This was part of the PATH conference presentation last week.

When PATH did the first mapping of play provision within Tower Hamlets, several ‘Bald Spaces’ were identified.  These were areas where we had no evidence of any play activities happening.

Since this first mapping there have been several momentous changes in those areas that have transformed these isolated bald spots into almost total alopecia. The stress of the creation of the triumphal Olympic site and the added pressures of accompanying massive new housing developments on tiny patches of land (SLOAPs, Spaces Left Over After Planning, that were the failsafe for the playing child) have eradicated the last vestiges of naturally playable space.

This is despite the area being bounded on two sides by the biggest parks in the borough… and their accompanying lines of severance.


It is as ironic as the demolition of the velodrome, which was well used by the people of Tower hamlets and Hackney, to create a new bike track for the Olympics several years into the future.  After the Games are over it will then be demolished – and it seems absurd that a massive finite games fest is rapidly diminishing the spaces and opportunities for infinite free play. 

There was an urgent need for play projects in these areas.  

This need was and continues to be an especially urgent one for children with disabilities. The recent commissioning process for services for children with disabilities has concentrated its spending on segregated non-play based respite. No thought has been given to finding ways for disabled children to play whenever they want to, near their homes, with their peers.  

The playtimes project is designed to address these issues. 

The project has to be sustainable. It has to facilitate the permanent resettling of play culture within the heart of the community, and spread playfulness like a healthy virus.  That’s why, rather than focussing the financial energies of the provision on a playwork team running timetabled play sessions, we have taken another tack.

The thrust of this work is to avoid some of the traps that we playworkers can fall into. Namely, the creation of the perception that it is only safe or possible to go our to play when there are playworkers present.  The myth that only professional playworkers can manage to create a play environment effectively de-skills the community and the children, who develop the perception that they need to have their playing validated by a special group of professionals.

Instead, we are using our playwork skills to gather play memories from community groups, using these to remember the importance and variety of playing that they enjoyed.   We use the memories to look at the role of the outdoor environment, of the child’s discovery play, for themselves.  Using peoples personal play expertise we remind them of ways that the play drive can be supported by them, themselves.

The playwork team will then work with community groups to think afresh about the spaces that are available to them and look at ways that they can oversee those overseen spaces for children, without adulterating what the children have to do. 

Much of this work is influenced by conversations that we have shared with Arthur Battram. Much is informed by work in the states, re-kindling forgotten play memories and observing the power of them to spur folks into action. Much is a natural extension of our application of playwork theory into everyday practice. 

We  are visiting  estates where children are living in vast numbers.  From these initial visits and the resultant play audits, we make a range of suggestions for the creation of compensatory environments from the founding of community play gardens, to community barbeques, scrounging loose parts from  local people to planting trees and installing fairy lights in them so that children  can play out in winter.

All of the spaces and initiatives we are considering, are aiming to create shared spaces, so that elders, tiny kids, teenagers parents and children can all feel that this is for them. 

We have been flaneurs moving through the spaces with their playability in mind.

What we have discovered has been shocking.

Playgrounds left to go to seed, liminal community spaces over built or overdeveloped until there is no room to mess around near your home,  no room to stop and chat with your neighbours, no green areas to kick a ball on without the ubiquitous no ball games signs screaming at you that you are unclean in your to desire play.  Anti-climb paint stifles more play urges.

On one estate, revamped and made far prettier about fifteen years ago the whole community is furious with teenagers for hanging out anywhere except the cage that has been provided for them, with no seats and no lights. The teenagers, who have lived there for the 15 years since the communal land was built and sectioned into fenced stretches of pristine green grass, are now showing all the signs of play deprivation.  They are hiding weapons in the flower beds to ready themselves from visitations from rival gangs who have grown up a couple of estates away in an equally play deprived conditions.  

Interestingly both warring gangs have to pass through a neutral territory, in which there is green space and children can play, a content and relatively happy place. ‘We don’t have trouble here,’ those residents say.  ‘Our kids are great’.

Meanwhile the elders on the other two estates have become distant from an understanding of play as the beating heart of the community, not only a symptom of its health but a catalyst to improvement.  The older residents, just like the teenagers, sound resentful and hurting.

This is what happens to people without play.

All our work must embrace all ages.  

We want the teenagers and the grandparents and the mums and dads to  understand that play is an offer for all of them. 

The blocky unyielding fast moving unmanipulable world that children are growing up in reminds us of the broken window syndrome… when one’s experience of windows is only to see them broken, then this becomes the norm and an unbroken window cries out for a thrown brick.

The architect Le Corbusier and his followers, many of whom were commissioned by local authorities and enticed by central government incentive grants, had a stated aim of creating cities without streets. Their desire was to expunge the liminal spaces, those that are ill defined and ripe for play, as a factor in the life of the people.  What a disaster it would be to inflict that way of thinking upon the tight knit communities of the east end. 

The current hostility towards younger residents, encoded in the tower blocks and unnecessary fences, amounts to play deprivation by design. 

We have a lot to do.  

The task seems overwhelming, but surprisingly, not so depressing.  

Despite the places that we have seen and catalogued and geotagged and photographed and will be sharing with you shortly, what fills us with uncontainable excitement is the bubbling enthusiasm that we meet in every one who we share our project aims with. There is an instant recognition that ‘this is what they have been looking for’.  Hazy memories of play spring with astounding clarity to minds and memories, and the light comes on in the eyes of informants as they are transported back to their own first language of play.  The power of the memories takes hold and they say.. ‘we will do whatever we can to make this happen. This is what we need.’ 

The caretaker that we walked past as a ripe conker dropped on his head. Not knowing anything of our project he started to rail against the tree and threatened to cut it down, then stopped himself and began to recall the memory of the rules of the conker games that he had enjoyed flouting.

The mother of five who begged us to find a way to let her kids and the other local children to play in a green treed space, inaccessible, yet enticing, locked away for no reason behind a padlocked fence.,..

The housing officer who wanted to show us the places that make her weep, so we could re-kindle their playfulness.  

This is a good project.

Although local  play providers and PATH have done a fantastic job in this borough, there is still a load of work to do… now, we are in an excellent position to do it.

Do you remember how you used to tell the time with a dandelion clock?

Do children still do that?