The right to play

2011-10-13 00:00

FARHANA Vally’s dream is to allow children to be free by giving them the right to play safely. And she is so close to achieving her dream.

But she is not just a dreamer, she is a practical person with her feet on the ground, so when she went to speak to the people at city council five years ago about her Growing Parks proposal they listened and gave her idea the thumbs up. But somehow this well-intentioned idea has hit a pothole which threatens to disrupt things.

“I have up to 10 kids playing at my house at any given time,” says Vally explaining where her motivation came from. “We have a sensory garden, rabbits, a trampoline, a horse swing, hoops and climbing ladders hanging from an enormous tree in the garden that is 100 years old. We have ropes they can swing from and the neighbourhood kids are always in the garden. It’s madness, but great fun.”

Her home is like a magnet to the local children who come to play and use the play equipment. Vally doesn’t mind noise as long as it is “happy noise”. Her rules are simple — no bullying and make it up as you go along.

“I trained as an occupational therapist. We would take the kids to Alexandra Park but any outing there was fraught with dangers. First you would have to scan for broken bottles­ and sharp objects and then clean up the cigarette butts. Most of the play equipment was damaged or broken.

“On one occasion the two older kids were sitting on the see-saw going up and down; my husband was helping the smaller child off, and the other child got off and the metal swung around and hit him in the face, as the pole was not securely attached.”

Playgrounds for children were removed from the Msunduzi Municipality’s agenda soon after the regime change in local governments after 1994. The municipality said it did not have the budget for new equipment and the Parks and Gardens Department decided it was safer to remove all old and rusting play equipment, leaving most park areas empty.

Vally began to think about what she could do to change this situation and came up with her Growing Parks idea, which was to provide children in Pietermaritzburg with a well-equipped area where they could play. Her first hurdle was finding a suitable location. In keeping with council bylaws she had to have the site environmentally assessed to see that it was suitable for children. The Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs suggested Settlers Park near Grey’s Hospital as the first project.

Vally also has a letter dated 2010 signed by ward councillor Dave Ryder saying that he would support her endeavour. She says he has known about her intentions since 2008. In recent months, however, he has done an apparent about-turn, saying that the municipality had kept him in the dark. Local residents have accused her of hijacking their space and chopping down valuable trees.

She says her plans to utilise the park for children do not include the whole area. There will still be open space for walkers and dog walkers.

In August, Vally started rehabilitating the area in consultation with conservation organisations and the Parks and Gardens Department. She began with the removal of three jacaranda trees, which are alien invasive trees, in line with the Msunduzi Environmental Management Framework. She has approached nurseries and other organisations to sponsor the planting of indigenous trees.

She has already paid workers to remove 250 bags of rubbish from the park. Despite some negative publicity she intends to continue with her plans. She has raised funds for the project and she has a budget.

“I am just a mother with an enthusiasm for rearing kids who love to play. Playing freely, without set rules builds neuromuscular co-ordination and social linguistic skills that allow the formulation and articulation of social rules and norms, and stimulate the imagination through self-directed play. What better way than through playing in a safe environment.”

Vally, a Masters student at UKZN, has a serious face, but her dark eyes sparkle with fun and she has a laugh that is infectious. One gets the idea that she really knows what it is like to have fun.

She relates how she once went to buy some boulders from a quarry near Underberg. The idea was that her children would climb on the big stones once they were in her garden. She selected two massive rocks weighing six tons, but when the truck delivering them arrived it could not fit through the gate. It became a comedy and Vally giggles when she remembers how her husband’s friend had to dismantle the electric gate so that her boulders could be delivered.

She has great plans for Settlers Park, including trampolines, a maze designed by her nine-year-old son, a jumping castle and a sensory­ garden. She also wants the toddlers to have their own safe zone and appropriate jungle gyms. She wants the park to be free for all, but may have to charge for things that use electricity, like the jumping castle. “I also want to have a security guard on duty and a playground supervisor.

“Today’s kids are often stuck watching television and playing those noisy games on a screen, or even on their cellphone. It’s bad for their perceptual and socioemotional development.

“Some people think play time is a luxury, but it is vital. For children it is empowering. In a society where so many people suffer from the “locked-door syndrome” we need to give children spaces where they can be free to play.

“I believe parents will want to take their children to the park and everyone will enjoy a sense of community. If this park works, then I can raise more money to develop more in other areas.”

Vally is driven by her strong sense of humanity and her desire to be a good mother. As a teenager she worked as a volunteer at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital during school holidays for three years. Her job was to be a play woman for the sick kids. It broke her heart to see how the children would stare longingly out the windows.

She recalls: “One little boy had a tracheotomy, and he was not allowed out of the ward or his open wound would get infected. I would try to distract him and play games, but he wanted to go out those doors. It was heartbreaking.”

The United Nations Convention on the Rights Of The Child — Article 31— says that every child has the right to play.

If Vally has her way, the children of Pietermaritzburg will get to do that.

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