Apologies for a very long post. I have a lot to say on this topic.
If you make it to the end of this post, I must congratulate you for your patience; if you don’t, I understand.
Some of my fondest memories were created while at play. The first sand castle, the first friends, the silly games we invented and the silly rules we applied to them, the races I won, the ducks I fed at the local pond or the dragonflies and fireflies I chased after in the twilight. If it were upto me, the whole day would be playtime. I would not return home, even to eat. I was that happy in the playgrounds and the local parks that abounded in my locality.
Growing up in a city like Delhi probably helped in that regard. Every square kilometre had at least one park, and if not a park, then a small open area where people would gather (mostly elders in the community) and kids could play. They weren’t well maintained, sure, but we kids didn’t bother about that as long as we had some grass growing where we could toss a ball or chase after each other. Back then, cell phones hadn’t hijacked our lives, there weren’t even that many landlines at homes, and no cable TV, which meant that if you were at home, there was no other pastime than to venture out and mingle. The best place to do that was at the local parks. And commendably, there still are a lot many of them in the main city of Delhi. Just not that many people in those parks anymore, but I’ll get to that later.
Then I came to Pune, and even though everyone around me told me that the city was greener than Delhi, I was confused about where I could go for a simple thing like taking a stroll. Sure the city becomes lush green when it starts raining, but that’s only in parts of it, and you can’t take a stroll on city streets in India, believe me. As far as local parks and open areas are concerned, Pune falls woefully short in providing its people this small luxury.
In the 13 years that I’ve been in this city, I have seen hundreds of new buildings and commercial complexes sprouting up all over, some of them eating into the green cover of the city, but hardly any parks or recreational spaces coming up. The city building laws require builders of apartment complexes to designate an area as a dedicated playarea for kids, but that hardly translates to a decent play area, even in large apartment complexes. Most of the time these play areas exist only on paper, while in reality they are eventually converted into parking spaces, or dumping grounds or are kept out of bounds for kids because the garden must be maintained (like at my in-laws’ apartment complex). I was astounded to find out that kids were not allowed to play in some play or garden areas because the gardens must ‘look pretty’ all the time. Excuse me? Then where should those kids play? Out on the roads?
But it’s not as if there’s any kids to play in these illusory ‘play areas’. Another odd thing I noticed, over a period of years, was the lack of kids in the playgrounds. Is our population decreasing? Nope. Last I checked we were still the second most populated nation in the world, only a hair’s breadth away from overtaking China, with around 30% of our population below the age of 15! Then why aren’t there any kids outside in the evenings, like we used to throng our playgrounds thirty years ago? Where is that cacophony of squeals and screams enlivening a residential area, that I grew up listening to?
The more disturbing trend than the diminishing playgrounds, is the diminishing childhood of our children.
A few weeks back a friend, who’s child is a 7 year old, came over for tea and we started talking about how kids these days seem to be involved in too many activities, aside from school. She too confessed to spending thousands in ‘exposing’ her child to as many ‘extra-curricular activities’ as possible. And she’s not the only one. I know several other parents who take their kids out for daily ‘extra-curricular classes’ – to dance, swim, to horse-riding, art classes, tennis classes, craft classes. Then there’s the dreaded tuition classes (cram schools in India are called that) where a child could spend another 2-3 hours, sometimes starting at an age as early as 8 years! My own help sends her older kid to tuition classes apart from his regular school for another 2 hours. Her reasons however, are different. She’s illiterate and can’t help her child with homework. But what about educated parents? I understand if your child needs help in High School with tougher subjects, but really, tuition classes at Grade 1 or 2? Is this not our own failure? And what are our schools teaching our kids that they need tuitions too at such an early age?
When I was in school and started falling behind in mathematics, my mother finally hired a tutor to help me with the subject, because she was unable to help me with it. That was in 9th grade. I remember being horrified, because not many kids my age needed ‘help’ from tutors outside of school. Indeed, kids of my generation have grown up feeling that you only needed tuitions if you were weak in a subject. Otherwise school was good enough for our ‘educational needs’, curricular or extra-curricular. Generally, this meant no tuitions before High school AND no extra-curricular or activity classes. Our activities were all played out on the playgrounds.
But now things have changed so much. Now tuition classes and activity classes are the norm. It’s like the minute your kid starts Primary school, he/she must start, first with activity classes, followed by tuition classes a few years later. When I used to work at a tuition centre while in college, I discovered that some of my most ambitious clients were parents of the youngest lot of kids. Like the parent of an 8 year old who, apart from the 8 + hours her son spent at school, had engaged him at our tuition centre for 2 more hours (for his homework), then would drag him off to his bi-weekly skating or chess classes, and thereafter to an hour of studies at home. Weekeneds were dedicated to art, she would tell me proudly. She used to tell me that he’s the son of so and so, he must become something to deserve being the scion of their family inheritance and some such crap! I used to wonder when the child got the time to be a child!!
Are we failing as parents by not devoting our own time to educate them? Or are we just afraid that our kids will lack the ability to cope up with these competitive times if they aren’t pushed into such activities?
Coming back to the playgrounds, are our play areas dwindling in numbers because there’s no more kids to use them; or are our kids being pushed into extra-curricular activities because we feel that playtime is not sufficient to prepare them for the growing competition in the world?
Who’s fault is it that we don’t have playgrounds and parks anymore in our burgeoning concrete jungles? Is it the fault of those capitalising builders who want to eat up every single square inch of earth to make a mall or a residential complex atop of it; or is it our mistake for not raising a voice over the dwindling number of open areas meant for public recreation in our cities?
I think it’s ours… because where we can cry hoarse about losing a square inch of space to the builder when we purchase a flat, why are we not kicking up a storm over losing out on parks? Why are we not telling our governments that it’s not a mall or a temple, or a low income tenement area that we want on public land, but a green open space that provides us space to mingle, and gives our kids the opportunity to be kids? I feel why these public recreational spaces are being pushed into the background of our developmental plans is because we don’t use them anymore, as adults or even as kids. It’s a shame how physical spaces have lost to virtual spaces like Facebook and Twitter and WhatsApp to meet and greet people!
Bringing it to a more personal level, do I become a bad parent if I don’t send my child to a handful of classes, even after school (the place that should ideally be providing ALL the learning a child ever needs); or do I become a bad parent when I rob her of her childhood by imposing my ideas of ‘creative play’ on her?
Where do we draw the line between exposing our child to every gainful experience and forcing our ideas of ‘play’ on them?
And finally, must every waking hour of a child’s life be devoted to learning itself or should they get time to play and learn at their own pace?
Right now my child is only in Nursery, where she’s expected to play and do some learning on the side. And believe me, my only reason for sending her off to school was so that she could gain some friends. I have enough confidence in myself and my education to know that I can single handedly provide her enough education to prepare her for Primary School and even beyond, if I homeschooled her. But it’s the social part of her upbringing that had me concerned, which is why I started with Nursery.
I’ve mentioned before how we live in an area where there aren’t many kids her age. The 3 kids I know, are too being shipped off to activity classes after Nursery! I have been at my wit’s end to figure out ways to make my daughter socially-active. The lone parent who I had play-dates with for the sake of our kids, has also succumbed to the charms of these classes and sends her 6 year old son to swimming and dance classes, every alternate day. I don’t blame her, really I don’t, because I understand why she was forced to do this, inspite of being staunchly against sending kids to activity centres. It’s because we have no kids and no spaces for our kids to play in! I live in an area that’s otherwise green and is away from heavy traffic and concretization, but has not a single park or even an open area. Resultantly the only (older) kids I see playing in the area, play on the roads where they have to constantly make way for traffic, putting their safety at risk. The nearest park is two kilometres or more away from our place and taking my daughter there everyday means a fair bit of planning for me, unlike how it was in my time when we would just cross the road and the huge District Park and all of it’s 2 square kilometres expanse would be at our disposal.
What is a parent like me supposed to do? Let my child grow lonely or push her into classes as well, even if she eventually grows to hate them because they start to feel like school? Do I give myself the false satisfaction that I’m doing the best for my child by ‘exposing’ her to as many activities as I can cram in her limited hours, or should I tell myself that I’m a bad parent for not giving her my own time and relying on these classes instead?
I understand all of us are well meaning parents who only want the best for our children. Many of us modern day parents are working full time and can’t afford to leave their jobs, just so they can spend ‘quality time’ with their kids and families. Our jobs and the growing competition in the world means that we either plough along and devote ourselves single-mindedly towards achieving a career goal, or risk falling into mediocrity and losing out on career opportunities.
But again, who’s fault is that?
Is it not our fault that we have created an atmosphere today where we can’t help cutting each other’s throats? Is it not our fault that we don’t demand, from our employers, enough time for ourselves and our families?
Is it not our collective responsibility that we do not let ourselves be reduced to being corporate slaves, or slaves to money-mindedness, and instead aim at leading a happy, peaceful and holistic life?
I bet if the entire workforce of a nation decided one day that they should not work beyond a fixed number of hours a day, that they won’t be allowed to take work home, and that they will instead be penalised if they work late, it would not only lead to happier families but also to greater efficiency within those work hours.
The world we have brought our children into today is growing at a very fast pace and is exceedingly competitive. We lament how are kids are losing their childhoods to over exposure, primarily through screen time (though, ironically, right from Nursery our kids are exposed to educational aids played on ‘screens’). We worry that unless they join such classes, or take tuitions, and not just play in an open ground, they won’t be capable of surviving the competition.
But should we not wonder that this competition is perhaps our own creation? That we’ve robbed them of their playtime? That in our attempt at being good parents, we’re actually failures as parents?
Copyright ©2017 Pradita Kapahi.
All rights reserved.