Published: 11th November 2020
These IIT Kharagpur alums have built hundreds of playgrounds across India. This is Anthill's incredible story
We speak to Pooja Rai, founder and CEO of Anthill Creations, on what inspired her to upcycle waste to build playgrounds for kids all across the country
During her final year studying Architecture at IIT Kharagpur, Pooja Rai and four of her batchmates decided to spread happiness to some young children around them. And in that pursuit, five of them embarked on a journey toward building a playground for 250 kids studying at a nearby school. To build this playground, they upcycled drums and repurposed tyres. And behold, a playground was built from the ground up and the kids’ faces had smiles aplenty. Over the next couple of years, Pooja and her friends would go on to build several more of these playgrounds across the country — creating a space for kids to be themselves, to play.
It was the demand for more playgrounds like the one they had built at Kharagpur that made the team realise the need for such spaces. “So many of us talk about the holistic growth of children but never realise how important playing is in that process. When we were called to build playgrounds in other schools and communities, we realise how few spaces were available across the country,” says Pooja. “I never thought that I’ll make a career building playgrounds but I couldn’t stop after realising the need for it,” she adds.
Pooja Rai, Founder and CEO, Anthill Creations
And so, Anthill Creations was born!
So, what can old, worn-out tyres become? “Tyres are versatile and are almost like Lego blocks. You can build something as simple as a stool to sit on or even complex playground structures. We have used tyres to build climbers, elephants, octopuses, bikes and so on,” narrates Pooja. She and her team also conduct workshops where they teach people the ways to repurpose tyres. Pooja says that even though they use waste material for their playgrounds, they ensure it lasts at least 10 years with minimal or no maintenance. “We use truck tyres mostly, as they last much longer. We also use metal and ensure that all the material used is durable and safe for children,” says the 29-year-old.
Four years after that first playground, Anthill Creations has built playgrounds in over 17 states across the country, including Karnataka, Odisha, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. “In several projects, we have worked with corporates and recycled the waste they produced to build items in the playgrounds,” says Pooja. She recalls how they had once tied up with Mahindra and used tyres and cable drums waste from the company for building a playground in Telangana. “Even though the school where we were building was closed for summer vacations, students came in every day to help us build the playground,” says Pooja. Anthill, which is now based in Bengaluru, has built over 100 playgrounds in the city itself.
But the urban arena is not the only market that Anthill caters to. “In Odisha, we have worked in remote rural areas where we have had to transport material on boats to the location,” Pooja says, adding, “It really feels great to work in rural areas as the whole community gets involved in the project. Community involvement gives a sense of responsibility to people over something that they have built themselves and not that someone else has come and built for them. They care for it more and it becomes more sustainable in the long term. In Odisha, all the people in the village came out to help us build the playground in the school.” And school playgrounds are what Anthill specialises in. They collaborate with government schools all over the country to create a play area for children to enjoy. “We have now collaborated with the government of Andhra Pradesh for the Chief Minister’s initiative to improve the infrastructure of the government schools. We are building playgrounds for them,” says Pooja.
One of the areas that Anthill Creations specialises in is building play areas in low-income communities. “We believe access to play is a basic right for children, like food and clothing, and every child deserves it,” Pooja says. Collaborating with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the team even built playgrounds for the Rohingya refugees. “We found an area in the community where people would usually meet. It is like a safe space for them. If they aren’t in their homes, they could go to the playground,” says Pooja, who worked in slums in Delhi and Mewat, Haryana.
To get inspiration about what structures to build in the playground and also to make each of them unique, the team at Anthill spends a few days at a school before embarking on the build. “We interact with the students and try to understand what they want in their playground,” says Pooja. “At a recently built playground, at a girls’ school, we had to build a punching bag out of tyres because the girls really wanted one,” she adds.
Apart from building playgrounds, Anthill Creations also focuses on making cities cleaner. They work on dump yards, transforming them into functional spaces, for both kids and adults to enjoy. In Bengaluru, for example, the not-for-profit organisation has worked beside several lakesides. “We receive funding mostly from CSR initiatives from companies. But sometimes we also receive funding from the government. For example, when we worked with the Bhubaneswar Development Authority in Odisha, they had received funding from Odisha Mining Corporation Limited to build playgrounds across the city as part of their initiative to make the city more child-friendly,” says Pooja, adding, “In the Andhra Pradesh project too, we have received government funding. The people at the schools buy the material and we go and build it.”
An average-sized playground takes around four to five days to build, from the ground up, for the 20-member team, who are often accompanied by volunteers. “Employee engagement programmes also get us lots of volunteers during a build, which happens mostly when there’s corporate funding,” Pooja says.
Like everything else, Anthill Creations also got affected by the pandemic. With schools closed, their initiatives have now halted. However, they didn’t let it dampen their spirits. “Online education hasn’t really reached the government school students and during the lockdown, they have been stuck at home with no place to play,” Pooja says. To help the kids, she and her team developed Play in a Box. “It is a box containing toys and games targeted at six different developmental aspects of a child. Over 1,000 boxes have already been distributed till now,” adds Pooja. She fears about the increase in drop-outs once the schools reopen and hopes that by keeping them engaged even in their homes will prevent that.