening and he would go cycling and do a bit of exercise. Now all that was being lost completely because we were all just completely indoors. We started seeing then what is possible. How do we kind of take you know the necessary precautions to stay safe and yet try and see what we can do outdoors.

We all thrive on routine so really to set up some kind of you know, what the day looks like when you wake up in the morning you want a broad idea of what the day looks like. So not being very rigid and not being very regimental about it. But at the same time to have a broad idea of what the day looks like and to communicate that to the child I think is a great practice. The other thing that I spoke about was, you know, you know also engage and connect engage with them bond with them, you know, be for them and with them. Not necessarily, you know, always making some demands of learning for making them teaching them something or making them do a chore. I mean all that’s important but also to have space for really in a sense doing nothing with them.

I think you know the other aspect of play which is very important psycho-emotional is in some sense it’s purposelessness. So that sense of purposelessness in life, you know, but some some bits of your day is also important. 

This is not going away in a hurry and it is going to be for a while and are other spaces of whatever other spaces we’ve had of self-care probably don’t exist today.

So, how do we kind of recreate it and it’s calling for, frankly the pandemic is calling for so much creativity because you have to really think of you can make so much happen within the constraints and maybe that’s how Innovation happens and that’s how we need to look at how can we do things differently and still meet many needs.. the needs of the same the psycho-emotional these are the same but maybe the way we meet them changes in during the course of the pandemic.

Deepika: The reality of the pandemic is that it will hit us all hard in multiple ways. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres just recently  warned that the world faces “a generational catastrophe that could waste untold human potential, undermine decades of progress, and exacerbate entrenched inequalities.” 

Even as measures like lockdowns remain in place, we have to remember what it means for those who are most vulnerable within the city; and to remember to keep intact the learnings and strides made in different social movements. Because what can be a bigger reminder of our fundamental frailty than a pandemic? 

In thinking about disability and how it’s treated and kept so separate from public spaces, when it comes down to it, all our bodies change and have different needs at different junctures. Sometimes it’s old age, but often a lot sooner too. So the question really is how do we design for all sorts of bodies, because disability isn’t really as segregated as it seems. That’s also why universal design is crucial because it takes that into account. As universal design proponents Polly Welch and Stanton Jones write: ‘If universal design recognizes that most individuals have multiple facets of identities, that is, people also characterize themselves in relation to race, class, gender, ethnicity, physical size and sexuality, then the design strategies need to reflect that greater complexity.’

And so I’d like to leave you with Kavitha’s vision of a city that reflects the multiple needs of its citizens, young and old, a space where every child’s right to be outdoors, to play is possible and real.

Kavitha: I think if we are looking at like I was talking earlier about what inclusive play meant. It’s really where play places is when every every person, every child can come and play together. I think a city which is welcoming of every every person every individual every Citizen, I mean that would be inclusive in its broadest sense. Really a place City should have a place for everyone who is there. I mean, it should be meeting the needs of every citizen who is part of that City. I mean city is you know meant for everybody really. So what I mean, I think if you are looking at creating inclusive cities, it would mean are we looking at everyone in the city women, men, children, poor, rich, girl, boy, with with a disability, without a disability. I mean everybody really. A space for everybody in that City. That would be inclusive City.

Outro: To learn more about the work that Kilkili is doing, visit their website: www.kilikili.org.

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In our next episode, we talk to children and their parents to understand how the pandemic has changed their daily schedules and how their finding ways to cope. Do tune it and visit us on www.thecuriocitycollective.org