Experiencing Play and Peace in Mumbai's Aarey Forest

We are lucky to work with trainers around the world who are incredibly dedicated to creating peace in areas experiencing conflict. A perfect example of this is Nikhil Mehta, our trainer in Mumbai, India. Not long ago, he hosted a Play for Peace session in the Aarey Colony, a densely forested area located in the heart of Mumbai, which has recently been in the news due to conflict. People in the area have been dealing with a local project to build a new metro system through the Aarey Colony that would lessen heavy congestion and traffic in the city. However, doing so means cutting down thousands of trees and decimating the local ecosystem—which has further ramifications on the environment. The local community wants the forest to be declared a protected area—which was dismissed by India’s high courts—and there have been serious protests as a result. By bringing Play for Peace into this community, we hope that we can help those dealing with the conflict, bringing peace to the area and supporting their efforts. Below, Nikhil recounts the session he led with people in the Aarey Forest and their reactions to Play for Peace.

We did a Play for Peace session at the Aarey Forest in Mumbai the other day. There were 12 of us, including five Aarey volunteers and seven members from the last few remaining tribal families in Mumbai, who live in the Aarey Forest. The participants included a young child, teenagers, adults, and an elderly (yet young at heart!) older woman. The venue was the home of one of the tribal families living in the Aarey forest. 

It was my first time there, and from the moment I arrived I began to experience “timelessness.” Timelessness is considered to be an integral aspect of a deep sense of playfulness. For me personally, the “play had begun the moment I entered the forest, and we were given a warm welcome by the family members and the nature around us. I was also trying to get used to the fact that we were still in the midst of the fast-paced metropolitan city of Mumbai. It did not feel like that at all! I found it interesting that the Aarey Forest has around 27 ‘padas’ (hamlets), which are home to tribal families who live there in harmony both with nature and other beings. It is a world within a world, with its own ecosystem and way of living, developed over many years and generations of life. 

After a warm welcome—a heartfelt exchange of words and smiles that helped to build a socioemotional safety net for everyone in that space—we had a small initial chat. I made the participants aware that each of them had a choice to participate however they’d like, which was followed by an hour of  playing, laughing, and interacting with each other. It was wonderful to see everyone’s feeling of safety and joy increase as the session progressed. After an immersive session of play and laughter, we sat and reflected on our experience. Here are some of the reactions:

  • One of the Aarey volunteers shared that the session had a therapeutic impact on his family members.
  • Another young boy expressed his joy in seeing his father laugh so much during the session, something that was quite rare to see in daily life. 
  • Another member shared how the situation in the Aarey forest has made things quite stressful, and that the play session and positive connections was a welcome change for them! 
  • Some of the women shared their gratitude for being part of the session, since they are usually busy with household chores and don’t find time for themselves. (Even during the session, we kept on gently inviting them to join us, since they were either shy or busy with household work). 
  • Another Aarey volunteer shared how she has always liked being playful, but somehow cannot express that aspect of herself in front of her family members. She was glad that she was able to do so in this space. 

I then shared with them the core values of Play for Peace and how they play a significant role in creating the space of joy, care, and inclusiveness. I also explained that the reason behind introducing Play for Peace in Aarey forest was to give them a new way to deal with conflict, especially if we want to get through difficult situations together. 

It continues to amaze me how one session of Play for Peace can have such a positive impact. However, the journey doesn’t need to end after one session—it is just the beginning. The group was interested in Play for Peace training so that they can continue the journey of cooperative play, inclusiveness, and positive connections with more members of the Aarey community.

—Nikhil Mehta, Play for Peace trainer