Six years ago, while studying at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Aditi Agrawal and Anjali Menon took a course called Design for Special Needs, which required them to frequently visit a school run by the Blind People’s Association (BPA).
During these visits, they would sit through the classes and observe their teaching methodology. It was then they realised that while visually-impaired children had many activities to undertake within their classrooms, they seldom got the opportunity to go out and experience playing outdoors.
This got Aditi and Anjali, both furniture design graduates, asking themselves how many differently abled children use public playgrounds today. And the answer was: none!
“The blind children’s classroom was their world. Their parents would hardly take them outside, for two reasons — one, the social stigma attached, and two, because the existing play equipment was unsuitable to these kids,” says Aditi.
And it was this gap the two friends decided to fill by designing a playground where these kids could play along with their siblings and anyone else who visited this school. The design, says Anjali, was meant to be just conceptual. But the teachers and staff at the school liked it so much that they asked if it could be executed.
This playground went on to win an International design award, the iF Concept Design Award in 2013, and boosted their confidence.
So when Aditi and Anjali thought of starting their own design studio, they went back to what they had once started – and Gudgudee was born.
Started in 2014, the design firm aspires to transform public spaces and improve the quality of life. As a step towards the same, they build innovative playspaces and outdoor furniture for such spaces.
“While designing for BPA, we realised that the conventional swings and slides were not appropriate for special children. We could have taken the easy route and just added a belt, safety harness or a ramp to these equipment. But that wasn’t the most exciting option. We wanted everyone to play together and learn from each other,” says Anjali.
When they conceptualised Gudgudee, they made it about designing play experiences that were inclusive in nature, where children of all abilities could play. They integrate sensory elements like tactile and sounds in their playspaces.
“We do not only design for special-needs children, we design for everyone. They have to be a part of the same society as everyone else, and that cannot happen in isolation. So we design play experiences that are fun for everyone,” she points out.
At their recent TEDx talk, the duo asked, “why do we, as a society, not design things keeping in mind special-needs people? It’s certainly not impossible. There have been plenty of examples around the world where designers have created inclusive play environments. In a country like India, where open spaces have reduced by 60% from the 1980s due to urbanisation, it becomes crucial to design those limited spaces better to cater to a larger population.”
They added that if everything was designed keeping in mind those with special needs, it would be a step towards making the society a more inclusive one.
At present, their playspaces are at Jai Vakeel School, Mumbai; The Northstar School, Rajkot; Victoria Memorial School, Mumbai and Jai Prakash Narayan Interpretation Centre, Lucknow. They have designed outdoor furniture for Ashoka University, Sonepat, among other places.
The most challenging part for the duo has been making people realise the value of playgrounds.
“Since most people have never seen anything beyond the conventional ready-to-play equipment, it becomes difficult for them to imagine anything different. But slowly that’s changing,” says Aditi.
Currently, the duo is working on Rang Maidaan, a project in collaboration with Playground Ideas, which is a global community of playground builders. Together, they are targeting to build 50 playgrounds across the country using low-cost recycled materials.
“The idea is to reach out to schools and communities that can only dream of a playground. Having a playspace or an area for self-expression for children is a very essential part of growing up,” they say.
To know more about Gudgudee, visit their website here.