Akshata Uchil, 9, runs after her father, Anil. “I want a bigger cycle,” she says.
Anil, 41, borrows one from a friend. Akshata clambers on, and with a little difficulty, gets it moving.
Akshata’s friend, Ishaan Suresh, is also riding a cycle. “You can’t get away for me,” he yells, pedaling faster. “We are playing cycle chor-police, a game I invented.”
They are cycling on Relief Road in Santa Cruz (W), but neither of them lives there. Akshata has come there from her Bandra home, and Ishaan from Juhu. Akshata’s apartment block has no place to play, while parking lots have gradually eaten up open spaces in Ishaan’s housing colony. Each time he got on to his bicycle there, he had to stare down the intimidating glares of drivers guarding their employers’ cars.
But today, Suresh can ride as far and as fast as he wants because a few parents who are cycling enthusiasts have decided to take things into their hands.
Starting today, Children’s Day, they will bring their children to Relief Road on two Sunday mornings every month and get them to cycle. They will ensure that the children can take over the street and cycle until noon.
“If there is no place for children to play, we will make some,” says a determined Firoza Suresh, 39, an entrepreneur and an avid cyclist.
Across the city, small groups of parents like Suresh and Uchil are trying to come up with ways to get their children out of the house and use the few open spaces left in the city or carve new ones.
So while children in Santa Cruz will ride their bicycles today, tomorrow, three- and four-year-olds will get together at Amarsons Garden in Breach Candy to plant potatoes.
About four months ago, five like-minded mothers from south Mumbai decided they needed a way to get their children outdoors.
“The idea is to keep them away from movies and malls,” says Manjari Garodia-Kapadia, 37, a homemaker. The fact that her son can identify a few plants is just a bonus, and perhaps an oddity in city where most students can list the reasons for global warming but few can identify trees in their backyard.
In Thane’s Hiranandani Estates, a huge housing complex, parents are using both bicycling and gardening to get their children out and about. About three months ago, a group of them began taking their children out to explore gardens in the area.
Parents a few buildings away also got several second-hand bicycles for communal use. The children can borrow them to run visit friends and run errands.
“If you leave kids alone they will stay glued to the television,” said Swati Divekar, 36. “Earlier my son wouldn’t mingle. The activity has helped him open up.”
Six months ago, more than 200 parents and children in Chedda Nagar in Chembur marched through their locality dressed in sports outfits and waving posters urging parents to send their children to play.
“When children play they fulfill a social need to be with peers,” said Anuradha Sovani, clinical psychologist at the department of applied psychology at Mumbai University. “These groups are microcosms of the real world. Without realising it, children learn how to settle fights, how to negotiate and how to share It also keeps them active.”
Dr Samir Dalwai, developmental pediatrician and director at New Horizons Child Development Centre, Goregaon, in says playing outdoors not gives children physical exercise but also teaches them team spirit, cooperation and social skills.
“Staying boxed-up in the house gives them a false sense of security that crumbles the first time they face a real problem,” he said.
Back at Relief road, Akshata is still trying to pedal the adult bicycle. Her tiny feet dangle in mid-air when she props herself on the seat.
“Like most parents, children have begun leading sedentary lives these days,” said Anil as he lets go of Akshata’s cycle, who speeds away.