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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  The age of activity

Our grandparents played in paddy fields, rivers, mango groves and rain.

City-born, we chased our friends around the neighbourhood, climbed trees, scaled boundary walls, picked guavas from a neighbour’s tree, sang...

It’s very different today. During summer vacations, the inbox routinely gets flooded with brightly coloured pop-ups of summer camps and daycare centres that promise to turn your child into every kind of genius, be it in origami, chess or rock climbing.

Given the shrinking open spaces and overwhelming safety concerns, they are a big draw—especially for working parents desperate to find ways to keep their children productively occupied during the summer holidays.

The demand for activity classes is growing rapidly, not just in the metros but in tier 2 and 3 cities as well. “We have a lot more parents enquiring about daycare", says Swati Popat Vats, president of the Podar Education, which runs a network of daycare centres across India. “We are seeing a 20-25% increase in demand in cities like Ahmedabad, Nashik and Mysuru, which used to be totally unheard of."

Experts say that given security concerns and the lack of safe open spaces for children, daycare centres and summer camps are here to stay—but parents must strike a balance. “It’s not that structured activity is all bad," says Natasha Mehta, who counsels children from nursery class to class VIII at the SM Shetty High School in Powai, Mumbai. “Music and sports help build self-esteem and some summer camps offer kids amazing opportunities to learn new things and meet new people. All this helps develop social skills and emotional intelligence."

Experts suggest that the activities be kept informal and free of goals. “Hobby classes are something that children should enjoy without any pressure", says Meena Kothari, clinical psychologist and director of the counselling centre at the Goenka and Associates Educational Trust in Gurgaon, adjacent to Delhi. “The purpose should be fun, so it is nothing like the routine they follow in school the rest of the year."

“Through the year Adrita follows a chart that I prepare which lists her daily activities after school", says Mumbai-based Sarbani Sengupta, a mother with a hectic corporate job. Come April, the system goes out of whack. Adrita, her daughter, is 8 years old and studies in class III.

“Her routine falls into a vacuum and I feel guilty because she starts crying when I leave for work", says Sengupta. She enrols her daughter in elocution, general knowledge and dance classes to keep her engaged through the day. This summer, she is toying with the idea of putting her in daycare.

She contrasts this with her years growing up in Kolkata. “Throughout my holidays I would hit the park first thing in the morning. There was one close to my home and all the kids in the neighbourhood would meet up there," says Sengupta. A freedom she hesitates to extend to her daughter. “For one, I can’t send her down as there is no play area in my building. Besides, the park is far away and most mothers don’t send their kids there either due to safety concerns or the recurring dengue outbreak."

One reason that comes immediately to mind is the lack of open spaces, especially felt in urban metros like Mumbai and Bengaluru, where residential spaces with playgrounds and parks are few. Even when these facilities are available, however, many parents hesitate to send their children out to play.

“Call me paranoid, but I am scared to send her to a public place unaccompanied by my husband or me," says Sengupta. “I feel the times we grew up in were gentler. Maybe it’s just that the media is more pervasive now and we hear of many incidents of abuse and violence. There are three reasons why I feel insecure—the world is more hostile, there is greater awareness of what can happen, and because I am not around most of the time, things are not in my control."

New Delhi-based homemaker Leenika Beri has similar thoughts. “It’s not that the world was totally safe when we were growing up. A number of things happened to me as a child but my mother had no clue such things could happen." Beri, who has eight-year-old twins, ensures her children are always accompanied when they go out to play. They are not allowed to go for sleepovers. “We are far more conscious as a generation but yes, sometimes it does verge on the paranoia".

This fear of things going out of hand is robbing children of some simple, spontaneous joys. Sheetal Srivastava, a full-time working mother based in Mumbai, regrets that her daughters will never experience that sense of gay abandon.

“We held impromptu picnics, staged small plays and dressed up in saris," she says. “My husband, who grew up in the same building where we live now, had 20 kids to play with as a child. Today all the kids are busy in classes. We want to make our children confident but there is also a strong desire to keep them guarded."

Over the years, various studies on children have highlighted the lifelong consequences of the lack of unstructured, free play.

Among the most widely quoted is a 2011 paper in the American Journal Of Play by psychologist Peter Gray, who defines free play as an activity a child undertakes, self-directed and not part of some organized activity.

Freely chosen play, the study says, is a testing ground for life, providing critical experiences that enable children to become confident adults. It helps them find and develop a connection to their own self-identified interests, make decisions, solve problems, follow rules and gain a sense of mastery over their world. It offers enormous psychological benefits, helping to protect children from anxiety, depression, handling emotions and making friends—abilities that are stifled in children today.

“As a child I never felt that I was incapable of doing something," says Mumbai-based Anusha Khan, mother of two girls, 14 and 10. “When I tell my daughters to climb a tree when we are on holiday, their reaction is one of shock, and they say, ‘How can we?’"

Khan, who had an idyllic childhood of “endless cycling and loafing" in Delhi, says those experiences empowered her. She regrets that her children are unable to experience that sense of madness and freedom. Khan has gone against the trend and kept her daughters out of an endless routine of camps and classes even though it means they often lack company—for most of their friends are enrolled in classes.

“Kids are cooped up today," she says. “They may have a crazy imagination and grow wings but our environment is clipping their wings." Would she be willing to let her children roam equally wild and free today? Khan is not so sure. “I have discovered things about myself that horrify me," she says. She is worried that she might not have the same patience and understanding that her parents showed towards her. “When you are a parent, the vulnerability that comes with it is very different. And I don’t believe I would have felt differently if I had two sons."

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Updated: 27 Apr 2015, 04:07 PM IST
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