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Public spaces for children: Too few to count

Public spaces for children: Too few to count

Our cities are expanding, filling up, going higher and digging down. But have we left our kids behind in the rush?

“Everyone needs dedicated spaces, but most of all children," says Sujata Noronha, an educationist based in Panjim. “They come into this world which is already set up and have to find their space within it. Also, a large majority of children grow up with no spaces that are designed for them to ‘be’."

It’s not just that there are no exciting places to go to. Cities everywhere are also perceived to be less safe for kids today. Richard Louv, an American writer, mentions research which suggests that the distance children can travel alone outside their homes in the US has shrunk to one-ninth of what it was in 1970.

So what happens if children have nowhere to go (and nothing to do)? Well, television happens. “A generation of children is growing up and learning about the world watching television, rather than by ‘doing’ things with their bodies and minds," rues Noronha.

The many weaknesses of Indian urban management show up most sharply in spaces for play. Many of the spaces reserved for playgrounds remain improperly designed and maintained. Play equipment for smaller children is rarely attractive and safe. Worse, much of it is usually of a standard design that does not challenge children in new and varied ways.

I visited a children’s play area in Kohima, assembled for the annual Hornbill festival in 2007. It showed that stimulating design can be inexpensive, fun, friendly, inclusive and eco-sensitive. Built with locally available bamboo and thick nylon rope, it offered attractive and manageable challenges for children of different ages. Some pieces appeared deceptively easy to begin with—such as walking up a ramp of bamboos laid across—and only revealed their complexity once you started climbing. Others were obviously complex (but enjoyable) challenges—such as the ladder where each “step" was a vertical bamboo suspended from two ropes, and which swung as you stepped on it!


Children perhaps learn more outside school. In India, we just don’t seem to be able to set up institutions such as the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM), New York. This is not a museum as much as it is an active learning and exploration centre. It has a range of exhibits and activities—from panels and interactive monitors about the history of ancient Greece to a wonderful “backyard" where children can play with water in different ways to intuitively understand its possibilities. Our own science centres, or the likes of HAL’s Aerospace Museum in Bangalore, have the core content to engage little minds, but never try to create a stimulating environment. Exceptions exist, such as Bookworm in Panjim, the children’s library and activity centre started by Sujata Noronha and Elaine Mendonca. In its three years of existence in a two-bedroom apartment in the city, the personally-financed Bookworm has impacted the lives of 600 children. Noronha and Mendonca also systematically lend mini-libraries of books out to rural schools in the city’s hinterland.


Nature is perhaps the most critical resource for the child to explore. And each city or place has its own unique resources—Hyderabad, its rocky landscape, Bangalore, its fast-vanishing lakes, or Mumbai, its big beaches. Less urban landscapes offer fields and forests of varying sizes. These can be seen as potential spaces of exploration rather than fertile soil for concrete jungles.

And if there is no “nice" nature around, Nek Chand has shown in Chandigarh what can be done with waste construction material. Just behind the serious high court building, Nek Chand, once a road engineer with the government, quietly (and initially without official sanction) built, over two or three decades, the Rock Garden, a wonderland out of waste from construction work. Perhaps unrivalled anywhere (and superior in some ways to Antoni Gaudi’s famous Parc Guell in Barcelona) in its unique whimsicality, and the fantasy landscape it offers, the Rock Garden needs more monetary and managerial support.


Most schools feel like the factories that their history is closely tied to. The other choice is the expensive and deadening five-star ambience of elite schools everywhere. But not at Kids’ Foundation in Imphal—its very construction is an act of optimism in a land scarred by violence. Its concept is unusual. The school has classrooms, a playspace, an art gallery and even an artist-in-residence. After school in the evening, the playspace is open at a small fee for all children (and accompanying adults). The grounds as well as the architecture are colourful, interestingly shaped and have a variety of things to engage the attention of the child. There’s even a birdcage in the veranda.


Kala Akademi in Panjim, designed by Charles Correa, is a cultural institution but also a place many children ask to go to just to enjoy its many features—a large lawn by the river, many seat clusters that are like play equipment, a ramp to run up and down, and the generally colourful ambience. By attracting children and adults alike, it also becomes a place where children can freely begin to connect with the adult world while being entirely at home in public. Perhaps the Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck was right. “If cities are not meant for children, they are not meant for citizens either. If they are not meant for citizens—ourselves—they are not cities."

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Enough gloom and doom: There’s a prediction from a leading colour source that cheerful and sunny yellow will be the influential colour of 2009. Pantone, which provides colour standards to design industries, specifically cites mimosa, a vibrant shade of yellow illustrated by the flowers of some mimosa trees as well as the brunch-favourite cocktail, as its top shade for the new year. In general, Pantone expects the public to embrace many tones of optimistic yellow. “I think it’s just the most wonderful symbolic colour of the future," says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute.AP


Le Corbusier astonished the world with his ruthlessly machined surfaces and concrete acrobatics. But his biographer seems more interested in the fact that he had mother problems. Nicholas Fox Weber’s ‘Le Corbusier: A Life’ claims to be the first full-length book on the architect’s life. Weber contrasts the technocrat architect with the private man who revelled in a rustic hideaway near Monaco with his lively wife. In the nude, he would paint murals of figures cavorting during sex.

‘Le Corbusier: A Life’ is published by Knopf (821 pages, $45, around Rs2210). ‘Le Corbusier Le Grand’ is published by Phaidon (768 pages, $200). Bloomberg


Exactly 64 years after the complete devastation of Kohima, Nagaland now has a World War II museum. The museum, constructed by the state art and culture department at Naga Heritage Village, Kisama, 10 km south of the state capital, houses rare photographs, memorabilia, audio-visual clippings, arms and ammunition. Inaugurating the museum last week, chief minister Neiphiu Rio said the museum is intended to convey the folly of war, its cost and destructiveness in terms of lives and property, and the need for peace and brotherhood.PTI


A list of some cultural institutions in New York for children:

• American Museum of Natural History (

• Metropolitan Museum of Art (

• Cloisters Museum & Gardens (

• Morgan Library & Museum (

• New York Historical Society (

• Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum (

©2008/ The New York Times

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