April 2009

Recently we decided to set up a play session that worked with two sites, rather than just one.  These are two squares surrounded by houses, but although they are closely linked by paved paths you cannot see from one to another.  From previous sessions we found that children tended to come from the houses on the edge of the site, and we wondered how these two neighboring groups might be more integrated through play.

This is an on-going effort with weekly sessions.  Below are some excerpts from Rainer’s diary from the day.  I have blanked out the names of the spaces to preserve the anonymity and that of the children.


We have set up A— Walk with corn flour and water, lots of fabric, decoration, jewelers and musical instruments. 

With crayon we have marked with arrows and writing ‘play’ on the ground along the pathway between the sites to signpost the sessions..  

We drew a circle in the middle of C— Square in which we put a bowl with corn flour and water. Suggesting play more distantly and quietly.  Penny put some bangles on one of the trees besides the fence. It looked like a secret tree/jewelers mini garden. 

During the session Penny wandered between the two sites to be ready for intervention or not if some kids would show up on C.  

The session on A— was very quickly filled with children. I have realized that we have had mainly rests of stuff in our bag. No string to use with the beads, just a bit of corn flour, one yellow paint but no paper and no brush. Children have asked for these things or at least wondered what they could do with it.

Lots of questions and excitement what we have brought for them they all started gathering in one corner carefully checking and finding out what’s there for them.  

First I felt stressed out by all the missing bits and the mess in the bags (except the beautiful material), but then I felt it is actually quite ideal to bring imperfect bags for this site and project. The kids have a chance to learn how to improvise and we as adults and playworkers have a chance to be imperfect as well. It felt right not to bring them ‘ready made food’ but just parts so they can find solutions and develop there skills and imagination with those parts.  

And they did improvise:

Sharing the corn flour, they really liked stirring and filling and touching the mass which they seem to experience between disgust and fascination.

Painting with yellow paint the plates and on fabric. Then later they started painting their hands which then developed into scary hands and chasing after each other. That moment spread the play into the whole of the square and developed more of an authority of their space.

Musical instruments sounded constantly somewhere and in reflection felt like a sound carpet the kids constantly recreated. The bell and the shakers were most popular. The drum was sometimes used as an aggression tool by some of the older boys and needed reminding that it could break.  

The first phase of the session had a desperate feel to it. The kids made it very dependant on what we have brought for them. One music shaker went missing and one girl was just about to steal the second one when I saw her and asked her not to take it and she has put it back.

After a while the session established more free play and felt more grounded. The kids were finding their very own space and being creative with what is given and accepting. The fabric was then used for dressing up and role play, the red string became hair on top of the head, Inga was doing shelter building with one of the girls.

Rough and tumble with the yellow hands developed especially with one of the older boys who was in in-between a child and a teenager. The Somalia family brought some lovely food for all of us to share in the shelter. What a wonderful moment that was eating all together. 

It suddenly felt like a community on the square sharing, playing and hanging out together with a sense of children had authority of their own space. It felt the play (mess) space created a powerful and positive message to all the adults around in the estate although unusual and new for the estate.

An older boy played football within the square, first with his brothers just for a few minutes, but then kept playing and gave me cues to continue with him. It was wonderful how all those play types were possible within the same space and time. Gentleness besides more rough or sporty games, but everyone seemed flexible and happy to change creatively through new impulses from each other.  

The very last phase the autistic boy from one of the families joined the site. His imaginative play fit easily into the site and the atmosphere. He was hiding and rolling in the fabric, playing with the bell and then asked me: what’s that all about here? I told him we are all having fun. Well, he seemed to understand immediately.  

He came up with a story of good and bad aliens, all visible in the sky and behind the bushes. Suddenly he discovered the golden beads and was persuaded that he found gold. In seconds the whole site were looking for gold and collecting all the beads excitingly from the ground, always running towards me when one has found one bead, shouting I have found one and I put them together with one of the girls. 

As Penny put it, this was a wonderful example of inclusive play. The imagination of the autistic boy filled the space and brought every child into a shared imaginary game. 

This game was the start of tidying up the site and all the kids helped with the rest of it in a playful manner.  

Walking over to C. the corn flour + bowl was gone. Someone seemed to be interested for some or another reason. Hope he or she had fun!     


Not in Tower Hamlets!

We ran a session the other day, arriving in cold and wet conditions.  We built a fort out of scrap fabric to provide shelter for the other, more perishable, materials and set about play.

With only a roll of cling film (Sarah Wrap for any Americans out there) and some washing up liquid we dammed the drain at the centre of a large tarmac surface.


We whisked up some bubbles and stared for ages at the landscapes made by the clear plastic, but the air pockets and rainbow froth.





We set up lengths of film running between the railings that were, at different times: drums for the rain to beat upon, the web of a giant spider, lane markers for races and tracks along which bright green alien foam could be charged.


Then, when our visit was over, we took down the lengths of plastic and let the soap bubbles wash away down the drain.  I walked home covered in green soap, my hair practically lathered, amazed as ever at how much can be done with so little.

And, it was the cleanest messy play I’ve ever seen.


A big part of this project is the collection and sharing of play memories.

Some residents of the East End have lived here all their lives, while others have come from places all over the world.  For each of the adults we spoke to, however, the world of their childhood has been radically different to the one surrounding them today.

One website speaks to that difference.  This site is part of Age Exchange, the UK’s leading reminiscence arts charity, and is rich with the oral histories of long-time area residents.  We’ve listed the memoirs of individual authors on our bibliography page, but there’s something particularly compelling about the chorus of voices speaking here and the lost microcosm that they call up.  We live in the same streets they’re speaking of, but they’re nearly unrecognizable from the photographs.

Not only has the landscape changed dramatically in that time, but so have the ways in which people experience it.  Even the picture below, one of many we’ve seen of this game, demonstrates a freedom to transform public space into playspace that was once taken for granted.


We hope that by encouraging adults of all ages to remember their own play memories we’ll slowly make advocates of the whole community, so that once again these streets can be used by children for play.