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Urban play

There is no doubt that the built environment has a massive influence on how we live. It is the physical amplification of socioeconomic, cultural, environmental, and political power. But what does this mean to a child?

The structural arrangement of the city reflected in my daily routine growing up. Being privileged to live in proximity to my school, I could see a section of my school’s building as soon as I came out of my house. By 6:40 a.m., we would start our 10-minute walk to school. Nothing woke you up like the morning breeze as we strolled through the dilapidated residential street, dodging potholes, getting pushed to the other side of the road by barking dogs, and minding their poop. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. It was very rare that we were outdoors. But, at day’s end, that 10-minute journey to school was reduced to a three-minute journey going back home, in the comfort of a school bus.

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Trips to an SM mall were always an escape from our weekday routine. Whenever an adult lured us into going out, it always began with “Pasyal tayo sa SM,” and never to an outdoor space. I believe the scarcity of green and blue corners in a dense, urban environment like Manila took a toll on my childhood. But can you really blame my guardians for taking us to a mall instead of a park?

You are likely to pass seven shopping malls on the way to the Quezon Memorial Circle from Fairview. It was the only park I knew growing up. Of, course the proximity of shopping malls appealed more, not to mention the gas you saved or the cost of the fare. The malls also offered free air-conditioning, something not everyone had at home.

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I recall that SM Fairview had an indoor theme park — Storyland. It was located on the top floor, so my grandma could easily avoid Storyland; going there meant denting the week’s budget, as there were three of us eager to immerse in the pleasures of the indoor park. As you got closer to the top floor, you could hear the screams and practically feel the adrenaline of the kids lost at play in that piece of paradise.

But who said you had to be loaded with money to enjoy the mall? I vividly recall enjoying merely how the mall looked and was designed, from the shiny tiled floor that I used as an imaginary skating rink as I glided my mules from side to side, down to the free ride offered by an escalator. Every ride was accompanied by a gentle reminder from my grandma that I should hold on to the handrail for safety. The slow movement of the escalators gave me enough time to gaze at the tantalizing displays of shops all around. The elevator, on the other hand, offered not only the chance to press the floor buttons, but sometimes also a panoramic view of the entire mall. It comes as no surprise that I discovered my fear of heights in a shopping mall.

Hide-and-seek games also occurred in the department store, when time stood still under the hands of an indecisive guardian. I’d scamper along the maze-like garment rails, my hand gliding over the clothes to feel the changing texture of the fabrics as I looked for my siblings who were also my playmates, not minding the disapproving eyes of retail staff.

You didn’t go home from a mall in tears due to contusions from a mishap. More likely, it was because you were deprived of something material that you had wanted out of impulse. Neither did you go home armed with stories such as how you stood up to a bully kid — because you rarely got the chance to interact with other children.

Since shopping malls are tightly woven into Manila’s urban fabric, it is easy for big corporations to capitalize on us consumers as we constantly seek comfort and pleasure. My notion of childhood was interlinked with a quasi-public space — a shopping mall. As tragic as that sounds, I think I turned out fine, although it meant that certain milestones were achieved at a later age: riding a two-wheeled bike, for instance, a progress from the recumbent bike we once rented at the Quezon Memorial Circle.

As an adult, I often find myself catching up with certain aspects of my childhood that I missed out on. Overall, the aspect of play has been undermined by cramped, dangerous urban life, but it is essential for the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development of children. There is no doubt that the city of Manila is in dire need of more appealing public spaces and learning environments, where closer interactions with families and communities can be nurtured and where playful engagement among children can take place. Remember, it is through play that we slowly discover and make sense of the world.

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Louise Anne Virrey, 26, has a master’s in international urban planning and sustainable development from the University of Westminster. She is currently looking to work in Asia Pacific and train toward being a licensed urban planner.

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TAGS: Louise Anne Virrey, urban playgrounds, Young Blood
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