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Verve People
August 13, 2019

Gudgudee Is Revolutionising Outdoor Recreation For Children In Indian Cities

Text by Huzan Tata. All Images Courtesy: Gudgudee

Designer duo Aditi Agrawal and Anjali Menon’s studio, Gudgudee, develops recreational areas and products to help make our metros more child-friendly, one playground at a time….

Although India is on the path towards modernising its infrastructure and lifestyle amenities, open spaces and gardens, particularly for kids, to enjoy the outdoors are still few and far between. Now, two NID-graduates are out to change the landscape of play. Aditi Agrawal and Anjali Menon, who started their company, Gudgudee, in 2014, are redefining spaces with fun products — like life-sized drums and macaron-shaped swings — that are a step forward in the world of playground design and suitable for children of varied age groups, needs and skills. On behalf of the duo, Menon talks to Verve about their endeavour…

What was the impetus behind starting Gudgudee and focussing on a niche market in India?
When we were students at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, we visited the Blind People’s Association (BPA) as a part of our research. The BPA doesn’t just cater to the visually challenged, it also offers training and school systems to all kinds of special-needs children. We realised that they participated in many learning and fun activities in the classroom, but they never stepped outdoors to play. This came as a shock to us. We discovered two reasons for this: the social stigma attached to disability, and the fact that the existing play equipment was unsuitable for these kids. So under the guidance of our mentor, Praveen Nahar, we decided to design a space within the BPA’s campus, where the school children, their siblings and other kids could play. We realised that adding a belt, a safety harness or a ramp to the existing swings and slides would not work, as those would end up making the play area exclusive to children with special needs.

So, we started from point zero to explore what ‘play’ really is. We met psychologists, therapists, teachers and parents to understand their perspectives. It is not merely a mindless activity that children indulge in during their free time; play also perfects their gross and fine motor skills, improves their cognitive and imaginative skills, and it helps them learn to negotiate their way through social situations and make friends. Play is as essential as education to a child’s overall development.

The elements we designed for the BPA playground were really appreciated by the staff. This project won us the iF Concept Design Award in Germany. That was a great learning experience and led to the realisation that playgrounds in India have not evolved in the last 30 years. We decided to plunge into the deep end as we believed that we had the tools to solve this issue. Designing playgrounds is the most fun job! It’s a niche market right now, but the demand and awareness is definitely growing.

What’s the story behind the name ‘Gudgudee’?
We wanted a name that’s synonymous with fun, that instantly makes you think of children and laughter. Gudgudee means ‘tickle’ in Hindi, and we thought it was perfect for our brand. It has great recall value, and elicits a giggle from people the first time they hear it.

Why is it important for kids to access open spaces?
While technological devices do help children learn better and faster, their unchecked use can do a lot of harm. Essential social, motor and emotional skills can only be developed in a playground. The problem is that some parents and schools do not know the importance of unrestricted playtime. Unstructured play boosts children’s creativity, their ability to navigate the uncertain, and develop the skills that will be most required in this age of AI (artificial intelligence). It’s been scientifically proven that play boosts academic performance.

What are the main things to keep in mind when designing spaces and products for children?
One needs to remember that the product or space should be relevant and fun. The design has to be age appropriate — children have different developmental needs at different ages, so requirements for play will also vary. We steer clear of cartoon characters and specific stories and imagery. Keeping our products and spaces open-ended allows the children to reinvent them and experience a different outcome each time. This boosts their imagination and encourages them to build narratives on their own. Another important thing is safety. While the spaces need to be safe, if they are too simplified, children can lose interest. There needs to be a healthy amount of challenge involved, for children to feel a sense of achievement. We pack in elements of sensory, cognitive, physical, imaginative and social play in every space we design.

Could you share the biggest challenges you face?
Since we design play elements that have never been seen before, parents are often skeptical about them. But you just have to allow children to interact with the products to show you the numerous ways that they can have fun. Our main challenge has been to fight mindsets. In the beginning, we struggled quite a bit to convince people to invest their money and resources, and think beyond the typical. Now, it’s much easier since we have a few projects under our belt and people see their value.

Take us through your work process. How long does each project take?
We do a site assessment to understand the user group, the number of children and the time they will play. We keep developmental goals and fun aspects in mind. For schools, we try to understand their curricula and pedagogies to be able to design better. Materiality and thoughts about execution go hand in hand. Typically, the design process takes about two months, followed by the execution.

Tell us about any of your unique, out-of-the-box designs.
Most of our concepts are just collated from our memories. Our coloured, life-size lollipops are quite popular, and have been inspired by our childhood. Kids usually like wearing sunglasses with different-coloured lenses, or holding up coloured cellophane sheets to their eyes, fascinated by the changing hues of their surroundings. So, in a similar way, these lollipops allow the children to rotate their screens and see the playground in different colours. It’s really about digging out those little moments of happiness we felt and working with them to create play elements. The thing about designing for kids is that you can almost never predict how they will react. I think that we could learn a lot by just watching children at play and seeing the scope of their imaginations.

Where have you found a high standard of design in outdoor spaces for kids? Where do you think Indian cities fall short?
Austria (where Aditi went for what she calls a ‘playground pilgrimage’, visiting three cities over a week and closely observing the play areas there). What was really great was that each playground had different elements. While there were some common play areas, each space offered the children something new to look forward to. Another important aspect was how child-friendly the city was. Apart from great parks and pockets where kids can play freely, most European cities give a lot of importance to pedestrians and public transport. Wide pavements allow children to walk to school safely or let mothers with babies walk to the supermarket, and public transport services allow baby strollers to get on easily. These small things make the most difference and make a city much safer and healthier for children.

In India, we really need to start thinking of cities for children. If we factor them into our designs, it would also be much safer for the elderly and people with special needs as well. If a baby stroller can get onto a bus, so can a wheelchair or a senior citizen who needs assistance. Child-friendly cities are essentially human-friendly cities. Play areas are also public spaces, which need to be designed for everyone and not just children. So it’s really a matter of priority, to think about whether we want car-friendly or human-friendly cities.

What is your long-term vision for Gudgudee?
We see ourselves creating larger child-friendly spaces and cities. We envision becoming a global brand in designing play areas, and we would like to be known as makers of fun playgrounds that are inclusive.

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