Mumbai isn’t known for being child- friendly. The city has few parks or playgrounds and the streets are dangerously chaotic. A standard outing involves a trip to the mall, a bite at the food court and a movie. Summer vacations often mean activity classes, Xbox and cartoon reruns. But even in this bustling city, there are some magical places where children can romp, laze and have some good old-fashioned fun. Bijal Vachharajani finds 20 things that children can do to make the most of growing up in Mumbai.
1. Live inside an old shoe
The laced-up beige Shoe House at the Hanging Gardens is more dilapidated than fashionable. But after having read the tale of The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe and Puss in Boots, your child’s imagination is bound to be tickled by the shoe’s little windows and balcony. The Pheroze Shah Mehta Garden, as the garden is officially called, also affords a fantastic view of the city skyline. Kids can also hop across to the Harish Mahindra Children’s Park in Breach Candy. Backed by a grant of R 3.5 crore, the park has been efficiently sliced into age-specific play zones, which are equipped with multi-seesaws, spinner bowls and five-way swings. The play equipment doesn’t have any sharp edges and the park is fitted with ramps for children with special needs – a rarity in a city of millions and just 287 playgrounds for children.
2. Gorge on a giant cupcake
In Enid Blyton books, tea time means a table groaning with buttered scones and jams, slabs of cake and ginger ale. Indians generally prefer tiffin to high tea, but that shouldn’t deter you and your child from heading to the many cupcake shops in the city and gorging on their delicious fare. You don’t need to wait for a birthday party to order the giant cupcake – weighing one-and-a-half kilos – at bakeries like Butterfly in Khar and Tart in Bandra. The cupcakes come in the colours of the rainbow and in luscious combinations such as chocolate with peanut butter or vanilla, dark chocolate with hazelnuts and vanilla and lemon. The gooey delights come topped with heaps of frosting, chocolate sprinkles, toasted nuts and gleaming fondants – yummy enough to satisfy the Famous Five.
3. Shake a leg at Summer Funk
Childhood sometimes means fulfilling the annoying demands of adults, such as demonstrating your moves on request to a roomful of big people. But the kids who have participated in Summer Funk, the dance workshop organised by the Shiamak Davar’s Institute for the Performing Arts, are probably be more than happy to oblige. Davar’s vacation programme is not just an opportunity for kids to learn how to dance to a popular Hindi film song, but also to enjoy themselves, make new friends and overcome stage fright. The Summer Funk instructors are friendly and patient and the classes strike a fine balance between encouraging discipline and team spirit and simply having fun.
4. Go ahead, climb a tree
With over 19 lakh trees in the city, there’s really no excuse for never having climbed a tree. At the Maharashtra Nature Park in Mahim, there are plenty of solid trees with low hanging branches that are easy to scale and relatively safe to climb. Climbing trees isn’t just about athletic skills and dexterity. It allows kids to let their imagination run wild – pretend to be a pirate looking out for enemy ships or a Neanderthal hiding from dinosaurs. For more cautious folks, there are even tree climbing guides available online. Groups like Sprouts organises nature trails where children can climb trees under supervision.
5. Try sandwich ice cream
Before ice cream chains made their way to the city, K Rustom & Co in Churchgate was where families went to get their sugar fix. At this Parsi-owned establishment, you won’t find air-conditioning or cheerful plastic interiors. Yet scores of Mumbaikars return to the shop regularly for a hunky slab of ice cream that comes sandwiched between a pair of wafer biscuits. The thin wafers provide a satisfying crunch with the frozen ice cream. There are over 40 flavours to choose from, including strawberry, raspberry, walnut crunch and kesar pista. For the less adventurous, there are juices such as lychee and strawberry. While the décor hasn’t changed over the years, the prices have – ice creams start from R 25 and go up to R 60.
6. Look up and be star-struck
With a sky perpetually hidden by a thick layer of smog, spotting stars in Mumbai can be as difficult as cracking a trigonometry test. A good reason to head to the Nehru Planetari-um , which introduces children to the winking lights in the night sky. Once your kids can differentiate between the Ursa major and minor constellations, grab a telescope and sign up for an overnight star-gazing camp. Budding astronomers can learn how to identify planets and watch for meteor showers. The Akash Ganga Centre for Astronomy even shows children how to make their own telescope to observe the moon’s many mountains and measure the depth of its craters.
7. Walk the city’s wild side
Ignore the canoodling couples at the entrance of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, go past the Tiger and Lion Safari and head to either the Silonda trail or the Kanheri Caves. The 104 sq-km city forest is a crucial green lung for Mumbai and also supplies fresh water to the city. It’s the best place for children to get a first-hand experience of nature. The park “harbours 290 species of birds, 150 species of butterflies, over 1,000 flowering plants, 40 mammals and a host of reptiles and amphibians”, according to Sanctuary Asia, India’s foremost wildlife magazine. A walk through the forest reveals fat caterpillars patiently chomping on leaves, signature spiders weaving their intricate webs, colourful butterflies flitting around medicinal plants, all unfolding against a background score of chirping birds. The city might be perennially muggy and grey, but the forest makes your child more conscious of the changing seasons – watch the leaves turn colour, the dry water beds fill up to become gurgling streams and observe the different animals that live in the forest.
8. Get on a double decker bus
Whenever Harry Potter is on the run, all he has to do is stick out his wand and the Knight Bus, a triple decker purple bus, turns up to help stranded wizards like him. Mumbai kids don’t need to wave a wand to get on the BEST double decker bus. This iconic vehicle has been part of the city’s transport system since 1937, and Mumbai is one of the few cities in the world where double deckers are still running – though on fewer and fewer routes. Hop on to bus number 138 at the Back Bay bus depot. Climb up to the top deck – there’s a conductor on both decks – and sit right at the front to enjoy an unparalleled view of South Mumbai as the bus goes from the World Trade Centre to CST via Mantralaya.
9. Build castles in the sand
We couldn’t help but roll our eyes when we saw packaged coloured sand making its appearance in local toy stores. Mumbai may not be plush with parks or gardens but it does have a few sandy beaches – and not all of them are too filthy to play in. Instead of buying your child bottles of coloured sand to make sculptures inside a plastic tank, pack a bucket, a trowel and head to Juhu beach. Both wet and dry sand are perfect for building grand castles, complete with turrets and domes to rival any fortress in Lord of the Rings. Don’t forget to guard the castle with a moat full of imaginary crocodiles and water snakes.
10. Write to a pen friend
If the only time your child writes a letter is during language class in school, then it’s time to get him or her a pen friend. All the efficiency of email cannot rival the small joys of the lost art of letter writing – from writing on pretty stationary and learning about a new culture to getting a letter in the post (with a stamp on it!). There are plenty of safe websites where you can help your child find a pen friend, whether in India or abroad. Who knows, your child might pick up a lifelong friend or if nothing else, just enjoy writing a letter the traditional way.
11. Invest in seed capital
As trees continue to be illegally felled, there’s one way in which your child can make a meaningful contribution to the city. And for that your child doesn’t even need a green thumb. Organisations like the Bombay Natural History Society conduct regular tree plantation drives where children can plant saplings and learn how to nurture them. As your child grows up, so will the tree. At the BNHS Conservation Education Centre in Goregaon, children can plant a sapling, have brunch with birds and butterflies and play nature games while getting acquainted with the denizens of the jungle. They can also camp at the CEC with their family.
12. Take a spin on the ferry
Hop on to the ferry at the Gateway of India that transports hundreds of tourists around the Mumbai harbour. Choose from the 30- minute joy ride that takes you on a short spin around the Gateway or the one hour-ride to Elephanta Island. As you and your family set sail across the water, tell your children the story behind the Gateway of India– it was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to India in 1911 and was opened to the public on December 4, 1924. Years before enterprising photographers were shooting instant photos of visitors, before the Gateway was even built, writes Jim Masselos in Bombay Then, Mumbai Now, “society ladies took tea under their parasols on the stone quay”. If you’re sailing to Elephanta, keep an eye out for migratory birds.
13. Go to Rani Bagh
Where would you go in Mumbai if you wanted to see an Adansonia digitata from Africa or a Delonix regia from Madagascar? Both these trees – the baobab and the gulmohar – can be seen at the 150-year-old Veermata Jijabai Bhonsale Udyan (Rani Bagh) in Byculla. The botanical garden shares space with the dilapidated city zoo. According to the Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Action Committee, the 53-acre park is home to 3,213 trees of 276 species. This green patch in the middle of the bustling city also is home to fruit bats and bird species such as the golden oriole, paradise flycatcher and magpie robin. You can also take your kids to the Bhau Daji Lad Museum nearby to marvel at the lacquer ware, bidri work and papier mache apart from the beautiful old maps and clay figurines that offer an intriguing glimpse into a bygone era. The museum also conducts regular art workshops for kids. Ages 7+.
14. Enrol in a library
Instead of signing up the kids for dozens of classes and activities, let them get a taste of reading the old-fashioned way – by browsing and borrowing books from a neighbourhood library. For a nominal deposit and rental fee, Reading Tree in Worli lets children dawdle and read books at their library. In fact, the library has a firm rule that while the children select the books, parents have to wait outside. In a bid to get children to become bookworms, Reading Tree also organises regular storytelling sessions and craft activities. Another library, Akshara in Colaba, has a sizeable collection of books for toddlers as well as young adults. If you can’t locate a library close by, check the local newspaper recycling shop – most of them stock children’s books. You can also become a member of online libraries such as the British Library (www.britishcouncilonline.org) or Leaping Windows (www.leapingwindows.com), which stocks a staggering range of comics.
15. Set sail to new lands
Ahoy there, Sinbad! Children can become seasoned mariners by enrolling in special sailing programmes that are offered across the city. Mumbai’s three sailing clubs – the Bombay Sailing Association, the Royal Bombay Yacht Club and the Colaba Sailing Club – offer a Joint Optimist Training Programme. Launched in 1999, the programme is designed for children between the ages of eight and 15. Kids can learn how to sail the Optimist, a boat that has been especially designed for little ones. A little further away, Club Aquasail at Mandwa Beach conducts regular programmes in which children can learn sailing or windsurfing. They also offer family camps.
16. Star in a fairy tale
“Once upon a time, there was a girl called Rhea” is not a fairy tale one would usually come across. But at the Indus Bookstore at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Kalina, children can become the heroes of their favourite fairy tale. The bookstore has collaborated with Dolphin Publishing to customise your child’s favourite story by inserting his or her name in place of the protagonist in the book. All you need to do is give your child’s name along with his or her three best friends’ names. Titles include classic fairy tales such as Cinderella, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. This book will be a keepsake for years to come.
17. Hang out at Prithvi Since its first outing in 1991, Prithvi Theatre’s annual festival for children has become the city’s most awaited summer event. The three-month long festival brings together poetry, music, theatre, writing and dance through workshops. Parents are known to get up at the crack of dawn to queue up to enrol their wards in the Summertime workshops so that the kids can spend the holidays juggling like a clown, rhyming words and imbibing a love for theatre. The festival is also a great place to catch children’s plays – in the past, theatre groups have staged adaptations of books by Ruskin Bond and Enid Blyton as well as original plays in English, Hindi and Marathi. Over the weekend, kids can participate in workshops which are conducted by scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
18. Befriend a stray dog
Cramped apartments often deter Mumbai families from adopting a pet, but that doesn’t mean that your kid can’t get a chance to bond with an animal. At the Welfare of Stray Dogs kennel in Mahalaxmi, children can volunteer to walk the stray pooches and even give them a nice long bath. Kids can meet Kali, a dog who lives at the WSD kennel. Kali has a permanent limp, but she doesn’t mind her handicap so much when she gets petted and pampered by children. The reward for your child is an excited bark, a vigorously wagging tail and a wet lick. Bliss.
19. Learn a Karadi Tale
A baby elephant is really upset because he keeps tripping on his really long trunk. Little Vinayak, which stars the baby elephant, is just one of the stories forming part of the treasure trove of Karadi Tales, the audiobooks produced by a Chennai-based company. Narrated by the likes of cricketer Rahul Dravid and actor Vidya Balan, the audio CD comes with a lavishly illustrated book. The stories are fun – there’s one about a super yogi called Super Hathaman, there’s The Lizard’s Tale, about a lizard frantically looking for his tail, and there’s Crickematics, about a cricket-crazy boy. The Charkha audiobook series introduces kids to the world of leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and former president APJ Abdul Kalam. The stories are a delight to learn, and are sure to impress the sternest visiting aunts and uncles.
20. Conduct an experiment
The dictionary meaning of a pulley is a “sheave or small wheel with a grooved rim and with or without the block in which it runs used singly with a rope or chain to change the direction and point of application of a pulling force and in various combinations to increase the applied force especially for lifting weights”. Read that to 10-year-olds and watch their eyes glaze over. But take them to the Nehru Science Centre to see first-hand how a pulley operates and their eyes will sparkle. Spread across five levels, the Science Centre’s experiments are great fun to try – kids can wave their hands above a virtual pond to see how ripples form in water, jump around on a floor piano to understand sound waves and find out why our nose can identify 50,000 scents. The Nehru Science Centre often hosts temporary exhibitions on topics such as the human immune system. The centre also screens 3D films and have established the Science Odyssey theatre, which screens wide-angle images that stretch 180 degrees horizontally and 135 degrees vertically.
If I were a kid for a day, I would… What is there for kids to do today? Everything is indoors these days. When I was a kid, I used to play downstairs in my gully near my Gowalia Tank home and in August Kranti Maidan. We used to cycle in the maidan, run races and play games like leapfrog. I don’t know if there was more open space in those days, but we were certainly more open to playing outdoors than today’s kids are. Every holiday I would go to Marve, where my aunt had a house by the beach. It was a different world and if I were a kid, I would love to go back there. I would also love to eat pani puris and ice golas at Gowalia Tank. I can’t any more – my immunity was better as a kid.
By Bijal Vachharajani, Suhani Singh on March 31 2011 6.30pm