Play is crucial for children’s happiness and well-being, for them to develop motor skills, for their cognitive and emotional development, and for them to understand their environment, believe experts. Restricting play opportunities can negatively impact children’s life experiences and physical and mental health, they say.
Few cities worldwide have implemented play masterplans, with Barcelona, Spain and Istanbul, Turkey notable exceptions. Barcelona implemented its Public Space Play Plan Horizon-2030 in mid-2018, mapping all its play areas. The city also did a qualitative assessment on the size and the nature of play opportunities. Similarly, the Istanbul Play Master Plan identified play areas in the city and assessed them on the quality of accessibility and playability.
However, under the Smart City Mission, cities in India are planning to implement more such areas within their urban sprawl.
Jabalpur is set to be the first Indian city with city planning focussed on children. Officials in the Madhya Pradesh city said their planning intervention is aimed at making Jabalpur safe and accessible for children. “One of the goals is to have play opportunities for children within 500 metres from any area in the city,” Jabalpur Smart City CEO Chandrapratap Gohil said, adding that the masterplan will likely be ready within six months.
Other cities that have similar proposals in the works include Pune and Bhubaneswar.
The preparation of the “play masterplan” in Jabalpur is an extension of the three-year “’Nurturing Neighbourhoods Challenge” (NNC), launched under the Smart Cities Mission.
The mission, along with experts at the National Institute of Urban Affairs — a think tank operating under the aegis of the ministry of housing and urban affairs (MoHUA) — and non-government entities, introduced the idea of making children-friendly neighbourhoods in cities, noting the absence of facilities in the public realm that cater to children in the age group of 0-5 years, especially those belonging to the low-income group who live in informal settlements.
As part of NNC, Jabalpur, during the Covid-19 pandemic, converted 260 square metres of barren ground at a primary healthcare centre into a children-friendly space. An existing structure was converted into a children’s immunisation centre. A changing station, lactating room and a diaper vending machine were installed, and playful waiting areas were reclaimed from parking space.
Jabalpur also made changes to the city’s interstate bus stand, where the waiting area was made child-friendly, and dedicated spaces for breastfeeding were created.
Separately, a one-acre park was transformed with the help of residents to create age-specific play spaces, sensory trails, plantation, and shaded seating spaces.
These spot interventions were made following a guideline developed by MoHUA and the Bernard van Leer Foundation (BvlF), a global charity working for child-friendly initiatives. It suggested how places where children live, learn, play and move can be improved.
Kanak Tiwari, programme director (urban strategy unit) at NIUA, said by making child-friendly cities, cities can become all-inclusive.
“For the first few years, children are restricted indoors and their freedom of movement is curtailed, which impacts their holistic development and growth. All these interventions to improve streetscapes are significant. By making cities child-friendly, we make cities good for almost everybody including the elderly, the disabled, and pregnant women. So, in spaces if a child feels safe, others will feel the same,” she said.
According to Tiwari, children are demographically significant: a 2016 baseline study conducted by NIUA and BvLF found that 128.5 million children live in urban areas and about 7.8 million children under the age of 0-6 years live in abject poverty and poor conditions in informal settlements in India.
This planning process, however, does not stop at playgrounds or parks.
Mapping exercises such as those undertaken in Jabalpur from a child-friendly perspective can make the city administration aware of the existing gaps. Tiwari cited an example that during the preparation of the Delhi 2041 Master Plan, a mapping exercise found that many schools in the national capital were located further than a 10-minute distance from fire stations.
The need for structural changes
The play master plan in Jabalpur aims to bring in some structural changes in how the city develops every new piece of infrastructure. These play opportunities can be public spaces such as parks, playgrounds, bus waiting areas, primary healthcare centres, and anganwadis, explained Sambhav Ayachi, assistant commissioner of Jabalpur Smart City.
The programme was developed keeping in mind that the cognitive, physical, and social growth of humans is most crucial between the ages of 0-5 years. “Other than play areas, the play masterplan will also have guidelines on making every infrastructure aspect of the city meet the needs of children and their caregivers,” he said, adding that special priority will be given to wards in the city dominated by low-income settlements and slums that lack adequate open and green spaces.
“We will also remove encroachment from government lands to create child-friendly play opportunities. In areas, where there is a dearth of space at all, decisions can be taken to rent private places to create these play spaces,” he added.
Pune is another city that has benefitted from a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the municipality and BvLF in 2018. As part of the initiative, over the last two years, 11 individual spot projects at streets, parks, and government hospitals have been modified to improve the availability of safe and secure waiting spaces for caregivers and activity areas for children.
One such tactical urbanism intervention was taken at the Shivarkar garden crossing, where two-way traffic limited the safe, independent mobility of young children and caregivers. By conducting stakeholder discussions with residents, traffic police, and the local corporator, a decision was taken to create a high-raised or tabletop pedestrian crossing, with colours and patterns to create awareness and perception towards safety. A permanent median was erected to deter U-turns at the crossing.
Surveys conducted after the intervention saw drastic improvements in pedestrians feeling safe to cross the road.
Pune has also incorporated a child-friendly master checklist in its planning in May 2023 for all upcoming projects in the city. With this, all projects in the city should ideally be safe, accessible, inclusive, playful, and green. The checklist acts as a guiding toolkit for choosing ITC-friendly materials and design elements.
Aamir Patel, U95 Pune coordinator, said, “We have also formed creche and day-care centre guidelines, which work as a standard for all child facilities across the city. Another aspect of the Urban95 programme is the participatory and training initiatives for municipal officers of different departments, anganwadi workers, children, and their caregivers to sensitise them about the needs of children.”
Mapping children’s amenities
The Bhubaneswar Urban Knowledge Centre, which was set up by the Smart City Mission with the support of BvLF, conducted a city-wide scale to map neighbourhoods of all its 57 wards and all children amenities like hospitals, nursing homes, parks, anganwadis, schools in them. It manages a database of expectations and complaints from children and their caregivers about issues of pedestrian safety, transport to school, adequate streetlights, toilet facilities among others to propose new projects.
Along the same lines, the Bhubaneswar Development Authority is in the process of mandating all public premises under its jurisdiction child friendly. A 400-page draft dictating how public spaces including those in privately-owned spaces like malls and mass housing projects should be designed will be released in weeks’ time.
Sambit Shovan, assistant town planner for BDA said that this law once notified will also have mandates for private developers to have child-friendly aspects in places like malls and private bus stations.