In this episode, we talk to Aditi Agrawal who is the co-founder of Studio Gudgudee – a design studio that works on inclusive playgrounds.
We discuss how designing for playful learning requires deep observation and getting out of the way and allowing it to happen.
We re-iterate the power of play in the over all development of children and also to transcend the boundaries of age and ability.
Aditi shares the challenges of designing for the differently-abled and what sparked the need to make inclusive play spaces rather than just accessible spaces.
Sushi and Aditi ponder over how adults can benefit from unstructured, playful experiences and how that can help build bonds among each other and with kids.
We talk about the concepts of risk versus hazard in play and how to use risk effectively to design interesting play spaces.
We think about the importance of inclusive public spaces and designing for longevity and public usage.
Sushi: Hi, Aditi, and welcome to Design Lota. We are so thrilled to have you on our podcast! So what have you been up to?
Aditi: Lots of things! And thank you so much for having us here.
Sushi: Yes! So why don’t you start by telling us your story and how you found yourself in the niche of designing equipment for play.
Aditi: So this is a story that’s often repeated by me and Anjali, both. It all started a while back when we were still students at NID and studying Furniture Design. There was this one course called design for special needs where we had to design for a population, whose needs are different from that of the mainstream population. So we somehow chose children with special needs.
And to understand – because we had never interacted much with this group – we used to go to the Blind People’s Association, in Ahmedabad. It had a school which catered to (those with) different kinds of disabilities [00:01:00] and it had all age groups of children there. So we used to go to sit through their classes to understand their activities, their behavior, their daily routine and everything, to really understand them and come up with some design problems and solutions for the sake of our project.
We went there for a week-long thing. And during this process we realized that this set of children had never gone outdoors to play and that came out as a real shock to us, because all of us – at least I believed then – have their most cherished childhood memories while playing outdoors. And here was this one group which had never gone out to play. So that really shook us, and when we delved further into the reason as to why this was so, there were two main reasons for the same.
One was, that there is a lack of play equipment that can cater to their needs. The existing play elements are unsafe for them. And secondly, was the huge social stigma. Even if the child or their parents would muster the courage and effort to go to a play area, just to even sit there, sometimes the comments and the treatment meted out by others was not so kind and therefore it’s real discouragement to be in public spaces like that.
So that set us off to think of how can we solve this problem being designers, and we came up with this idea of creating an inclusive playground where children with and without special needs can play together. Why this inclusion was important, was to build empathy at a younger age to understand children with special needs, and not see them as recipients of sympathy but see them as equal and perhaps slightly different [00:03:00] than what you are. They’re actually much more capable than what meets the eye.
So our first instinct while thinking of this inclusive play area, was to make the existing play equipment safe for them by adding seat belts and railings and everything to support them. But then we quickly scrapped this idea because we realized that if we did that, the other children would never come to this playground. It would make it more exclusive for the children with special needs. It would demarcate that this is a playground for “them” while there are other playgrounds for other children.
So that’s what we didn’t want to do. So we really started looking at why do children really play? What is the need of playing at all? And we talked to a lot of child psychologists, met a lot of parents, teachers, went through different curricula, teaching pedagogy and we realized that play is an essential part of growing up, so much so that it’s nature’s way of developing a child’s brain.
So if it were so essential, it needed to be treated like education, with as much importance. While playing, children learn very important social skills of negotiation, of making friends, fighting with them, patching up with them, which cannot be taught in a classroom. They also develop their gross motor skills, their fine motor skills, they develop their imagination; all of these different kinds of skills that they need while growing up can be easily acquired through play.
So when play is such an important part of their lives, why are our playgrounds restricted to only swings and slides? There is a major disconnect between the two. So that’s how we started looking at playgrounds differently. We thought of making a sensory play area where children of all abilities can enjoy in the same way, which does not create barriers – this is for you, this is not for you kind [00:05:00] of a thing. So we designed some elements and then we happened to show it to the school administration and they said let’s build it and then fortunately we found a funder in Mr. Praful Shah, and then we built the playground over the next semester.
Sushi: That’s great!
Aditi: We missed most of the semester but still…
Sushi: That’s quite an achievement!
Aditi: Yes. So that’s how we got into play and design for play.
Sushi: Wow. So what were some of the challenges that you found while designing for children of various abilities?
Aditi: One thing is, that the definition of inclusion is also different for different people. So for a lot of people, making a playground inclusive means making it wheelchair accessible. So providing ramps for that and everything. But we see it slightly different. We see a space where there is something for everyone. It might be that a wheelchair user cannot use two products out of the ten in that space But s/he would have the other eight to enjoy with others. So our approach is to make it sensory in such a way that it caters to different people. It might not be everyone at all times.
For example, for sound we use telephones pipes. It’s inspired from this age-old game of tying thread to tin cans and talking from one end to the other. This is a very fun kind of element and we have seen children enjoy it, we’ve seen adults enjoy it. Every time the labor and the workers install it, they also play on it. It’s wheelchair accessible. It’s suitable for people with visual limitations. A simple game starts to transcend boundaries of age and ability. There are for example, wind chimes or a lot of these musical elements are drums and tembulums that we have.
Then another aspect is of smell. How do we define different zones with [00:07:00] smell? Can we guide a person with visual limitations through smell? So for example, one movement zone can be planted with roses. Not roses; roses is a bad example for here, because they have thorns.
Sushi: Maybe jasmine?
Aditi: Yes, jasmine is great (laughs) ! So planting jasmine in the movement zone or ajjwain in another zone. So even without seeing they know where they’re heading towards, right? Then something to do with texture. So we put a lot of textures in our interactive wall, in the pathways, so that also starts to transcend different boundaries.
Sushi: So it’s not just one linear space but, every surface kind of becomes an interactive element in such a space.
Aditi: Yes, Exactly.
Sushi: You were mentioning that while people are installing the playgrounds, they tend to play with the telephone pipes and other elements. It sounds very tempting. The act of playing is often associated only with children. Typically we say, children are playful, but adults have gyms and spaces as well. But then, these are very organized and kind of structured and there’s a certain decorum that they have to maintain. Do you think adults could benefit from an organized or minimally structured playing?
Aditi: Definitely, I think so. Every time you would have gone to a playground, you would have seen children and you would have also seen that along with the child, the parent is also swinging on the swing, right? Until the guard shoos them away.
Aditi: So adults do love to play but they are given fewer opportunities and also it’s not just a space, but also its not allowed because they are “grown up” and they have to act in a certain way. So sometimes we put those barriers around ourselves. And also I think playing in an unstructured way is really important, especially in today’s [00:09:00] time when everyone is living very stressed lives their offices everywhere. It’s very very structured. It’s like going from one thing to another. So having some time to yourself to just jump around or just like laugh, I think, builds better bonds than hours of conversation, and playing especially for young parents and children can help them build better bonds together. So I think definitely there has to be spaces where adults can also just loosen up and play and have fun.
Sushi: Often we also see grandparents accompanying children to playgrounds. Do you think the playgrounds which are equipped to be more inclusive can also be inclusive to grandparents?
Aditi: Yes. Definitely, I think so and we’re in an age where different generations are getting more isolated from one another. I think playgrounds can really help build those bonds for grandparents and [00:10:00] grandchildren to play together.
Sushi: Again, this brings up the point about public spaces and how there aren’t many public spaces where one can just go there and lounge for free, if you look at many places today, which are landscaped parks and such zones which are supposed to be for relaxation in the outdoor space. Many of them need an entry fee, and it becomes kind of restrictive, so it also divides class.
Aditi: So that’s why my point of contention with a lot of smart cities is that first smart cities talk about iot and Wi-Fi and how everything will be connected, nicer roads and free-er parking and all of that. But no one is asking these basic questions of where will your child play? What kind of air will they breathe? What kind of water will they drink? Or Will the sky be clear? All of those very basic questions. And that is also the question for public spaces with these really rapidly increasing cities. In every square foot, we are fitting in more and more people. So these public spaces are shrinking and whatever public spaces we have, they need to be designed much better so that it caters to a larger group of people. The amount of pressure that is on one piece of open land is more than ever. Yes. So playgrounds should also be seen as public spaces and therefore be designed for everyone – for different classes, for different age groups, for different abilities – Only then, can we say that they’re really successful, when they engage communities together.
Sushi: Right. Do you also feel like there is this kind of mind block against public playgrounds? Because we often see that when a new playground is installed, in a layout for instance, they look new and shiny the first month and then they quickly begin to deteriorate and then people kind of tend to judge that a certain section of people are responsible for this. And then committees come together and say no, this is only for our layout, you know? So what are some ways to prevent vandalism and maybe design longevity into play equipment?
Aditi: So some of it also has to be catered to, by providing more, because there’s so much less, and it’s catering to so many more people that it tends to get vandalize, it tends to get overused. It tends to get used in different ways than it is intended to. And therefore it gets deteriorated much faster than its supposed to. Definitely while creating these spaces for Indian context, this is something that’s very essential to look at – to imagine all the different ways that people would be using it, all the different classes that will be using it. All the different timings that people will be using it. That will perhaps build in some longevity. But yes, apart from building something really really sturdy…
Sushi: There has to be more?
Aditi: Yeah, I think more and more sturdy.
Sushi: Earlier on, you mentioned about the aspect of safety. So do you think safety is something that has to be built into playgrounds? Recently there was something that happened at a mall in a play zone, where some child broke their arm and it became a big issue. Do you think the onus comes on the designer of the playground in such cases?
Aditi: So playgrounds need to be safe, yes. But they also have to have some healthy amount of risk, and there is a difference between a risk and a hazard. Risk is something that challenges the child. It makes them come back to it, to say that I will accomplish this for today and I will become more stronger and bigger to climb up to the end of that ladder or climb up to that rocket or whatever. That is something that’s challenging, and that will say a lot about the playground that it’s fun because it brings the child back and [00:14:00] challenges them while, hazard is something that can really lead to fatal injuries. Having said that, I think everywhere around the world, there’s a phenomenon going around, that we are building more and more safe playgrounds, because everyone is so scared of being sued and no one wants to hurt anyone, so much so that we’re building very safe playgrounds that do not attract children anymore at some level. We have to increase the risk in a playground, but also make sure that they are not at the cost of the child or getting them very serious injuries. A scratch and a bruise here and there, I think is great, also in some ways because they help build resilience. But more than that is definitely not a great idea.
Sushi: So I think again the age group comes into play right?
Aditi: That is another thing. So when you’re building the playground, if a really young kid is using a play equipment that’s meant for an [00:15:00] older child then obviously, there might be some injuries and everything. So therefore we have to keep in mind the ergonomics, and also ensure that its communicated to the users correctly, that at what age group this is more suitable. We design playgrounds for different age groups because at different ages children have different kind of Developmental needs and therefore different kinds of play. For very young kids like babies and till one or two years, they do not like too much of social play. They’re more engrossed with themselves and their toys and that’s what their world is. As they grow up, they start to build friendships. They start to bring groups together. And then there is this whole dynamics going on and everything. So that is another kind of age and therefore different kinds of play elements are required for them. Then as you grow further into teenagers, there’s a need to show off your strength, to see how tall you’ve become, how strong you’ve become [00:16:00] and everything. So there’s a different kind of a requirement there. So yeah, at every age group there’s a different kind of developmental, psychological, physical requirement, and therefore different kind of play.
Sushi: Right. So can you walk us through a typical design process?
Aditi: Yes. So whenever we are approached by anyone, usually what happens to set up a playground, is that you look through a catalog, select a few products and we just put it in. But we try and get more context to understand the needs of that space and therefore suggest the elements. So once someone approaches us, we try to understand the context by understanding the space, the number of children it’s going to cater to, the age of the children that it’s going to cater to, the budgets the geographical context. Is it too hot? Is it rainy? Is it in a public space? Is it in a school? Is it in a residential complex? All of those affect the kind of play elements that have to be there. After understanding that, [00:17:00] we move on to deciding what kind of concepts and play ideas can go in. We start with some sketches – while we are doing that, we try and divide all of this space into zones and understand movement patterns, that could be, looking at ergonomics, safety zones and all of that. Then we also look at different kinds of play, because that’s how we function. We look at if there is enough physical play, if there’s enough play for imagination, if there’s enough social elements, if there’s something for solitary play – because one child can be an introvert, another child could be extrovert and the space needs to cater to different kinds of children. One girl can have a medical condition, another one can be really really adventurous. So there have to be those different levels, so how do you build in those levels in a play area interesting? Then we move on to making 3Ds and computer model making and part prototypes to develop the concepts further, to understand mechanisms and different parts, and how they come together. [00:18:00] And finally presenting to the client and building the playground.
Sushi: What is your favorite part of the whole process?
Aditi: I think the ideation, because that’s a lot of fun. You can think of all the different ways to play. You can go back to your childhood. You can think of all the ways that it can go wrong, which is also fun.
Sushi: What about the testing part?
Aditi: Yes, testing is fun. And finally when it all comes together and when we are just doing the photo shoot – our last interface with the spaces the photo shoot. That is the most fun part because you see children using the space that you have imagined all this while and then you also see them use it in ways that you’d never imagined, which is really really bewildering and exciting and very interesting to see.
Sushi: Do you ever feel like telling them? No, no, no don’t do that! We haven’t tested for that.
Aditi: Yes. A lot of times we’re like s***! We didn’t think of this.
Sushi: So what’s the most challenging part about the whole process or the part that you hate the most?
Aditi: I think it’s common to all design studios – the coordinating with people and getting things done on time. It’s just that I think that’s common to every studio or in fact any kind of work. So just trying to get things done on time.
Sushi: One of your projects which I found really interesting and relevant to current discussions on sustainability is the biodiversity Park in Hennur in Bangalore, where I also live. Were aspects of biodiversity built into the play equipment as well? And was there an inspiration for the space?
Aditi: Yes. So this park was commissioned by on Ms. Deepika Vajpayee who was at that point the forest officer. She envisioned this space being something that brings the community together. So for this play area, because it was essentially public space, we looked at all kinds of age groups. We looked at adults and [00:20:00] children playing and grandparents. In terms of sustainability, we tried and used local materials that were there. So being with the forest department, they had a lot of wood that was lying around, So we used mostly wood for our equipment. And then, because it was next to a lake we couldn’t use too much concrete and build structures too much. So apart from that big wall, there is no concrete in that space. Also, we had to make that stuff vandalism proof.
Sushi: …which is the biggest challenge!
Aditi: Which is the biggest challenge.
Sushi: You also mentioned that playgrounds are educational and very important in early development of children, and continue to be an important part of development and education. We would love it if you could give us some examples of education-centric playgrounds that you’ve designed.
Aditi: So in our regular playgrounds – what I mean by regular is that over time we have had some experience building different kinds of playgrounds, so we have [00:21:00] productized some of the play elements into a catalog which has different kinds of inclusive sensory and educational elements – so in Educational elements, we have Abacus, lollipops and those kind of different elements that help you explore light and explore imagination. But one project that has been very Centric to education has been at Agastya National foundation in Kuppam. So Agastya is a really amazing NGO that aims to build or spark scientific curiosity among school children. So they have a huge campus in Kuppam where they have demonstrated different kinds of science-based learnings and activities and very hands-on experiences. So they get children from neighboring villages and rural areas and bring them to the campus to get them to experience science and be more curious and understand and ask questions. So as a part of that endeavor they envisioned a DNA park, so we have been fortunate to be working with them. This DNA park is essentially to tell children how protein is made in an animal cell. So the entire play area is made in form of an animal cell with the central Dome as nucleus. So you go inside the Dome, you see DNA structure down to the level of atoms and how its bonded together and you solve the DNA puzzle. The processes are entirely gamified so through the process of solving the DNA puzzle, we ourselves become RNA and then you exit the nucleus Dome and go through the endoplasmic reticulum and Golgi complex, to go to the Lysosome and get your cycles. And as you’re cycling around the cell, you transform into amino acid and proteins, and some protein stays inside the cell and some exits. So here’s a simple gamified version that tells children of a complicated science principal. So I think if I had that, I would have never forgotten all of this.
Sushi: Yeah. Now that you’ve said all this I feel like going back there and relearning everything
Aditi: Now everything is on my fingertips.
Sushi:I think it’ll be like etched in your memory now!
So you mentioned that you have a catalog with the play equipment categorized. So do you also cater to customers who want to buy things off the shelf, like individual swings or individual equipment that they can buy for their kids, install in their backyard – stuff like that? Or for themselves (laughs)…
Aditi: That would be nice! (laughs)
Sushi: I’m asking with selfish reasons (laughs) .
Aditi: So yeah, there have been people who just take different elements directly from the catalog because not everyone has the time or resources to go through the entire design process of the play space. Since we have had some experience, we put together a catalog which can cater to different kinds of contexts, age groups and [00:24:00] materials. And you can select from that, you can customize the colors and sometimes if you want, materials as well, and we’ll ship it to you, install it for you and that’s it. So, yes!
Sushi: So I also see news, and we read on various office websites that they have a really “cool” office, you know, with swings instead of chairs and Google was famous for this slide that they had, which took people from one floor to the other. So what do you feel about designing play into the workspace? Do you think it could be counterproductive?
Aditi: I think it’s a great idea. I don’t think it would be counterproductive mostly because sometimes you’re so engrossed in work and you’re just so stressed. These little things can quickly snap you out of that, and I think those elements can be great stress-busters.
Sushi:I think they could put you in a state of relaxed attention so that something is happening in the background, but you’re enjoying yourself and not stressing about getting it done. When I was a kid (I think with all 90’s and 80s kids) , we used to have a lot of game arcades and amusement parks, which we used to go to on holidays with our families and these kind of arcades and amusement parks have been in India for around three decades now, but nowadays do you think you see a decline in their popularity or do you think they’re still going strong, we just don’t go there anymore?
Aditi: We as adults don’t go there anymore, but perhaps they’re going fine. Also, there is a major change in way people used to access them earlier and now, so same or similar activities are now with everyone at their fingertips, especially the video games. So now no one has to go to a gaming arcade to really play them. They’re better versions of those available to them at their homes. Kids nowadays, since they have everything on their fingertips and there’s nothing very new that’s being done in these [00:26:00] gaming markets except for the VR and AR – I don’t belong to that industry to say with complete confidence – but I think there might have been some decline.
Sushi: So, it’s obvious now, that technology has an influence in our daily lives. So how do you think technology can be integrated into physical play outside the scope of an Xbox or a wii?
Aditi: I think tech has become a really big part of our lives. We really can’t get away from it. There’s tech in everything, but because of that, sadly we are also becoming a generation of indoor people. We live indoors. we eat indoors. So every activity is now done indoors, as opposed to what was done earlier, when some it of it, if not all was done outdoors. While Tech has led to all of this, perhaps tech is what can also help bring play and [00:27:00] exercise back, by integrating all of these together. So I think it’s a great thing that can happen with the play and technology. Yes. I’m really looking forward to integrating tech in our play, and so we are in the research phase. Let’s see where it takes us!
Sushi: Speaking of what you said about spaces becoming more indoor and people not going outside that much, do you think this is also because. there’s a lot more pollution in the air today? And do you think this is going to be a trend that’s going to be on the rise in the future?
Aditi: Probably. So all the physical activity might also soon shift indoors as we are already building more indoor playgrounds. I think it is going to be like that.
Sushi: So in all the playgrounds that you design, there are various elements, which make it interdisciplinary, right? So though you’re from a Furniture Design background. I’m sure there’s a graphic element, a textile element, of course, an engineering element. Do you find that it’s important for designers to dabble in various disciplines other than their own?
Aditi: I think [00:28:00] definitely it’s a great idea to dabble in different disciplines. Because each discipline has its own ways of approaching a problem and when you dive into different kinds of disciplines and different kinds of methods, you really understand their perspectives to problem solving, that you were not really aware of earlier. That is something that helps you look at your own problem differently and solve it in a much better manner, more holistic manner, because you have seen it from the other side as well, while we were earlier seeing it from only one angle. We should all definitely do and look at different disciplines, different kinds of methods to apply in design.
Sushi: Coming back to the business aspect of what you guys do: what were some of the most interesting aspects of being two women in design coming together to create something that’s non-typical?
Aditi: I don’t know if it is got too much to do with being women, but maybe it has something to do with being young, because we started out with very little experience and we just took a plunge. The learning curve has been huge, we understood what is working, what is not and how can we do things better. Because we had very little to fall back on how things are done. So that led us to really imagine our own ways and do things differently. I think it’s been a really amazing learning experience for us.
Sushi: And I saw that you guys were recently featured in Forbes 30 under 30, Congratulations, by the way!
Aditi: Thank you so much. Thank you. It’s great. I mean, it’s interesting how people start to see you differently after one publication. It was also sort of validation that came at that point of time because sometimes you’re on this journey and sometimes you’re wondering what am I doing? Is it going right by wasting time? So encouragement like this really helps you validate. that, yes, we’re even doing something right, perhaps!
Sushi: And I think as a Design Community also, all of us kind of rejoiced because it’s not every day that you get to see a designer featured by a business magazine, and I think it’s encouragement for all of us to keep doing what we’re doing and just enjoy the process of play.
Aditi: Or design…
Sushi: Speaking of this whole idea of play, in the work that we do as designers. We don’t have a typical desk job, and the best ideas come to us when we’re playing around and not intentionally trying to solve a business problem. How do you think product and spatial designers can be more playful in their approach, even as many of the projects that we have to deal with a very tight budget and time constraints in almost every industry?
Aditi: Do what you like? I think that would be playful. Even in tight [00:31:00] deadlines if you like to create a nice things-to-do list for yourself, even if it means wasting 5 more minutes, that’s all right. I think that’s playful!
Sushi: As a community we’re always late, aren’t we?
Aditi: Yes, yes, but…
Sushi: Maybe you should design some play equipment that will help designers learn how to keep time.
Aditi: We can do that… (laughs)
Sushi: Because the watch isn’t working, obviously! (laughs)
What is the one piece of advice that you would like to give design students and young designers of all disciplines?
Aditi: So I think while you are in a university or college, you’re in this really safe space where you can freely experiment and explore. There’s no industry pressure. There is no deadline. There’s no really tight budget.
Sushi: But you’re kind of broke!
Aditi: Yes, you’re kind of broke, but you’re really creative also at that point, to think of doing things at real tight budgets, and there’s no client to say that this is not done right and this is not I what I wanted. So this is essentially a time when you can really go crazy with the experiments and do whatever you like. And that’s what I think you should also do-not be afraid of taking risks and just go for it – because those experiments and explorations that you do at those times, is what will really feed you for the rest of your time, because that will build that mindset of really exploring, going out of your way and also some experiments which would have failed then, might work much later on, when you have more wisdom, perhaps at least that’s what happened to me and Anjali, that our classroom project is now what we’re doing full time.
Sushi: That’s great! So thank you again for sharing all this gyaan .
Aditi: Really sweet of you to say that.
Sushi: I’m sure a lot of people would be very excited to listen to this. This is a lot to take away and even I have learned a lot from this whole discussion that we have had. So, [00:33:00] do you have a social media page that our listeners can follow you at?
Aditi: We have a website which is http://www.gudgudee.in. And we are also active on Instagram, and on Facebook.
Sushi: And where can we find your trampolines?
Aditi: In a park in Chandigarh coming soon!
Sushi: Okay. So look out for that!