Mountain Walking

The Biggest Playground in the World

Life in the mountains is tough on a good day. And when I say tough I mean it in a non-glamorous manner of expression: one has to walk most places, one has to climb up or down several times in a day, distances are measured in time and time itself is not measured really but experienced.

But it isn’t tough when you grow up in the mountains: it’s just life. Exactly how city-life or village-life in the plains would seem tough to people from outside, but to those born in such places, it’s just life.

And that’s how it is for children growing up in the Himalayas and any other mountain. No matter how hard or easy life is for the grown-ups, the child’s world is about exploration, finding new games to play, understanding the world around them to differentiate between danger and safety, and learning more about themselves, their surroundings and their friends.  

I met this group of children in Sangla on our March 2016 trip across Kinnaur. March is towards the end of winter, the landscape in Sangla is dry, somewhat dusty, the air is cold but the sun’s up there, and everything in the valley is starting to stir in anticipation of spring and summer.

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Children at play in the mountains have endless occupation. Photo: sanjay mukherjee

Watching these children play, I was reminded of how rich and plentiful my childhood was, growing up in Shimla. Children in Himachal have the largest, the largest possible ‘Slide’ one can have anywhere in the world: the mountainside! These kids had these wooden sleds (two-three wooden planks nailed and then tied together with rope) and they carried it, slung on their backs with a rope, as they walked talking of adventures and new ideas, all the while looking for a new place to slide. I had spotted them and was following their conversation and movement from a distance. Suddenly one of them broke off mid-sentence and clambered up his huge rock he spotted, placed the plank under his bottom and slid down the slab of rock. Everyone started smiling, and one by one the others soon followed suit. Then they moved on to find other ‘slides’, which they found soon enough, on the other side of the road: in the form of the slope down the other side – the loose soil and crushed gravel made perfect sense as a slide.

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The road obstructs an otherwise nice ride; Photo: Sanjay Mukherjee

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Observing and analyzing the skills required to avoid mistakes in technique; Photo: Sanjay Mukherjee

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Now this can be done all day – up and down and up and down; Photo: Sanjay Mukherjee

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It’s time to test theory in practice; Photo: Sanjay Mukherjee

In the winters, it’s the same wooden sled, the same mountainside, but it’s woolen clothes and a snow-slide! In autumns, it’s a slide down a bed of dried leaves. In the monsoons, it’s the roughest form of rivulet and brook rafting you can imagine: same wooden sled under the bum, a rush of giggling water down the tiny-ravine-like crevices on that same mountain-slope, and off you go! (though it’s only the really adventurous kids who try this one).

And that’s just the slide. I remember with alarming clarity the hills I scaled with my friends and siblings in search of new ‘lands’ or the forts we built of stone and mud to defend our kingdom from brutal ‘invaders’. Every once in a while, we would hop onto a neighbour’s dog and gallop on our horses till of course we were felled by arrows (the dog dumped us off its back). Wooden boats and makeshift canoes would be built in monsoons from twigs, leaves, planks and branches; carts, trains, blocks, all sorts of animals, farms, and toys would be constructed from wood, red-soil clay, leaves, branches and any other material we could lay our hands on; in the winter, snow would change the setting and therefore story of our playground; snowmen, snowballs, snow-slides, snow-castles, snow-adventure… there was no end to occupation for children at play.

And this was just regular play. One could lend a hand at a farm, go off with an elder to forage for plants, hike for a few hours following a friend’s herd of sheep or goat or cattle; gather twigs and sticks for firewood (my favorite since it gave me opportunity to find curiously shaped roots and branches for my collection) … not to mention hill-slope-top cricket, hill-slope-top football and of course, hide-and-keep-seeking.  All of this in the company of friends and siblings who kept curiosity and imagination cooking all the while.

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Not your regular boundary fielders; Photo: Ameen Shaikh

Today, in a world full of wonderful technologies and a veritable plethora of opportunities to learn, I see so many apps and programs and classes and methods and videos and whatnot and dot dot, all talking about ‘play’, ‘game-based learning’, ’engagement’,’creativity’, ‘innovation’ … and I keep wondering where the playground is for anyone to play and play and play … because creativity and learning and innovation develop when one has space, some stuff and a whole lot of time to think and do something with all of it.

And so when I return to my life in the city (which I also love and am thankful for), I keep reminding myself that a mountain is not just the largest slide but the biggest playground that a child could have, and am grateful for the many playgrounds that nature has given us to explore.

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