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Diamond in the rough: potential of ordinary places for free and imaginative play

Khirkee is a special place for children. I have seen more free and imaginative play unfold here than in any other neighborhood in Delhi in a long time. Children in Khirkee have several places to choose from to play in their everyday environment. This ranges from the manicured garden like setting inside the large Khirkee park to the dusty barren rectangular DDA park, from the vast rough grounds of Satpula to the sunken rock strewn open spaces around the Khirkee mosque, which is a (un)protected monument. Of course in addition to these open spaces and parks that are typically used only in summer evenings, the large nearly car free streets near home, squares and courtyards offer another layer of immediate closer home anytime play spaces for children.

Play @ Khirkee Masjid (Quila or Fort to the children)
Play @ Khirkee Masjid (Quila or Fort to the children)
Play outside parks
Play inside dusty, barren parks
Play in Streets, of course cricket but also…
Play in streets using construction materials. These boys were sailing this ship to Japan!

However, not every space affords or allows free and imaginative play. These are typically to be found in places that have ample loose parts such as rocks, stones, scraps, construction waste, plants and weeds etc. or malleable parts such as soft or wet earth, water. In Khirkee places that had these features and allowed children to engage with the physical environment through play were the rough grounds of Satpula, the sunken rock strewn open spaces around the Khirkee mosque and the dusty barren rectangular DDA park that allowed access to the children from Panchsheel Vihar.

The children to the left of the picture are busy making “aloo chaat” by making potatoes out of clay and other “chaat” ingredients. The children to the right of the picture are engineering a water channel to connect the many puddles that had formed after a nights rain in the rough grounds of Satpula.
Radha making her little garden with loose parts in the rough open space outside the Khirkee Mosque.

The largest and only open space that had received considerable landscape design attention, care and strict everyday supervision, is the one place where children have to observe the most rules. This is also the place with the most limited repertoire of games, as recounted by children, among all other places in Khirkee. A gentleman comes around at 6pm everyday with a thick wooden staff in his hand. He is the self appointed custodian of the Khirkee Park. He yells at children and orders them off the grass. The children have mastered his routine. They sit down on the raised platform of the fountain or on the ground near it where the gossiping mothers squat on the ground. This man also seeks out adults who he knows does not live in Khirkee village and asks them to leave the park. The resident’s welfare association (RWA) of Khirkee of which this man is an active member clearly wants to protect their investment in the designed landscape of the park from children’s play and outsiders.

The enemy of play in Khirkee Park!
Perhaps inspired by the “enemy of play”, one child during a workshop, where children designed their dream playground with whatever they found in their surroundings, made up this story for a puppet show.

“I want to say that there was a very cunning king who used to torture people. So one day one boy got very annoyed and went to kill the king.

For making these puppets, we need to cut this sheet into their shapes and tie strings to their heads and thus our toy will be made for playing.”

What chance does free and imaginative play have in designed landscapes? None it would seem from the experience of children’s play in Khirkee. Well-designed and well-cared for landscapes in designated parks curb play in any form at least temporarily when adult supervisors actively prevent children from playing. According to these supervisors and framers of park rules, parks are meant for walking along designated paths or sitting quietly in pre-approved areas to enjoy nature. But the worst thing about designed parks is the lack of inclusiveness; poor children from nearby slums have no hope for access in the green paradise of the Khirkee Park. These children enjoy access in the park adjacent to the DDA flats to the north of the Khirkee Park.

This DDA park is also a designed park—a dusty, barren rectangular patch with high boundary walls, a few peripheral trees and a short path connecting the two centrally placed gates on the longer sides. Children have access here because there is no self-appointed supervisor nor has a RWA made an investment in ornamental landscape and gardeners in this park. However a group of women from the DDA flats are currently threatening to take over the west half of the patch for laying a lawn. This is the area where free play unfolds. Middle class children from the DDA flats who do not join the cricket gang on the eastern half of the patch reported 12 different games that they play here. The children who come from the slum pocket to the north of the park, use the same western half of the patch to play 32 different games. More importantly both the middle class children and the children from the slums have the freedom to manipulate the physical environment of this park through play. They also have the freedom to bring in loose parts from outside here for creating play territories and landscapes on the barren patch. And it is a fact that across the landscape of Khirkee we found the poorer children to be much more innovative in their use of the affordances of the environment to create new games and play territories.

To put a spin on George Bernard Shaw: “Some children see things as they are and ask why. Others dream things that never were and ask why not”. We found the children, who come from homes battling with different forms of poverty and subject to often acute material deprivation, to be most curious about the world and creative in their use and manipulation of the urban environment. They not only dreamed, but actively made their own worlds with whatever was available in their surroundings.

The mother of these two young children sells corn in the cob outside the park where they were photographed. These children used a stick lying around to devise a game that we had not seen other children in this park play: riding a horse!

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