Where do our children play? These days, the answer to that question is, unfortunately, indoors, with games on screen that screen real life right out of their lives. If they do venture out, it’ll be into a synthetic, disinfected, plastic environment, where the handwash and sanitiser is close at hand and elbow guards, knee guards, helmets, and soon, no doubt, full little body armour are de rigueur: Where everything is soft to the touch and must not be sharply breakable, possibly inhalable, or in any way be capable of causing the slightest scratch. Where falling off a bicycle is not allowed and an adult will be keeping watch at all times.
But kids, when not being harangued or helicoptered by tiger moms and dads, have better and more daring instincts. Give a child a fancy, if inane, beeping, blipping electronic toy, and let him or her out onto a lawn or park, butt out and watch. Sure, they’ll be thrilled with it at first — but then, all too soon (for the price you paid) they’ll get bored. Either they’ll break it — preferably with a rock — or discard it and start playing with the box it came in, or simply pick up a stick and start running around the park madly with that, yelling their heads off.
The key is to take the child outdoors, into the real world. In a room, yes, the beeping idiotic toy or computer game with its fake explosions and psychedelic graphics will rule the roost — because the child is trapped. Recently, I watched happily fascinated, at a book reading session at Bookaroo, the children’s literature festival in Delhi, two little girls sitting cross-legged right up in the front row. They had no interest in what was being read out: they were completely absorbed in carefully gathering up the sandy soil from the ground in front of them and making little anthills out of it. Occasionally, they would sneak a peek at each other’s anthill to check whose was bigger and see if they could swipe some soil from each other. Then, of course, their mom saw them and pounced, and so to speak, confiscated their little hands and consigned them to the Great Sanitiser.
I guess we were lucky to be kids when we were — back in the ’60s and ’70s; we just had to amuse ourselves with whatever was at hand and were constantly nagged to “go outside and play”. Games had to be invented, rules made as we played (and broken and then fought over) and we did stuff using our hands and feet and whole bodies (if not our heads!) till they were scratched, scraped, bruised and bleeding. Scabs were medals of honour and valour. Imaginations ran riot. A large garden in the complex we lived in, in Madras (as it was called then), would flood every monsoon — and instantly convert itself into the Amazon or Irrawaddy or Brahmaputra. The challenge, of course, was to go sailing in it, in a wooden crate or (foolishly) large cardboard boxes. You ended up with a sunken boat, valiantly wading through. And believe me, this impromptu river had its share of piranha: vicious red ants that would float together in rafts, having being flooded out of their homes. If they swarmed up your shorts…
And I wonder how many of today’s kids will remember as vividly, any computer game they played at age 10, by the time they even reach their teens… There’s no experience, nothing real has happened.
Thankfully, not all parents are so paranoid. Some years back, I watched surprised as the roles were reversed: I’d taken kids (accompanied by their parents) out on a “nature walk” at Teen Murti in Delhi. We came to a grove of invitingly climbable trees. Some of the kids, swarmed up them yelling gleefully, but quite a few hung back. Till their parents stepped in and with helping hands on their bottoms, pushed them up, making encouraging noises all the while. The cheesy grins on those kids’ faces when they got down were worth seeing. (Admittedly, some were grinning out of sheer relief!)
For kids, or for that matter, for us, there really is no better place than being out in the open. So put down this magazine, go out in jungleland and have a blast!
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher. In this column, he will reflect on the eccentricities and absurdities of nature.