Fun, not under the sun

Published: Dec 02, 2012, 08:54 IST | Moeena Halim |

Starved of open spaces, Mumbai seems to be moving indoors for recreation. With the temperature adjusted to a comfortable cool, sand replaced by sanitised foam and no sun beating down on your head, these indoor play centres could be an option for kids who don't have playgrounds to run amock in. But can they really serve as a replacement?

Children giggle as they go down the slides, nudge each other while they climb up and down the jungle gym, jump on the trampoline, and race across tunnels — but hang on, this is not a scene from a public park. We’re at the month-old indoor play centre Funky Monkeys, bang in the heart of corporate Mumbai, where the air is conditioned and the sand is replaced by soft foam. Here you’ll find 3,000 sq ft of space dedicated to “unstructured, free play” — a haven for children aged 6 months to 10 years.

Irene Wolf goes down the slide with her four year-old daughter Emma at Lower Parel-based indoor play centre Funky Monkeys. Pics/ Datta Kumbhar

Indoor play was first introduced in Mumbai in 2010, when Happy Planet was set up in an old mill in Kanjurmarg east. The 15,000 sq ft property offers a combination of automated rides, video games and free play zones for toddlers as well as older children. This was the first time a play zone, which includes vertical step climbs, spiral tube slides, a 20 ft high slide, a mini worm train and a trampoline, typically found in outdoor parks, was brought indoors.

Most recently, SMAAASH, another Lower Parel-based entertainment centre, brought the quintessential gully game cricket indoors on November 30. In a city starved of open spaces, can these centres serve as a respite? Moreover, can they compensate for our lack of sanitised, well-maintained public parks and open spaces?

Seven year-old Tanya Syed (right) plays with her friends in the sand pit in her building compound in Worli every evening

“Yes,” says Irene Wolf, nodding vehemently. Wolf, originally from Germany, has been living in Bandra for the past two years. “I bring my four year-old daughter Emma to Funky Monkeys at least twice a week after school. Sometimes I take her to Union Park, which is near our house, but there are too many mosquitoes there. Besides, it is not at all safe because the equipment is rusty and she can get cut. It makes me very nervous. Funky Monkeys is well-maintained and extremely clean. I know that she is absolutely safe here.”

Indoor play zones serve as a great alternative to outdoor activity, believes Nimish Kenia, owner of Happy Planet. “Nowadays, parents are fussier about the heat and the rain. Additionally, there is a lack of open spaces in the city, and having an indoor play area is an absolute necessity,” he adds.

Children enjoy the mini worm train at Happy Planet in Kanjurmarg east. pic courtesy/happy planet

Supplement, not a substitute
Child psychiatrist Dr Pervin Dadachandji, however, is more circumspect. “If we think about it practically, at least this kind of play encourages physical activity. We don’t have that much open space in the city, but every child must spend some time at play. In the case of indoor play, something is better than nothing. But on the other hand, the child is not exposed to enough sunlight and fresh air,” says Dadachandji. She acknowledges that the city’s pollution levels allow little fresh air for citizens to breathe in, but adds that a lack of sufficient exposure to the sunlight has led to a majority of Mumbai’s children suffering from a Vitamin D deficiency.

For Mansi Zaveri, mother of 4 year-old Aanya, there is no question of replacing outdoor play with an indoor alternative. But she doesn’t rule out the option altogether. “Indoor play is not a substitute, but an addition. The outdoors has a charm of its own. I take my daughter to Mahindra Park at Breach Candy as often as I can. But places like Happy Planet and Funky Monkeys provide a different environment for children to enjoy themselves in,” says Zaveri, who maintains Kids Stop Press, a blog for mothers and children.

An all-weather option
Although Zaveri refrains from endorsing these entertainment zones, she agrees that they are a great option during our bad weather — both monsoon and humid summer — months.  SMAAASH, which aims to encourage cricket enthusiasts to rediscover the cricketer in them, allows you to play the sport without the disadvantage and discomfort of the sun and sweat. “The idea is to provide a controlled environment where you can play without feeling tired. In fact, the temperature control keeps you energised and lets you have more fun. Those who would feel lazy about playing in the 33 degree heat, will jump at the opportunity. It will encourage people to turn sportsman from spectator,” says Shripal Morakhia, founder of SMAAASH. While Funky Monkeys welcomes those below 4 ft, SMAAASH allows you to pad up only if you’re above the 4 ft bar.

Morakhia’s concept includes more than just a controlled environment. Through his use of technology, he offers a cricketing experience no maidan possibly can. Choose any one of the seven batting lanes, pad up, pick up the bat, wear a helmet, and get ready to face Shane Warne, Lasith Malinga or Wasim Akram, among others. The screen in front of you will show the bowler running towards you, just as the ball pops out of the bowling machine. “Shane Warne might have bowled his ball of the millennium just once. But at SMAAASH, you can bat to that ball as many times as you like,” laughs Morakhia, referring to the ball Australian bowler Shane Warne had delivered to England’s Mike Gatting during the 1993 Ashes Test series at Old Trafford, Manchester.

Building sandcastles
Ruchi Syed is wary of the idea of replacing outdoor sport with indoor activity. “Playing outdoors is an absolute must,” believes the mother of seven year-old Tanya. “Tanya plays downstairs in the building compound every day. There is a huge group of children that gather downstairs every day. Luckily, most parents in the building encourage their children to play in the sand pit.” Syed, a resident of Worli, deems the soft play at places like Funky Monkeys and Happy Planet insufficient for the gross motor development of children. “Playing in the mud and sand is extremely important, which is something Tanya enjoys just as much as enjoys indoor sport,” she says.

Although she can’t provide sand or mud, Binita Putcha assures us that the toddler zone at Funky Monkeys allows children to play and learn. “Our engaging wall panels are a great way for toddlers to develop their fine motor skills,” she says.
Then there are others like Colaba resident Nidhi Multani, who don’t have the luxury of the open space Syed’s building in Worli offers. She is frustrated by the lack of open spaces near her house. “Even spaces that have been reserved for public play areas are now being encroached upon,” says Multani, mother of two. Funky Monkeys comes as a respite for this family, whose weekend outings are usually restricted to malls.

Not for the masses
“In a city so desperately short of outdoor options, we can’t really complain about these indoor spaces coming up,” says Nayana Kathpalia, co-convenor, NGO Citispace. “The negative bit about these centres, however, is that they are a bit too expensive for the masses.”

While a batting session at SMAAASH can cost you a minimum of Rs 500 for 15 minutes, a round of cricket at the maidans in the city is completely free. An hour at Funky Monkeys costs Rs 370, while Happy Planet charges Rs 200-250. “It creates a class distinction,” adds Kathpalia. “But it is the government that has failed miserably at protecting our open spaces. After all, things evolve out of a need. The government ought to be providing well-maintained public open spaces which can be used by everyone.”

“Open spaces are essential for the physical, mental and psychological wellbeing of children. The ratio of open spaces to people in Mumbai is absolutely deplorable as per by National Building Code,” adds Neera Punj, convenor, NGO Citispace. Both Punj and Kathpalia have been fighting for the reservation of open spaces in the city for years. The need for open spaces cannot be negotiated, asserts Punj.
“While these indoor recreation areas are climate-controlled and pollution-free, nothing can replace the concept of being one with nature,” feels Kathpalia.

“An open environment encourages the use of imagination. Playing ball or other outdoor games with friends or family is healthier for the child — it exhilarates the child, makes him/ her sweat better and produces seratonins and endorphins,” says psychiatrist Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla. As we watch Emma Wolf go down the slide at Funky Monkeys, we wonder if this place can match a greener, sunlit, natural play zone.  

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