Making Play the New Normal!

Making Play the New Normal!

  
Shweta Chari Shweta Chari
Founder and CEO

Shweta Chari is the Founder and CEO of Toybank. She envisions a world where all children are empowered through healthy play.

If I asked you to revisit your childhood and imagine your life without playtime, what would it be like? It would be drab, right? Without play, you would have also missed out on other great things—the most important one being resilience. It’s like a game of Snakes and Ladders. You’re ready to march on even when you’re bitten by a snake. That’s what being resilient means. Being constantly challenged but carrying on.

This is the crux of what my journey with Toybank has been about.

Fifteen years ago, on the last day of my engineering exams, I went from the examination hall to the shelter home for young boys where I was a volunteer math teacher. I didn’t even look back! All these years later, I still haven’t.

Initially, I had more enthusiasm than the kids. I thought that was because they were overburdened with studies and didn’t need to be saddled with more. They also had no time to play, so we played board games instead, and they immediately became more receptive towards me and let me into their world. They also made me see that play not only made them joyful, but that it was also good for their emotional and mental well-being, their learning and development.

The joy that games brought to the children at the shelter home led to Toybank’s first toy distribution drive among underserved kids at three locations in Mumbai in 2004. I realised there was so much work I had to do. I needed to do it well and do it well within our lifetime, because every hour wasted, a childhood – that integral part of life – was lost somewhere. A deprived childhood has the potential to lead to a tough adulthood. Mental well-being in early childhood had taken a backseat and I wanted to create a solid, empathetic society at large.

I volunteered for six years at Toybank before getting the organisation registered in 2009 and in 2010, I left my job in the corporate sector to focus full-time on Toybank. I saw in the kids a desperate need for a happy childhood so they could grow up with joyful memories, safe spaces to belong in, and be better individuals filled with kindness and empathy.

Every time a child picks up a game, it feels like handing them the reins of their future. I’ve seen our play programs do great things for our beneficiaries as they became better human beings and in so doing, made the world a kinder place. Establishing the importance of play for child development when nutrition, health and education take the front seat (and rightly so) can be an uphill task. But it’s my unshakable belief in its value that has kept me going.

From distributing toys and games among 1,000 children at three locations in Mumbai, we have gone on to set up Toybank Play2Learn Centers that have specific and highly-curated Play Activities and theme-based Play2Learn Sessions that impact 56,000+ at-risk children in the state of Maharashtra every day. And it’s been worth every second of my time and every bit of sweat and blood.

Today, the significance of Play is more apparent than ever, though we’ve been making the most of it for 15 years. Not many may have noticed, but Playtime with all sorts of games—tabletop, cards, online gaming, etc—came to the rescue for millions of families across the world when social distancing was recommended to control the spread of COVID-19. The UK saw a 240 percent spike in sales of board games, puzzles and building sets. Global toy and games manufacturers have gained 31 percent since March and have beaten a whopping 68 industries for the first time in 13 years!

When the lockdown was announced, my first thought was about how the kids would play, learn and be in safe, happy spaces. Like the children at our Play2Learn Centers said, “I miss my friends and my teachers. Summer vacations at the Centers were all about playing for long hours but that’s missing. I have difficulty understanding anything in our online classes. I want people to visit us but then again, I don’t want them to because I am scared.” For us, that meant acting fast and with all our might.

‘Power of Play’ is a robust phrase and a lived reality for our beneficiaries. At our Play2Learn Centers, children find a way to make sense of things, have control on their world in the face of helplessness and confusion through our Play programs. I believe, ‘Play Must Go On’, no matter what. One way of doing that has been working on our ToybankPlayAtHomeKit.

Every time I look at photos of kids using our kit, it brings me as much joy as it does to them. Especially when I see them making the best of what they have just so that they can play. They do not have printers at home, so they draw Word Search puzzles or use pulses and coins if they don’t have pawns for games. They are constantly improvising and proving what ingenious individuals they are!

As we stay indoors, I would like nothing more than for Play to be the new normal. For me, Play is the greatest place children can have to be safe, happy and grow meaningfully.


You can help Toybank ensure that children have routine-like normalcy, stay meaningfully engaged and mentally stimulated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Donate to Toybank and you provide children with digital #ToybankPlayAtHomeKit with games, activities and more. Donate here.

As one of the first stories told by Our Better World, Toybank has a special place in the heart of the team at Our Better World. We continue to support the invaluable work of Shweta and her team at Toybank in building resilience in the children of India. 

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Shweta Chari Shweta Chari
Founder and CEO
Shweta Chari is the Founder and CEO of Toybank. She envisions a world where all children are empowered through healthy play.