Children, especially in urban areas, are disenfranchised from equitable spatial resources, despite being equal members of society. The access to playgrounds, the only lands allotted for children’s needs, depends on class and caste privileges. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 (RTE) mandates that all schools provide the essential infrastructural standards specified in the RTE Schedule, including playgrounds. All school-going children between the ages of six and 14 are thereby guaranteed playground access. The new National Education Policy (NEP) dismantles this legal regime of protected playgrounds, instead of strengthening it.
The NEP advocates shifting the education system from an “overemphasis on inputs” to “output potential concerning desired learning outcomes”. It invokes efficiency and optimisation to facilitate playground appropriation. First, the NEP directs a review of the “practicalities of playgrounds in urban areas”, school-area and room-size requirements. It aims to “ease” school operation by removing RTE playground requirements. Thus, neither private nor government schools may be required to provide playgrounds, and private schools can charge exorbitant fees without providing playgrounds.
Second, the NEP proposes that by 2025, state governments create school complexes and “rationalise” schools to encourage sharing resources such as playgrounds. A school complex is an administrative cluster comprising one secondary school and all other schools offering lower grades (including anganwadis) in a 5-10 kilometre radius.
Therefore, the NEP advocates that already scarce, limited and small-sized playgrounds be shared among numerous schools and children of different ages. Not only is this cruel, it is inefficient — children of different ages indulge in different varieties of play and, accordingly, have different playground needs. For instance, anganwadi learners have different spatial needs than middle school students.
Judicial decisions have held that playgrounds are indispensable to schools. In 2019, the Allahabad High Court ruled that playgrounds must be provided within a school’s land area in the same plot to ensure barrier-free, “run-in” access for all children, including children with disabilities. But as urbanisation has intensified, children’s playgrounds have increasingly been appropriated by governments and private parties for development. In 2012, the Union government’s guidelines stated that school managements need not provide contiguous playgrounds if “adequate arrangements” are made in adjoining playgrounds or municipal parks. In 2019, Gujarat amended its RTE rules to reduce the minimum playground area requirements for urban and rural schools.
Despite erasing playground requirements, the NEP loftily advocates sports-integrated education but fails to explain how sports may be integrated if schools are not required to provide playgrounds.
The NEP recognises children’s play only when it serves teachers in imparting learning. The indispensable and inherent value of play, recognised as a right in the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is invisibilised. Play is paramount to childhood because it allows for the free and true expression of one’s personality. Even if specific forms of sports infrastructure are provided in well-resourced schools, these cannot substitute for large, open playgrounds.
Sports is also a minuscule sub-category of the infinite varieties of children’s play. It is adult-designed, competitive, often gendered and ableist, and accommodates only a few children based on “abilities”. It cannot substitute for play as it does not encompass the free expression of children’s personalities.
The NEP lowers the minimum standards of quality education, instead of protecting and expanding play spaces through the state’s immense financial and political resources. It frames playgrounds as an illogical restriction to appease neoliberal interests that prioritise market demands over societal good when determining land use. One may argue that loosened RTE requirements will increase total schools and decrease school fees. However, in the absence of fee regulation, it is unlikely that private schools will be more affordable without playgrounds. Even if the number of total schools increases, access to play spaces will be further rigidly determined by children’s caste and class. The NEP’s assault on playgrounds deprives children, particularly those belonging to lower castes and the urban poor, of their right to play in safe and adequate spaces.
The writer is associated with the Bhopal-based Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project