The first time I walked into an indoor playspace for toddlers, I felt wistful. I wish I could have taken Vani and Ammol to places like this when they were little. There was a pink carousel made of the softest pink ponies moving in slow motion that a baby could get on and off, the place was in the prettiest pastels, it was whispered that I could not take photographs because celebrity babies were playing here and the music made me all smiley. The thing I remember most was that there was a giant waterbed meant to be a baby trampoline. I remember placing my head on it, listening to the splish of the water beneath all the silicon and staying that way savouring happiness that a wobbly jellylike touch could give.

I’m an outdoor person, a flaneur, who loves roaming endlessly. When my children were born one of the things I started as a practice was hefting both of them on my hips and roaming the city. Thus, every time a journalist friend of mine called I was at yet another quaint place with my kids, peeling away a layer of the city, discovering a part of Mumbai I had never known. Why don’t you write—she had said—so many parents out there would love to know exactly that: places of play, edutainment and entertainment accessible to children. Thus my column in Midday, Mumbai for Kids (MFK) was born.

In a few months I will be inching into my sixth year (and third season) of reviewing spaces for kids. In the last five years that I have written Mumbai For Kids, I have reviewed more than hundred spaces in Mumbai for children, and at least 60 percent of that have been indoor place spaces. I have seen everything there is to see in children’s accessible spaces in this city—and often one indoor play place now blurs into another and another and another—or so I think, until another place opens up. There are adventure sports places (indoor rappelling and wall climbing, zipline), the ones like Smaaash that are meant for digital fun, the trampoline-park kinds, the ballpool-sand-pit-crawl-tunnels-slide places. There are roleplaying and puppet play places and netted areas for gross motor skills and tiny libraries tucked into these for ‘quiet time’. There are doll houses inserted into some, along with fine-motor skill play, just as some have in-house restaurants and cafeterias, while others have child-friendly kitchen spaces; not to mention the kid spas that have opened which are meant to attract playdates and the themed-birthday-party set. I’ve been there.

The new landscape of urban Indian childhood is the indoors.

Apparently indoor play spaces have mushroomed to answer the need of yuppie parents who want their kids to play energetically in a ‘safe’, sanitary conditions. The outdoors is dirty. The money invested is big; the spaces often small. A lot has to be packed in four enclosed walls. We have discerning parents who, after all, want the best for the kids, and are certainly willing to pay for it.

Did I tell you I am a single mom? While I love the outdoors, often the air-conditioning, the pretty colours, the cheerful nursery rhyme-music, make me wistful—I wish we had something like this when we were growing up. Fact is, though, if I were left to my devices, if Midday didn’t reimburse me for these reviews, I would never have walked into one for my children to access one hour of play time. Indoor playspaces are unaffordable to me a single mom, as they are to a whole universe of urban kids. I could not—and cannot—afford to cough up a minimum of Rs 500 per head (and I had two) for an hour of safe, playtime.

But, in a world where camp, means “a weight loss camp” and when “summer camp” usually means sending your kids to a place where a set of activities has been curated for kids in one premise and usually indoors—there were obviously people who could and would pay for this. It is cool to send kids to soft play areas, take pics and Instagram it.

We’ve become a sedentary society. Not only are our kids being raised indoors, they are also being confined to even smaller indoor spaces. Our generation grew up playing in the outside. Our schools had massive grounds attached to it. When we got home, we flung our school bags and ran out to play. We didn’t need props. We had the outdoor and we devised games. We may or may not have had huge wide spaces to play at home, but playing ball, or hide and seek, or hopscotch or jumping rope were always in the open. We were out playing even when we got older. As somebody had said, “We had a playroom growing up; it was called the outside.”

The schools most of our kids go to no longer have the luxury of playgrounds. We are supposed to understand that we live in mad metros and that if there is space then we have to, have to, enclose it. So once a week kids are stuffed into buses that vend their way into a club where for 30 minutes they swim. Then they are again stuffed back into buses and are returned to school. In the bargain, what we adults are harvesting, are a generation of children who need something to stimulate them. My kids travel with headphones, or tablets, or devices. Because they need something, a prop of some sort, to entertain themselves.

And… yet, yet yet, the question I ask myself often is: If I could have afforded it, would I have sent my kids to an indoor playspace accessoried with safety cameras and child-friendly staff? And the answer is an unhesitating—if shamefaced—yes. Because, the other side of this story is, I no longer feel the city is a safe place. Fact is that while my childhood is filled with the luminescent beauty of the middle class neighbourhood that I lived—with its prop-less play, clambering over cement walls and hefting ourselves on the mango trees planted at the back of our building—I no longer trust outdoor spaces because crimes against children seem to have bourgeoned. I cannot afford a domestic help to step out with my kids because I’m not sure if the domestic help will not be preoccupied with her cell phone or the watchman is not being a bully.

Preoccupied domestic help and pedophiles abounded in our childhood too. Yet, perhaps our parents didn’t know better. Or perhaps there was too much shame in reporting sexual assault. Or perhaps the crowds in teeming cities have only shot up and, perhaps safe maidans where nothing time and just goofing around can be farmed is a fairy tale, perhaps in a generation of digital natives where cell phones are toys for newborns with preoccupied parent we need more support to keep children creatively engaged in  physical activity…. whatever be the reason, indoor play spaces are here to stay.

Paying to play will keep some children in and some children out.

 (from the book It’s Play Time: Mapping Mumbai’s Play Culture Through Narratives)