This changemaker is promoting holistic growth by building playgrounds for underprivileged children
IIT graduate Pooja Rai and Nancy Charaya co-founded Anthill Creations and has built over 250 playgrounds across 16 states in India.
Friday August 21, 2020,
5 min Read
In her third year of bachelor’s in Architecture from IIT-Kharagpur, Pooja Rai wrote a book recounting the journey and experiences of women entrepreneurs in India, called The Road Not Taken. One lesson that stuck with her from the interactions was that there is no right time when the entrepreneurial spirit is ready to take off.
This eventually served as an impetus for Pooja to start a non-profit organisation Anthill Creations, which has now built more than 250 playgrounds for underprivileged children across 16 states in India. The idea, she says, is to promote holistic development and learning for children beyond the four walls of classroom.
However, while Pooja was aware of the importance of playgrounds, teachers and principals in the communities raised the concern of playgrounds being a distraction. “Being used to a traditional form of education in India, we do not realise the learnings that happen in the playgrounds. It is important to look beyond developing an aptitude for numbers and maths.”
Pooja says that a child can develop physical, social, emotional, and cognitive skills while playing. “In a see-saw that requires two people to play, they interact and learn to negotiate and make compromises. They would then stand in queue to wait for their turn to go on a swing and learn patience. These are the life skills needed in today's time that classroom curriculum cannot teach,” she explains.
Playgrounds for growth
All work and no play do make students dull. In fact, adding a mix of physical activity to their routine in school readies the brain for learning, according to Dr John Ratey, author and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
As a college student, Pooja and her friends used to distribute food and blankets to celebrate birthdays and festivals. However, she noticed the lack of a playground when she saw children playing with broken cement pipes. Pooja and some of her friends decided to put their practical knowledge in architecture to test by building one playground.
“We didn’t have a lot of money and designed one using a few tyres. Fortunately, more people including college alumni joined us and we raised funds from Michen Tyres who also sent us tyres from Chennai.”
Little did she know she would be building a career out of it.
A year after graduation when she worked as a product manager at Stayzilla in Bangaluru, requests to build similar playgrounds kept pouring in from across the country and Pooja quit her job to start Anthill Creations with co-founder Nancy Charaya in 2017.
The organisation was part of IIM-Bangalore’s first incubator programme for non-profit organisations.
Her work is now being supported by donor companies like TATA Steel, Bharat Petroleum Corporation, PNB Housing, Mahindra & Mahindra, Axis Bank, ITC, Wells Fargo, Salesforce, and Cisco.
While some donors are specific regarding where they would like a playground, in most cases, the organisation’s 18-member team looks at the needs of the community and builds one.
Having built more than 250 playgrounds so far, her team visits them every six months for a quality check and tries to transfer the ownership to the community such as nearby school within a year. Pooja says the playgrounds are low-maintenance and built of durable material and comes with a maintenance guide booklet as well.
Even so, Pooja believes that building a few hundred playgrounds do not solve the problem. “Our model is scalable and we want take it further. We are looking to work with the government and the local communities. We have prepared step-by-step plans of each of our design elements and how to build it,” says the changemaker who also won GP Birla Fellowship for Women Leaders and Fellowship at the Startup Leadership Program in Bangalore. Also an Ashoka Changemaker, the IIT graduate was part of the Empretec Programme for India by the UNCTAD (UN Conference on Trade And Development).
Bringing “play” home
Around 15 days after COVID-19 broke out in India and the government imposed nationwide lockdown in March, the team of Anthill Creations started designing a new product called Play in a box. It comprises six games including foldable hopscotch mat that children can safely play at home.
Many parents had reached out to the organisation about their children being stuck at home. “If children can't come to the playground, we started looking if we can take play to them. They have lots of energy and if they are not going to school, especially students of government schools, they don't have other ways of learning,” Pooja says, adding that they hoped to keep them engaged through activities at home.
Pooja, now 29, has always been conscious of having started the organisation at a young age and with very little work experience. “There are challenges but if you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you figure out the way,” she says, adding what she lacked in terms of experience was positively complemented by mentors who have helped her in the journey. This includes the likes of Nagaraja Prakasam, Partner at Acumen Fund, and K R Lakshminarayana, Chief Endowment Officer at Azim Premji Foundation.
Still, she makes it a point to continue learning by reading books that document the journey and stories of extraordinary people. One of her favourite reads is The Hard Thing about Hard Thing: Building a Business When There are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz. A veteran entrepreneur from the Silicon Valley, he tells his story of founding, running, and investing in technology companies.
Inspired by stalwarts, she moves forward, helping bring “play” in into the lives of children, and much-needed all-round development.
Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan