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From waste to play space: the project turning India’s scrap into playgrounds | Global development

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Children of all ages cluster on top of tin cans painted in green, red and yellow embedded in the ground, others hang off a climbing frame made of rubber tubes. Others clamber energetically up a wall of colourfully painted repurposed tyres while some play on giant dominoes.

“Tyres are versatile,” said Pooja Rai. “We use as many as 70 tyres in one playground to build seesaws and slides as well as elephants, octopuses and bikes that keep the children engaged.”

In India, as in many countries, urban spaces are rarely safe for children to play. Gone are the days of creating a cricket ground in the street or playing in neighbourhoods with friends. Many children live in slums and others in crowded urban areas that have little access to space to play. According to a 2016 survey by Edelman Intelligence, young Indians have far fewer opportunities to play outdoors than their parents had.

In 2015, architecture student Pooja Rai was crossing her college campus when she stopped to watch a group of children playing with broken concrete pipes.

Anthill Creations uses some of India’s 31m tons of scrap material otherwise intended for landfill to create playscapes like this one in Burdwan, West Bengal.
Anthill Creations uses some of India’s 31m tons of scrap material otherwise intended for landfill to create playscapes like this one in Burdwan, West Bengal. Photograph: Kalpana Sunder

It inspired her to get together with some friends to build the children a playground. Within two years, demand for play spaces was such that Rai started Anthill Creations, a not-for-profit based in Bengaluru, which builds sustainable, low-cost playscapes, using some of the 31 million tons of scrap material dumped annually at India’s landfill sites.

To date Anthill Creations has built 260 playgrounds in 18 states across India. “Our playgrounds are context specific and use local waste materials like old carts in Odisha. We source our tyres from the scrap market and sometimes have been donated tyres by companies like Michelin and Apollo Tyres,” says Rai.

“Play is such an essential part of a child’s education, which not too many people are concerned about. We believe that every child, whether rich or poor, should get an equal opportunity and access to play, which is important for their holistic development.

“These playgrounds are sustainable and can be built in just five days to a week, with the help of our team and volunteers. Since we often involve the local community in building the playground, there is a sense of ownership and responsibility,” she says.

“What is remarkable about our playscapes is thatthey make for unstructured free play, where the children have a lot of freedom to innovate and invent new games and ways to use the equipment. We have worked with governments and cities in making spaces child-friendly,” says Rai.

Before building starts, Anthill works with local children to find out what they might enjoy in a playground.
Before building starts, Anthill works with local children to find out what they might enjoy in a playground. Photograph: Kalpana Sunder

In Himachal Pradesh, Anthill partnered with Recity, a social enterprise that helps local authorities handle urban waste.

Meha Lahiri, the co-founder of Recity, says: “We are helped by corporates like Nestlé and we work with citizen groups and government bodies in tourist towns like Dalhousie, where the population swells with tourists who litter the town. We empower waste workers and suggest solutions for urban waste management.”

Anthill has worked with many government schools and with the UN on a playground for Rohingya refugees, says Rai, whose team has also developed kits for children to use at home during the pandemic.

“Before embarking on a project, we interact with the students for a few days and find out what they enjoy,” she says. “At [one] government primary school in Bengaluru, children started coming in earlier to play. Absenteeism came down and the children became more focused.

One of those children is Asmitha, 11. “I am excited to go school and play at the new playground in the games period and in the evening too,” she says.

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