Play in the Time of Covid-19
‘How can we incorporate more of children’s voices and perspectives in childhood studies?’ was one of the first questions I encountered with the commencement of my internship at CCYSC. The idea of children being active and engaged participants in - instead of passive subjects of - research about them has slowly gained force in the 21st century, with a further paradigm shift ‘positioning (them) as researchers of their own worlds’ (Burke 2005, 29). In this context, researchers and academicians all over the world are coming up with innovative ways to not only research with children, but to also facilitate research by children (ibid).
One of these is children’s photography. As cheaper technology enabled the movement of the camera from the safeguards of the studio to homes and pockets, researchers have increasingly used photography as a visual method of inquiry to gain children’s perspectives of how they perceive the world around them (Wee & Anthamatten, 2005; Castonguay & Jutras, 2009; Luttrell, 2010; Merewether, 2015). This has in turn led to questioning the ‘adult gaze’ (Templeton, 2018) that has come to define the field - an attempt to bring children’s own narratives into a space till now dominated by how adults looked at them. A notable initiative in this domain is the Children's Photography Archive launched in 2019 by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London, that invites children to send in photographic entries documenting their everyday life experiences. All of these signal a shift in discourse - challenging conventional ideas on the construction of knowledge and the validity of voices.
I came across the Through Her Lens: Reframing the Domestic project within a few days of its initial publication online - it is a visual research program in collaboration with Zubaan Publishers, curated by Mridu Rai and Anushya Pradhan, that invites contributions from women and other marginalised identities of northeast India, chronicling their experiences of the pandemic and the resultant lockdown. The gallery that emerged is a curated repository of reflections on various facets of life - home, work, interpersonal relationships - in these changing times. As someone thinking about children’s voices in the course of this internship, Through Her Lens was a good example of a participatory style of research and I wondered if something similar can be thought of for children - both women and children have been historically pushed to the margins, excluded from narratives dominated by the adult male. The notion that both these categories ‘should be seen and not heard’ have metaphorically and literally kept their voices away from the mainstream, and this was the inspiration that led to conceptualising an essay that invited entries from children - part 1, of what would (hopefully) develop into a series that documents the lives and experiences of children and young people during this period.
The inspiration for the theme of ‘play’ came one morning in June when my five-year-old next-door-neighbour called out from his balcony to show us his toy. The heavy iron grilles separating the two houses - sharply punctuating what was otherwise a moment of friendly neighbourhood chatter - brought to mind imagery associated with the phrase ‘behind bars’. Before the covid-induced lockdown, he used to go out and play in the park, or cycle on the street, everyday. I wanted to know how he and other children were spending their time now that they were indoors. How had lockdown changed how they played?
Play is commonly described as intrinsically motivated, self-directed behaviour of children, but more importantly, it is an essential part of a child’s developmental trajectory. The UNDP has termed the pandemic the ‘defining global health crisis of our time’ and the ‘greatest challenge we have faced since World War Two’. Play, an activity synonymous with childhood, that often takes place outdoors and with peers, has also been affected with social distancing and lockdowns. Chatterjee (2018) has delved into the significance of play as a way to build resilience during times of crisis, emphasising on play not just as a coping mechanism, but also as a means to developing meaningful relationships and overcoming adversity. Given the scale and impact of covid-19, children all over the world have been cut off from many familiar people and spaces (schools and classmates, parks, friends) for months now, and it becomes all the more important to understand what it means for these to be inaccessible.
This photo essay is an attempt to draw attention to, and encourage further questions about children’s play during this period in India. From board games to kitchen utensils, from stuffed toys to cows to siblings, from tables to green fields, one can see a variety of materials, companions, and spaces. The contributors to this photo essay are children between the ages of 5 and 12 who used their parents’ phones to take these pictures. On my request, they took photos of where and how they are playing during the lockdown. I chose children who I knew personally, or whose parents/siblings I knew, because I wanted to follow up with some conversations regarding the photo submissions, and I felt that some prior familiarity would encourage more fruitful conversations.
Aanya (7) lives on an agricultural campus in Bemetra, Chhatisgarh. Her family moved here a few years ago from Delhi. Her father is a filmmaker and her mother is an advisor in the local school. This campus is home to a few families looking to practice sustainable and coexistence-based living. Before lockdown, most of her day was spent in school, and she was too tired by the time school ended to play for more than an hour or so everyday. She would play with her friends in the campus as well as on her own (with dolls and toys). Now, with no school, she spends 5-6 hours playing, mostly outdoors, and as a result her stamina has also increased. Note that all photos are of outdoor areas, reflecting her new playing patterns. It is also interesting how she associated only the younger calves - and not the full-grown cows - with the idea of ‘play’.
Aradhya (9) lives in Delhi. She enjoyed drawing, painting, and art and craft related activities even before lockdown, and often spent her free time designing new artwork. Now, during lockdown, she has more time than usual to work on art and craft, and once she is done with online classes for the day, she brings out her paper, colours and paints and creates new art projects every week. Aradhya studies in an English-medium private school. Her father runs his own business and her mother is a former teacher turned homemaker and takes a keen interest in her studies and activities. She helps Aradhya with her artwork and occasionally helps her look up reference images on the internet.
Joy (5) lives in Delhi. His father is a businessman and his mother is an interior designer. Before lockdown, he used to play indoors with his toys and games, and also outdoors in the park or on the road with his friends. He recently got a toy camera and now uses it regularly to take photos around the house, including these ones. He used an inbuilt filter to colour correct these photos as well. He has grown up seeing and handling different gadgets and technological devices, and has developed a comfort with new technology, and now doesn’t need his parents’ help with the new camera. His parents are both working from home and are using this time as an opportunity to also introduce him to games like carrom and ludo. Note the use of the low angle in the second photo - this is not seen very often in photos clicked by adults, because most people tend to click from their eye level. Quite literally the ‘child’s gaze’.
Aanya, Aradhya and Joy’s photos make for an interesting contrast on colour as well. Aanya’s photos are dominated by earthy browns and greens punctuated by occasional spots of synthetic colours (of the cycles and tin sheets). Aradhya’s paintings as well as the bedsheet they are kept on, on the other hand, are filled with an array of bright, synthetic colours. Joy’s favourite colour is yellow and that has reflected in his choice of filter as well, giving both photos a yellowish tone.
Naman (12) lives in Delhi in a large joint family and studies in an English-medium private school. Before the lockdown, he played both indoors and outdoors - he used to play cricket and hide-n-seek with his friends after school, and would also play video games on his laptop or tablet. Now he plays ludo with his family every evening. He still plays video games but not as frequently as earlier - his parents let him use the computer only once he’s done with the day’s classes and homework. This photo is dominated by geometry and straight lines. Note the many squares and rectangles - the bedsheet, the ludo board, the box, and the dice.
Shanvi (5) lives in Mumbai. Her father is an engineer and her mother is a nurse. Her parents took a call to have her stay with her maternal grandparents in order to reduce her exposure to her mother, who’s on duty at a covid hospital. She had a huge collection of toys, dolls and games at her parents’ house, and usually played indoors with them. She liked playing with kitchen utensils too but didn’t play with them very often because her usual toys and games were always around. Due to the absence of dedicated play materials at her grandparents’, she started playing with kitchen utensils more frequently and enjoys hitting them together to produce different sounds. Her grandparents take every opportunity to play with her and spend time with her, since she is living with them for these many months at a stretch for the first time. Over a few visits, her parents have been able to occasionally visit and drop off some of her toys, but she prefers the utensils now. Once again, note the low angle - the camera is nearly in line with the floor.
Vansh (10) lives in Delhi. His father works in an MNC and his mother is a teacher. He studies in an English-medium private school which has started online classes now, and these take up most of his mornings. Earlier, after returning from school, he would do his homework and play video games on the computer, but his parents weren’t very happy about this. Now, since they are also working from home, they are able to keep a check on his screen time. The family has started playing a new (to him) game - Tambola - during lockdown. He is enjoying Tambola and has started noticing number patterns in the tickets as well. Note how clearly the ticket is emphasised in the photo - it is placed exactly in the centre, which is a common technique used to highlight the most important part of a photo.
Shweta (11) lives in Dhanaura - a village in Hapur, Uttar Pradesh - on a farm where both her parents are workers. Before lockdown, she had school daily (all siblings went to the neighbourhood Hindi-medium government school), after which she would finish her homework and then help with the chores, and then go out and cycle or play with friends. Now, she spends most of her time playing in the farm with her three siblings - the second of whom is in this photo. They all play catch, hide-n-seek and pakdan-pakdai. This is the first time the siblings are spending so much time around their parents - before lockdown, their play was mostly unsupervised because the parents would be busy on the farm throughout the day and the children would go to the village to play.
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