Getting back to nature is child’s play

Inner city families are being encouraged to get out into the green space on their doorstep

Kim Yucksei, rosie, recipe tree

Kim Yucksei, with two-year old granddaughter Rosie and friend Ashton looking at the recipe tree on their estate in east London Photograph: Gareth Davies

Schemes are growing up around the UK that seek to reconnect inner citychildren with nature by encouraging them to appreciate the bugs and birds on their doorstep.

“We want to let people know that they can just go outside their front door to see wildlife,” says Isabel MacLennan, development officer of Nottinghamshire Wildlife trust.

Next month will see the official launch of Wildlife in the City, a collaboration between Nottingham city council and Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, that will focus on 10 groups within the city failing to make use of their local green spaces and with a poor understanding of the benefits of doing so.

One of the key focuses of Wildlife in the City is the attitudes of children. In outreach work done by the trust earlier this year in preparation for the project, children were asked where they go to see nature. Many said they would have to go on jungle and safari trips; one answered that their family didn’t have a car.

“People aren’t accessing natural spaces, or if they are they’re not really understanding or appreciating what’s there,” says MacLennan.

A UK survey commissioned this summer by the Eden TV channel, looking at 2,000 eight- to 12-year-olds, found that a fifth had never climbed a tree or visited a farm, more than a quarter did not know what happens to a bee after it stings you, and a third play outside only once a week or less.

Nature-deficit disorder

US author Richard Louv coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, to describe the trend of children spending less time outdoors, resulting in a wide range of behavioural problems.

MacLennan agrees that it is particularly important for children to connect with nature. “There are health and social benefits associated with access to natural spaces. And if you work with people from a young age, they’ll hopefully carry that through to when they’re older,” she says.

Wildlife in the City will attempt to create interest by running hands-on activities such as bug hunting and bird-house building alongside walks and talks. But MacLennan admits that it probably won’t be easy. “It will be a huge challenge. We will be using arts and crafts – that sort of thing – to break down barriers.”

Tim Howell has been running a young people‘s nature and activity project, Change of Scene, in Northampton since the beginning of August. For him, the key to sparking interest is having a combination of activities within the city and trips farther afield, and putting an attractive spin on ideas.

“To get young people to appreciate the natural world, we need to think outside the box,” he says. “If we turn to them and suggest looking at flowers or appreciating some birds, that’s not going to get them going. But when we say let’s go and climb a mountain and take a photo from the top, that’s a bit more interesting. It’s all about finding the right hooks.”

Change of Scene, funded by Natural England’s Access to Nature grant scheme, aims to engage 300 young people over three years from five estates in the east of the city, and hopes not only to improve knowledge and enjoyment of nature but also to raise aspirations and goals through schemes like the Duke of Edinburgh’s award. It has already signed up 127.

“It’s not necessarily about the flora and fauna; it’s about that connection with the world around you,” says Howell. “When I take the young people on residentials, they tell me that one of the most enjoyable experiences is lying down on their back in a field, surrounded by darkness, looking at the stars. Because you don’t get to see that in a town – firstly you don’t get a chance, and secondly you’ve got all the light pollution. You just don’t know what an experience could open up for a young person.”

But for projects working exclusively with green spaces confined within urban areas, how easy is it to create a lasting and meaningful connection to nature? The reinvention of a green space on the Eric Estate in east London, financed by Kerrygold Farmer Cooperative, has certainly made a difference since it was completed in May, according to Kim Yucksei, who has been a resident on the estate for 28 years.

Planting vegetables

“There was a green space there, but it wasn’t used for anything other than people putting their dogs on there,” she says. “Now we’ve got a wonderful play area with tables, benches, natural wooden climbing frames, little hills and a recipe tree [which residents use to share recipes]. The children are very enthusiastic because there’s nothing else here. We all love it.

“The children helped plant vegetables and we left the labels on the plants so they can see what’s what – they go there and say ‘that’s the one I planted’, help water them, take out the dead leaves. They didn’t just plant it and leave it, they’re now looking after it, and they’ve got a sense of pride.”

Penny Wilson, head of play at Play Association Tower Hamlets, believes the health benefits of engaging children and young people with the natural world shouldn’t be underestimated. “If you watch a child playing outside they’re just doing so many physical tasks – they run for hours, dig, climb. If you told them to do it they wouldn’t, but they want to because they’re playing. You won’t get that level of physical activity with anything else. As far as their mental health goes, a child that doesn’t play is a frustrated, unhappy and unbalanced child.”

Failure to explore and play in nature can have a negative effect on a child’s development, she argues. “One of the things that happens in urban areas when children don’t play is that they grow up not having adjusted themselves – they haven’t found out who they are, they haven’t learned about their community. It’s a manifestation of what we call play deprivation – kids not getting playful risks may end up taking risks in drugs and aggressive behaviour.”


As this project draws to an end, I have asked the Playworkers to talk to the children and the parents about how they feel about the playing that has developed on the spaces over the last three years.

Here Hannah recalls for us some of the last days of playing on the sites where  we have become a part of the scenery and hope that playing children will continue to be a familiar sight.


Tuesday 28th June 2011

As usual this was a busy sessions with lots of families stopping by on their way home from school to let the children play for a while. We played chase and games with the hammock. One girl, who has now been coming for several weeks, came and hugged Habiba, telling her “you guys are my friends now”. These sessions are coming to a close now and we’re really going to miss the children here, having built strong bonds talking and playing together over time. Several of the children confide things in us that they say they can’t talk about with their parents, for example, their frustrations about Arabic school.


Wednesday 29th June 2011

We had a busy session this afternoon. Lots of kids came out when they saw us arrive and we played running games and did some painting. One of the parents brought out an inflatable paddling pool for the kids to play in and a group of children sat round pretending it was a cauldron and they were mixing spells. Some of the little children took water from it to water the plants and herbs their parents were growing in a grow box in the square. Meanwhile around the edges some of the older kids got on with games of football and riding their bikes.


Some parents came and chatted to Inga about how much their kids love coming out to our play sessions. One of the mums from our Thursday session has started walking her two young children to this session too and said she was really happy to give them an extra chance to play. When they first started coming on Thursdays they were very shy and found it hard to mix with other children, today they were running races happily with another brother and sister and joining in so much more than before.


Thursday 30th June 2011

Today was fantastic, two girls came in and announced they wanted to do another treasure hunt like we did last week. They spent ages making and wrapping bracelets to have as prizes and planning clues, working on little poems to make the clues rhyme. The treasure hunt made them really look at the space in detail and they seemed to take a kind of ownership in it as a result. Some other kids came along and took part in their treasure hunt, then made one for them and by the end of the session it seemed pretty much everyone had made a hunt for everyone else!


Over at one of the outside squares, Inga and Lavly played chase and dressing up games with some young children.  They took the small tent out which became part of some imaginative play, a small boy made it his ‘cookie shop’!


There’s some underlying racial tension on this estate which we sometimes see reaching into the ways the children of white and Asian families interact with each other but when a game is exciting enough it seems to over-ride this and they come more together. We saw this with the treasure hunts today and last week when everyone got involved in a chaotic game of running and catching 2 balls.


Sat 2nd July 2011

Its been a great play session today. As usual our regular kids were waiting for us at the square when we arrived. A couple of them grinned and pounced on the play trolley- “you always bring good stuff”! They took out beads to make jewellery, paper, fabric and the badminton rackets. 1 girl dragged Habiba over to the swing wanting to swing while they chatted and another began a badminton rally with Inga, we’ve seen the kids improve a lot at this over the last few weeks since we began bringing the rackets.


One girl took some paper and began creating patterns on it by gluing other bright pieces of paper as well as sequins and beads, it was really creative. She’s told me she wants to be an artist but her parents don’t encourage it as they want her to get a well-paid job when she leaves school! We try and give her as many opportunities as possible to make stuff. I often get the sense that the kids enjoy the freedom of what we do, we don’t organise an activity that everyone has to do but provide materials and encourage them to do their own thing, and we’re often surprised by the results! This girl in particular has created all kinds of things from a large woven paper ‘rug’ to decorations for the trees!


The second square began quietly with a few girls coming out to join us. They made bracelets and glued sequins in patterns to a patch of wall. More kids came out to join us and the session became really lively. Several families of children came, the older children in charge of the younger ones, the youngest wasn’t even two but got involved in using the chalks and running round to see what the older kids were playing! The sessions at this square in particular always seem to fly and end with the kids begging us to stay longer. We invite them to come to the next square but many of them are not allowed to go beyond where their parents can see them from a window.


One girl who comes every week to play and chat to us told me “I’m really going to miss you lot after the summer and all the laughing we do”! Like several of the other girls she is only allowed out to play there when we come, we always encourage the kids to come out and play when we’re not there too but for several of them they’re simply not allowed, their parents don’t trust that its safe.


The final square got really busy soon after we arrived, all kinds of games took place from craft making to turning the climbing frame into a ‘palace’ you had to climb into from one side and out of via a special route onto a pile of fabric. The same kids come week after week here. I asked one boy if he usually came and played here anyway but he told me he mostly just came on Saturdays when we came because our games brought lots of people outside together at the same time and he had more friends to play with!

The cluster of housing estates (Eric, Treby, Brokesley and Bede estates) south of Mile End Tube station in Tower Hamlets, was built about 40 years ago by the local council of the time. Next to no work has been done on these dwellings in that time.

In the last five years a Registered Social Landlord RSL-East End Homes- has taken responsibility for this cluster.

The homes are being brought up to ‘decent’ homes standards.

However, the larger picture is that this is one of the locations in which a chunk of the new housing required inLondoncan be created.

Already the existing population is over crowded and the area is ugly and denuded of pleasant door step space. The green spaces, such as they are, have been used as dog toilets and are not fit for any other use. There is no aesthetic pleasure to be found in the external spaces, therefore no association with the shared open spaces for play or parties or sitting and chatting. For a long time now in fact, the outdoor spaces have been used for drug dealing and violence. They have been places to get out of quickly.

One of our first pieces of work in the area was to gather some ‘stories of place’ and produce a set of cards ‘Greetings from Mile End’ http://www.theinternationale.com/PATHgreetings/ this was by way of a response to the current image of the area, probably best summed up in the Pulp song http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/pulp/mileend.html


In March last year Kerrygold approached PATH asking for a proposal for a space that could be used to create an urban natural playspace. We suggested the main route through one of these estates;Eric Street. Kerrygold accepted the challenge and worked closely with PATH, EEH and the residents to design and create a community play garden. Within two months from the start to the end of the process, this Play garden was created. The budget was a £20k contribution from Kerrygold with a little less than that matched in kind from the RSL, estate contractors and PATH.

The flat, grim, soiled grass was transformed into a space with rolling hills planted with wildflowers (children cannot roll down hills inLondonfor fear of dog soiling and broken glass). There are borders planted with English wildflowers species, most planting found on housing estates are ‘defensive’ or hostile’ plants, Pyracanthus or Mahonia. These plants actively discourage any kind of interaction, (one does not nestle ones nose into a Mahonia to try and catch the smell of it for example.) There is a fruiting plum tree surrounded with picnic benches and tables and lit with fairy lights. It is unusual to find any seating offers in estates like these as they are viewed with suspicion…..’young people will come along and gather on them’. The benefits are of course that parents will sit and chat or share meals while their children play. The fairy lights not only add to the atmospheric lighting of the area, but make it beautiful to look out at, at night. This makes it a far more over looked space. We have a theory that it is impossible to deal drugs under fairy lights! The area has not been abused at all in the last year.

There are several raised growing beds which are shared by all the interested gardeners in the surrounding blocks and last but not least a life sized wooden cow! This was suggested as a sort of a joke, but also to ensure that the space had a playfully quirky atmosphere that sent out signifiers that this is a playable space for everyone around here from toddlers to elders.

PATH fundraised for playworkers to run sessions on this space once a week for the last year. These sessions have supported the community to use it as a play space and given the children the chance to step outside their flats and play with each other. Bengalis, French, African, White and Somali kids are all playing together and their parents are using these sessions as an excuse to get together and chat, forming new and unlikely friendships.

The Police who were sceptical about the success of this project have now whole heartedly endorsed it and any similar space that might be created on the estate.

The residents are using it for their own parties and for major events like Bengali Independence day (Tanya wore a sari over her jeans. ‘I want to join in but it’s too cold to wear just a sari!’)

There was also a big lunch there and a huge Royal Wedding Party. The diverse community all find what it has been lacking through this small space, and now the residents of this and the other Estates in this cluster want to see the remaining open spaces developed in the same way. They want contours and wildflowers, they want hedges not railings. They want to build aBee RoadlinkingMileEndParkon one side of them andTowerHamletsCemeteryParkon the other. (Both parks are happy to advise about the native plantings that could be used to make this effective.)


Carefully supported and created, all the other spaces on these impoverished estates could serve the same function as thisCommunityPlayGarden.  Some of the spaces are included in the regeneration budget. However, there are several significant exceptions to this principle and at least four areas within the cluster of estates need additional resources to match the requests of the residents revised aspirations for the spaces.


Outdoor areas will be increasingly important as new communities move into better, bigger, brand new accommodation. Without shared spaces fit for the children to play on and the adults to meet on, there will be no community building work possible. For so many reasons, this could prove to be an explosive situation with resentment and mistrust building very quickly to outright hostility. Unfortunately, this will appear to be focused around Muslim Bengali versus non Muslim Bengali.

PATH has a full time investment in working in this space for one year and  a three day a week investment there (unless additional funding is identified) for the following two years.


We see this as a great place to look at the long term impact of play in terms of ‘whole community’ phenomena, and we have some evidence of what the estate was like before our interventions. This makes the work a remarkable research study. We have documented every stage of the work to date and will continue to do so.

A long term  relationship with a corporate group would allow us to do another pioneering piece of work within the playworld in theUK.

We have long desired to try a local variation of the work that KaBOOM is doing in the untited states. www.kaboom.org

Our emphasis on the work would be to create natural playscapes with a play offer for the whole community rather than manufactured/ expensive bought equipment specifically for children.

It has been a week of tiny steps forward. Firstly I was delighted to have an hour walking round Eric Treby and Brokesley Estates with Phil Doyle and getting some useful feed back and advice from him about what we are planning for the open spaces. His insistence that we obtain a design sign off is massively important. Following the ghastly experiences with Apollo ignoring the design input and  consultation processes on British Street and producing some of the most hideous play spaces i have ever encountered, I had alarm bells ringing again this week when i heard that the  secure by design officer has refused to allow even a covered sand pit that had been enthusiastically requested and approved by residents through official consultation processes. I also get wind of the fact that a lease holder who claims to have the management of east End homes in the palm of her hand, has said that there is no way the open ended football pitch should be allowed to be built and that it has to be a lockable cage. this resident has taken part in none of the consultative processes that we have arranged. None of the block representatives from the estates have reported her concerns… It will be interesting to see what happens as a result of her conversation.

Conversations with one of the young people  revealed that a new police operation on Bede Estate  which was designed to address the issue of incoming groups of  youth who are  of ill intent, is being used, in fact , to try to subdue and control the young people who live on the estate. incoming police officers, with no knowledge of the community, are adopting hostile and rudely dismissive attitudes to the young people and their parents. this is probably the most stupid thing they coul do. the regular Bobbies have worked hard to build up good relations and a good understanding of the estate and it is hard to imagine that they welcome this aggressive police style.

By the way, this same young person, showing myself and a colleague around the estate,pointed out that thanks to the new building work, when the gang of youths chased the residents on to the square, there was absolutely no means of escape. The golden rule of ball court design, always have lots of ways in and out of a space unless you are trying to create a fight arena,  has been ignored in order to design out ‘rat runs’ – or as the middle classes call them ‘pavements’. This is the insanity that happens when the leading philosophy driving the design of housing  the constant presence of crime.

There was a glorious  birthday party on a very rainy day for one of the children on the cow playground. once again the maintenance team did great work to prepare the site and there were even balloons delivered there for her, by way of a left over favour owing to East End Homes.

Then Cathy and I got a call inviting us to join a consultation session on Bede Estate.   Progress along the street of Eric estate was slow.  So many people wanting to stop and talk. So much news to share. At the consultation event, which was not supposed to be about open spaces. the women who did come along were almost totally concerned with addressing those open spaces.

They can in  with very evidently strong feeling..’ Now look here Andy. I’ve got something to say. we MUST have somewhere for the teenagers and we must have spaces for the children to play, and there must be garden spaces for the people that don’t have gardens.’ I dont think we want anything fancy in John Riley gardens, just make it like a little wood really. It would be good to have some fairy lights in there so as the kids dont do their drugs there any more…’


But for me the moment that was most touching was while we were waiting for the first people to come into the consultation. two lads went past the door and shouted fairly abusive stuff to Andy. he shrugged it of as usual. then the kids came into the building still being a bit feisty. then somehow, not certain how, one of them mentioned that they had cycled the London To Brighton at the weekend. Andy chipped in about the last hill being tough and they were away, all boundaries forgotten, chatting about cycling and bikes…..

… that is when consultation begins. when you can talk with people not ‘residents’ and when you become a person to them as well. Andy and the kids meandered across to the estate maps and had a really good and relaxed discussion about design and open spaces and wayfinding. The boys had lots to say and Andy had lots to hear.

The other event of the evening that shone for me was the point when a group of women who had been struggling to read the estate map finally said… ‘look. this is upside down’ turned the map on its head and were then able to find their way around it with no trouble.

If you ever needed a metaphor for this process…..


Originally the Play Times Team had three women placed with them through the Future Jobs Fund. they were all asked to send me six sentences at the end of each play session that they completed with the understanding that these would be included in the PLOG.

I was interested to see if the placements/students would  begin to refine their observational practice as they did more play sessions and absorbed more play and playwork theory.  I did not get any written work from two of the women. the third however has sent me updates and I am greatly appreciative of this. The path of her learning is evident as you scroll back down through the entries.

Many thanks to you NR for sticking with this task.


30th June Eric street


Today at eric street we had a visitor joining the children`s play… their local neighbourhood cat! The children had fun playing with the ginger coloured cat, by throwing a blue rope towards it, which the cat eagerly chased. The cat was soo friendly and warm amongst the children that it allowed every child to stroke it. It seemed as though play was not only facilitated to the children, but also too their neighbourhood cat.


5th July budrette community estate


Today at budrette estate was the last play session of two play workers there. So they bought some goodbye party food, to say their farewell. Many of the children were sadden to hear about them leaving. Therefore they made them a leaving poster, with their names in the middle of a heart, with multi colours surrounding it. This showed the children`s gratitude to the play workers, who are leaving and how much they will be missed.

21st June  

Today was a great session at budette estate, as the children bought out their inner creative skills by painting all kinds of authentic things, such as posters saying happy birthday, I love you mummy, hand printing, mixing glitter with paint and just getting their hands really messy!  I can remember one child saying “I’m going to make a painting of my whole family” and so she did. She drew her mother, by.distinguishing  her with bright blue eyes, which she truly has. The only thing that I could change regarding today`s sessio was bringing clay, as the children asked for it.

22nd Eric Street

Today at eric street was a birthday party of a young girl. I can remember all the play workers and I had to build the gazebo for her special day, in case it rained over her birthday food and drinks. However, we had to stay an hour extra due to the party starting late and all the children were playing and enjoying themselves soo much, which we didnt mind 🙂

23rd Bede 1 &2

Today I was lucky enough to join the children of bede one and two. At Bede one I observed the children playing piggy in the middle with a football, then I was kindly was invited to play with them, by a gesture of  throwing a ball at me to play. At bede two I observed  the children playing badminton. It was a very competitive game, as all the children were taking the game very seriously, by writing each contenders scores down on the floor. It was such a great session that the other play worker and I lost track of the time and stayed a little longer 🙂 !

15th june

 Today at Eric Street was a fun day where both children and parents participated in badminton.  It was great to see how some of the children`s parents were getting involved with their play. It almost seemed like it bought out their inner child, as one parent was loudly cheering, when she scored a point. I think today`s session went very well , although one parent had requested a ball for  their little toddler, which we didn’t have, but their child was happy playing with a paper ball, which I made for them instead. 

16th June

Today I had my play session at bede one, where I was invited by a young person to play hangman and knots and crosses. I can remember I had to guess the missing words, whilst playing the hangman game, once I guessed the letters she spaced out, it was “my little brother is annoying “.

18th malmesbury estates

Today I observed the children play the game called IT and alittle badminton. I can remember whilst playing IT,  one child had hurt her ankle and said she couldn’t walk, so her friend helped her, by giving her a piggy back, so she could move to different parts of the playground. Although, soon as she saw some of the children showing off their gymnastic skills on  building entrance pole, her bad ankle went away, once she entered their play frame.

9TH Thursday

Today was a wonderful day at bede estates, as I observed the children from bede 2 play with the huge colourful parachute. It was fun to see how the children enjoyed going under the parachute, soon as the wind blew it high. It also was a great session for us as the other play worker and I independently set out a session at bede 2 on our own, which we were very pound of.  

14th Budette community

Today was a warm fun day for the children, as they had participated in different activities, such as knitting, painting and playing cops and robbers. I observed some children making a birthday card for their younger sibling, where everyone was helping them paint the letters and balloons that they drew. It was great team work!  

8th Eric street
Today at eric street the children had great fun  playing Hide and seek. They played at their residential building block, for shelter when it was raining.
I believe it was a great session, as all the children of eric street including the playworkers had joined in to play, by making it a super fun session, although it was raining for some time.

Saturday 5th electric house

Today at electric house the children had fun designing wonderful posters to promote next Saturday`s party at their estate. However the children were finding it difficult sticking their posters on the walls, as the trap was not sticky enough. Therefore they thought of an alternative approach and used the trees instead, which the posters had stuck on probably. Whilst they were doing that, I could remember what one little girl said “people stick posters on the trees of their missing pets”, which she was quite right about!

Tuesday 8th Budette community estate

Today at budette community estate the children decided to use imaginative play, by wrapping me around with wool! The children said “there knitting me” and one child said “I`m making a spider web” I believe the children certainly enjoyed themselves, as other children entre their play frame.

Bede estate 2nd June

Today at Bede was a very nutritious day, where the children enjoyed making many different fruit smoothies. I think today`s session went very well, as the children were experimenting their taste bunds. I remember one young person was making a smoothies that most contained blueberry. After she completing her smoothie she had a little taster and came up with a very wonderful joke” berryberry” nice!

1st June

Today atEric Streetwas a lovely day, where the children participated it different activity such as, water play and arts and craft. I think the session went well, as the children were making animals out of clay. One little girl said “I`m making an elephant that looks like an alien” and indeed it looked like one!

28th May  Malmesbury estate

Today at Malmesbury estate was a great session for the children, because PATH held a wonderful party for their community, which was full of different healthy snack for them to eat and enjoyable games for the children to play with. The only thing that went bad at today`s session was the pass the parcel game, which did not contain halah sweet for the muslim children to eat. Therefore the next party, the play workers will make sure that there will also be halah sweets for the muslim children to eat.

25th Eric Street

Today atEric StreetI observed some children doing water play. They were filling up a huge red bucket of water and spilling it down the top of a hill, I heard one child say “were making a water slide”   I believe the children`s water play activity went well, however they were finding it difficult lifting the huge bucket of water up the hill, but then I was invited by the children to help them carry the water bucket up the hill.

24th budett

Today at budette estate I watch young people entre its community estate play area, as they were celebrating their last day of school. They were full of emotion, by crying, shouting and screaming all at once. I found it was wonderful seeing them celebrate their late day of school, as it bought back my own school memories.

19th May Bede estates

Today at Bebe I observed both brother and sister trying to overcome their fear of rubber toy sake.  The Little boy`s younger sister was first hesitant to touch the toy sake, but then she realised it was just a toy! Although her brother was still scared of toy sake and said “it will bite him”.

Eric Street 18 May

Today atEric StreetI observed the children doing all sorts of activities, such as colouring and playing football and add. I don’t think today`s session went badly, as all the children played independently and freely.

11th May Eric street

Today atEric StreetI observed some children playing with a paddling pool filled up with water. I think they enjoyed this activity, because they were pretended that the paddling pool was a witch`s` cauldron. They also used a hockey stick as a spoon, to stair their make believe poison. If I had to change one thing, it would be maybe having an air pump, to blow some extra air inside the paddling pool, so it could reach its full capacity.

9th May

Today at Malmesbury estates, I observed the children performing deep play, by making a children`s swing into an electric chair. I can remember the young girl shouting at the other children saying, “are you ready to be electrocuted” and then she had nudged the swing, whilst everyone was screaming. I believe it facilitated their play, as the young girl had seen or heard about the eclectic chair and was demonstrating and re-acting it through play.

Bede 5th May

Today at Bebe i had a fine day, as I observed the children do imaginative and fantasy play, which was inside a children`s play tent. They were all role modelling a character of their own, acting as a shop keeper and a customer at a takeout shop. Chicken was mostly on demanding at their fantasy take out shop, which was constantly being ordered. I believe today`s session facilitated the children`s possessed of full power, through playing a character at their own made up “take out store”.

Today at Burdette community estate there were fewer children out to play, compared to the previous week. I believe it had something to do with the weather being much more colder than last week`s weather. However, the children of Burdette community estate still had fun! As they were being very artistic by drawing amazing pictures on the ground, with different coloured chalks. One of the children drew a Hello Kitty hand bag for me, which I thought was lovely. Almost at the end of our session both children and Player workers all played hide and run togather, which was very entertaining and enjoyable for the children.

I cannot find a shred of support within me for the institution of the Royal Family as currently manifest in the UK. I find abhorrent the wealth and the supremacy of class and privilege, all funded from the public purse.

When the Royal Wedding date was announced I knew that the people on the estates I work on would want to celebrate. They would celebrate a top knotch family wedding between some of the richest people in the world, paid for out of public funds. These great people on these estate would donate and borrow and fundraise and gather together bits and pieces of money and donations of food and geegaws and they would share whatever they could find to mark this right Royal occasion.
It would be national doffing of caps.

This is the East End of London and despite the encroaching capitalist in-your-face plate glass shimmy and the sneering ‘Fooled Ya’ of the Olympic lie (turning, by a slight of hand, an ancient cattle route into High Street 2012 – but only where it shows- all fur coat and no knickers,) despite all this I knew that the people of these estates would push the boat out in their celebrations.

This would happen, I knew it would because ever since I have been collecting play memories from adults in the area I have been shown the crumbling shreds of long treasured and papery skin smoothed photographs. These ghosts of hard-soft beloved faces, these treasures of unimaginable worth, taken on a camera that few could afford, with film that was used sparingly, with as many people crammed in as possible to make the most use of the snapping of the time and event, and finally processed and printed in a costly lab, snuggled, when utterly dry, into a fancy little card doily envelope with scooped guilt edges, wrapped in glass paper and slipped into a Very Special Album that some-one had splashed out on- (‘I’ll go without meat for me for a while. This should have a Proper Place. It’ll be sommat to hand down to the grandchildren-godwilling.’) And still the photos are brought out and shown on the special days when some-one sits down and says ‘talk to me, tell me the stories’. And the photos show shadows of faces all of whom can be named, and the pub and houses, and we still know who did the bunting , who the landlord was, how much the neighbour drank, what was sold in the shop just out of sight and how much it cost…
What I am being shown in these worn card miracles is nothing to do with The Royals. It is to do with the markers in lives that were seldom celebrated, seldom captured and went, largely without the communal ‘do you remember’ moment that the coronations weddings, anniversaries, jubilees add to the counting off on the rosary of shared lives… the years and months stamped into memory like a toddler footprint into wet concrete… we will always have June 2nd 1953. It is a touchstone.
Terrance remembers being selected as one of the children to go from Mile End to wave flags outside Westminster Abbey. Kathleen has the street party photographs from her whole life saved in chronological order pacing out her years. Each of them is a perfect time capsule.

So we set about finding some funding for these events. We wanted to lift the burden a little. The big society is all well and good but. There is a real cost…There was loads to do, organising street closures, doing battle with the obstructive officials from Tower Hamlets -who insisted that all children needed skin tests for each different type of face paint that they would be using, as well as gaining parental consent for each child whose face was painted.

Tables were borrowed, barbecues bought, gazebos haggled over. This being ‘yer ol’ East End’ Photographers and film crews from ‘outside’ were clamouring for position with almost the same intensity as the cenotaph crew vied for the best position to snap Pippa’s arse.

Meanwhile on the two estates, there were battles about who was going to benefit most from what. And there were acts of unbelievable generosity. The old miseries playing hard to get and the old faithfuls taking on the burden of the responsibility for the planning. Tried and trusted and characteristically understated, ‘I love a bit of organising’.

Car trips were made, on behalf of the estates, to Asdas on the Isle of Dogs and hatchbacks were filled to groaning with mountains of hot cross buns and crisps and juice. (‘No. We ain’t buying booze. This party is for the kids, for them to remember’).

On Wager Street they wanted a karaoke and a plasma screen and the tables were laid out like the cross of St George on the square…..the marquees were filled with tables heaped with pristine food sealed in silky cling film and guarded from pre-event nibblers by a Matriarch and her Staf.

In Eric street the bunting had gone up the evening before. Construction teams working on the regeneration and new building of the street had been cajoled into cherry picking the best spots to tether the tiny flappings and the larger rectangular union Flags with the ‘happy couple’ superimposed into an oval insert in the heart of the four nations. A curious choice of icon The Sun had made.. never had a Royal looked more inbred or a rather pretty commoner looked so Essex.

In my home the day started early for a bank holiday. I was expected in the party zone for an 8.30 start. The wedding coverage started at 8.10 on the Today Programme. Was Edward Stourton really sounding nervous? What on earth were the pruned and preened and plumed early bird guests going to do for the next three hours in that freezing cold austere un-yielding room? The Dress.. What would she wear? What would her mother wear? Who would make a fashion gaff? What would the behaviour of the tiddly Royals be like? Was she nervous? Was he nervous? Was The Queen nervous? And Dianna… a difficult situation with Camilla,, and Why no left wing politicians? And why the human rights violating lackeys of ruthless dictators? And did this tell us anything about the political attitudes of the newly weds… oh and The Dress….

Perhaps because I was so delighted to be discharged of any responsibility of cluttering my brain with any more of this drivel (even Radio 4 can do drivel), I was strangely warmed by the thought of spending the day with the fantastic people of Eric and Treby and Bede Estates. I am always excited to be in their company and to be with them for a day of specialness was thrilling. I had made it quite clear from the outset that the place I had chosen for myself on this day, was behind the camera lens. From there I could watch the beauty unfurling. I would not be an encumberment, not a guest to entertain and feed. I would not be an organiser, that would be like a stranger marching into a little known home and starting to re-arrange the kitchen cupboards. I could not, in all honesty, join as a celebrant. So I made my place behind the lens. A safe place. A portable hide.

And the wonders that I saw and heard that day……

…’Its like we are all married to each other. We fight and argue all winter and then the sun comes out and we have a great big love in. We have argued about this party for weeks now, but we will all have the best time together today’.

Caroline beaming and glowing, seeing the master plan on her clip board coming to life

Bengali boys ruffling up florists ribbon with such care and delicate attentiveness to make perfect the rosettes in red white and blue to adorn the gazebos.

A princess on a scooter with her Biker Grandad.

Three visitors from the next door estate coming clad out in a melange of Red, White and Blue, right down to the detail of the earrings.

The pub so full of bunting and flat screens that it was hard to fit the punters in, and the burly bloke fine tuning the patriotic frills in the smoking shed out back. ‘Looks nice dunnit?’

The plastic bowler hats that make every one like a chipper pearly King or Queen (’300 quid they wanted to come and visit the event £300!’)

Running back and forth between the two parties on bin bag or gaffer tape errands. Snapping as I went.

‘Bunting for Josie? Yes the corner shop just donated theirs to her.’

‘What do you mean you can’t stay for the party? Your daughter’s Football championship? Tell ‘em you’re ill.’

‘Remind me we will need to find more serving dishes for the Big Lunch…’ ( Note to self, bring Mums serving dishes back her for them, she will not need them again.)

The balloons bouncing and tugging Cathy until I thought she would be carried away, which would definitely have happened had this been a story book. She would have been carried up into the air above the stilly path of High Street 2012, nee the Mile End Road. Up where the air is clear: up beneath the circling helicopters with their eagle eyes trained down on minute specs of wealth far below them. From up here Cathy would see quite clearly the other street parties in Tower Hamlets. There is the one on the Glamis Estate. Look there are the parties acknowledged by Pravda, the local council endorsed/imposed ones. The Mayoral dicatat that there WILL be fun and festivities in The Park. The people WILL come out and show their joy over this event and they WILL bring their own food. With her clear sight she could see the little wriggles of parties all over the city, all over the country.
She descends, still holding the red balloons, feet elegantly turned outwards into the square on Bede estate. ‘It’s a jolly holiday with Cathy’.

The plasma screen keeps cutting out.
One little hooded boy has been transfixed from the first. He has sat alone watching the cheering crowds and the jeering cars occasionally waggling a union flag in a sort of desultory ‘I am supposed to be waving this thing ‘ sort of way.
Now though, the ranks of the viewers are swelling. The sound of cheering from The Mall is getting more and more hysterical. Chairs are pulled up in from of the screen. A semi circle of optimum viewing, flocks into place and Avril –who has not been to bed because she was preparing the cooked meats- swings into action with a fancy tea service and good strong cups of brew to be sipped and clinked and paused over at times of greatest wonder.

‘They all think I am so hard but I’m a real softy over things like this’

And ‘our She’ cups her chin with her hands and her happiness is transparent, radiant. She is immersed in the magical fairy-tale, golden-shimmering, happy-ever-afterness of this.
At this moment I see her as a woman who has, all her life lived as a Cinderella. She has worked and worked and worked and learned to fight and felt claustrophobia in her phenomenal brain, frustrated by under expectancies. Here for her, now, is a moment when a fairy godmother, not hers but at least SOMEONEs fairy godmother has pulled it off, and the pumpkincar is drawing up to the abbey and the crowd are screaming like the Beetles have just materialised dancing with Michael Jackson and the camera is nosing in on the car that until now has just been a polished sheen of reflected sunlit glory. And I think I have never seen a woman look more glorious or more happy. Her face shines with expectation of delight. Her squabbling children have been dismissed with fleas in their ears, the cup of tea is good and hot, she has her beloved neighbours with her and the big black shiny car door is just about to open to reveal….
……The plasma screen cuts out as the car door is opening. There are seconds of un believing silence, during which all that is shown on the screen are the faces of the watchers, caught watching themselves on a redundant piece of technology, expectant mirrored faces, all primed for the ONE Moment of the day. The first glimpse of The Dress. Instead of seeing whatever whipped cream confectionary the fairy tale dreamers have spun from gold, they see their own faces betrayed, let down. With a shared cry that could have sprung fresh from the lips of Eliza Doolittle at the moment when she realises the hurt and insult that is being perpetrated upon her, the women utter, with a single voice, her cry of humiliation and anguish, “Ah-ah-aw-aw-oo-oo! ” They rush off to the nearest of homes and crowd in unceremoniously to make up for The Lost Moment of Viewing.

I, behind my lens, am amused by the sudden changes and scatterings . The square, a burgeoning party until seconds earlier, has been rapidly deserted, flags and serviettes fluttering to the ground in anti-climactic downward spirals.
Those of us without a home to go into on the estate, Cathy Poppins, Henk the Reliable Youth Worker, Penny the Snapper, we watch the ceremony through glass and glass over the shoulder of Christine who is in her soft cream dressing gown chatting to her Pomeranian, who had narrowly escaped being dyed red white and blue for the occasion.

Back on Eric Street the castle is bouncing, the cocoanuts are shying, the Duckies are being hooked, the faces are painted, (the consent forms are signed but the skin remains untested –there are limits of reasonableness.) Food tumbles out of doors on every side.
Tiny fairy tale cakes with golden rings atop the icing. Fragile little mouthfuls of sweetness in union flag fru-fru cup cake skirts, a superb ‘Guess the weight of the’ cake, complete with its own Fascinator bobbling in the light breeze that flutters the many many many many flags.
The young lads, locally feted for their incredible dance skills, do an impromptu performance for the gathered crowd. I watch the boys, black and Chinese, dancing with a light footed step that spurns gravity. I looked at the crowd watching them, a rainbow of ages and colours and class and genders and faiths and orientations and convictions, gravity forgotten.

The smell of the barbecue is coming from The Corner.

It was on The Corner that countless generations of young and irritating but essentially good natured young people hung out and chatted.
The cheapest youth project in the world.
When the Secured by Design agenda translated this gathering as loitering, the wall was pulled down and replaced with galvanised metal railings. One of the young people managed to save one of the bricks. A memento of a place that was the only place that was theirs. Their little bit of England.
But today the space that used to be behind the wall and is now behind bars, is a thick cloud or meat-rich smoke that makes even vegetarian taste buds yearn with an instinctive, rather than cultivated, desire. A good willed gaggle are joining in the party. They are blissfully unaware that to every one else, they are a crowd of Bengali Muslim men partying alone. (‘If that was white blokes they’d be up in arms’.) They only realised later how they had looked. They had been caught up and absorbed in their experience of The Moment. (‘Next time we will bring the barbecue up the street and cook for everyone’) Well, that will make the Big Lunch even more special.

An urgent errand to Bede estate. Tanya has run out of bin bags. Tanya has had to take time off work to run this event. Tanya normally wears her carers uniform like a statement of fact, today looks like a hard working beauty, She has worked for days on end…. ‘Don’t go on Pen, This is what we do. This is how we live’. ‘Right you are Tan..’ and off I go, explaining to a hack visiting from the Italian press what exactly it is that she is seeing playing out around her. It is a mystery to her. The local press latch on, do they understand much better than she does? Do they get the nuances?

And on Bede the excitement is mounting. The pony and trap have arrived. A tiny little pony and cart are stolidly ploughing a furrow up and down Wager Street carrying cart loads of giggling children (consent forms all signed.) And Christine, now resplendent in her party get up, is almost bursting with the fun of it. And Helen, attending to the details and the structure underpinning the fun.

And the Bengali Mum Giving her little baby to two of the white residents who had grown up on the estate, so it could have a ride and have its photo taken.. for the memory. ‘You don’t remember this my darling but one day when you were very little, there was a fairy tale wedding, we didn’t see that but we took a picture, see, this lady Shelia and this lady Chris held you in their arms while you went on a ride in a cart drawn by a white pony up and down Wager Street. Yes Wager Street right here! Imagine that my love. That’s something to tell your grandchildren.’

And the white resident seeing her little known Bengali neighbour moving through the square with her children. ‘Here She. Hold this can, they don’t like beer. Hey love, you know this is for you and the kids too. You can join in come on, get something to eat, there’s Halal, give the kids a balloon’.

A feat of organisation and miracle of things that could have gone wrong. A kaleidoscope of tiny stories and images with nothing to do with Royalty. The sleepless nights of planning and preparation and cooking and cooling meats.
The matriarchy is in full sail.
The men willingly follow in it’s wake and help out in unexpectedly delicate ways, like sticking rosettes to the gazebo, tenderly placed and firmly fixed with black gaffer tape.
At the end of day a passing line from a bloke, quiet throughout, watching always watching and now, I realise, smiling with a great fondness. ‘Next time we will have a party that runs all down Eric Street. It will join up these two estates.’

The Royals are being used as an excuse for these wonderful people to party together beneath the Union Flag.

I started the day with a hard heart. I took images of the flag of St George from behind so that it read ‘!dnalgnE’ and caricatured a country that has gone through the looking glass and beyond. White queens expecting poverty to pay for the lushest wedding in the world at a time when health, education, social services, our holding mechanisms, are being reconstructed and workers are sacked and expected to volunteer to do the jobs they had been paid for. I was capturing the evidence, the facts exposing the obscenity of the extremes of our country. And I ended the day watching a man with a wry loving grin and a bigger dream of more unity, next time.

There are still shreds of bunting to be seen.
And I am very late in sorting out my photographs and sharing them with the party people. They keep asking for them. They are looking forwards to looking back.


    Plog- May ‘11


    10th May ‘11

    Today’s session was really busy with children and their parents stopping by for a while on their way home from school. Some new children came and joined in too. Rainer tied a piece of blue net between the tree and the fence and the kids had a great time sliding down it. They got a few friction burns and scrapes from it but loved it and kept coming back for more turns.

    11th May ‘11

    About 20 kids came along this afternoon. One parent brought a out an inflatable paddling pool for the kids and they pretended it was a cauldron and that they were mixing spells. They also used the water from it to water all the plants and herbs that their parents were growing in planter boxes in the square. A lot of kids played independently here today and we interacted mostly with the youngest children while the older ones got on with their own games of chase and football.

    12th May ‘11

    Today’s session was fairly quiet with just our regular kids but they stayed for the whole session. By popular request, we made the hammocks again as the kids wanted to sit in them and chat and play with their phones. One 9 year old boy’s behaviour was particularly difficult today with lots of sexualised comments and gesturing towards the girls.

    14th May ‘11

    We arrived at the first square today to very grey skies and decided to build a rain shelter with a group of about 6 of our regular kids and a new brother and sister who came by. They found it hard to join in with the others at first as they’re a really established group of friends but concentrating on the den building task seemed to help them fit in. We tied the parachute between the tree and the slide and tried to pull out the other sides and attach them to the ground with sticks. The ground was hard making this impossible. Luckily, a couple of men were doing some repairs to a nearby stairwell and offered to let us borrow their hammer for a while so the kids got to have a go at working with the tool. They made a good den and took the fabric inside to sit on and use as blankets. The rain never came. However the den got tested in the form of one of our regular boys turning up on a destructive bent and pulling up the improvised tent pegs. The girls got angry and chased after him but he got away laughing.

    At the next square we were joined by about 6 of our regular girls and played chase games, stopping to do some crafts when we got tired of running. Suddenly the rain shower we’d been waiting for at the last square and then forgotten about came, short but very heavy. We huddled together under a heap of fabric and umbrellas till it stopped.

    The sun was out when we got to the last square and the session got busy with swing games, drawing, chase, origami and animal impressions.

    19th May ‘11

    Today’s session was fairly quiet at both squares. We made hammocks again but there was a lot of squabbling amongst the kids about who could get in, who was allowed with whom and how long for. One boy was getting pushed out by the other kids so I distracted him into a dare game, flipping a coin to see who got the dare. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to start this game as the boy can be one of the more challenging ones but his dares were quite sweet, making me run and dance in the middle of the square, or do star jumps (nothing offensive!) and he did his own dares with good humour, posing in the middle of the square and singing to the other play workers.

    20th May ‘11

    Today’s session was very quiet, it was a warm, pleasant day but not so many children came out as usual. The beginning was busiest. A group of 4 of our regulars came and wanted the hammock put up for them. We tried to encourage them to do it themselves first but they were really weren’t prepared even to pick it up and try. They got progressively ruder and more demanding before taking the hammock net to go and hide it round the corner. However, they came back later and were persuaded to go and get it and they did get some time in a hammock that another girl had made since they left. We also played some badminton and drew with the chalks. The second square was quiet on this session too with just a couple of the children under 5 coming out to play, as well as the older group of teenagers who hang out here too.


    22nd May ‘11

    Today’s session was warm and relaxed. The kids played their usual, favourite games but the session was mostly about preparing for next week’s party. The kids chatted about their favourite foods and what kind of games they’d like. They spent a long time designing and making posters which we taped to the walls around the square and also at the other squares we work from so these kids could come along too. One boy decided to destroy these to annoy us (succeeding more than he knew)! A few survived to advertise the party and the regular girls, who were particularly involved in the planning said they’d let as many people know as possible!


    27th May ‘11

    It’s been a difficult session today. We arrived at the estate in a thunder storm. It cleared after 15 minutes and we discovered the youth club were using the inside space today as they’d had to swap days this week, so we gathered some stuff and went outside. We met 4 of our regulars and had a short game of badminton before it started to pour with rain again. We sheltered under the stairs, using umbrellas as walls. One of the younger boys wanted to stay out with us but was only wearing a t-shirt so Habiba ran him home under her umbrella to get a coat and they came back to chat and chalk. However the rain didn’t clear up and continued to pour down heavily, turning the square into one big puddle that seeped into everyone’s trainers. A couple of mums started to shout at us for not running the session from inside and we went to find out if we could share the space with the youth club which we did end up doing, but amid a lot of complaints from the mums that the older kids shouldn’t be there as it wasn’t their night. They were worried about the older kids starting trouble with the younger ones, they appeared to have been drinking and were especially aggravated. The session was ok though we were overcrowded, there was no trouble between the kids, the younger ones happy to watch the older ones play Pool and we got some clay and board games out. The rain eventually stopped as we were packing up to go!


    29th May ‘11

    Today was the day of the party we’ve been organising at the first of the squares we work at on Saturdays. Our regular kids were excited and waiting for us when we arrived, they helped us lay out the food on picnic blankets and decorate the square. We hung bunting between the trees, blew up balloons and drew coloured chalk arrows to the picnic from the edges of the square with invitations to ‘join our play party’. One girl did some creative decorations on the poles supporting the trees with zigzags of coloured tape.

    A few new kids came out when they saw the decorations and stayed for some food and games. We picnicked on baguettes, crisps, carrot and cucumber dips, pancakes and lemonade, and some delicious onion bargees one of the girl’s mums had made for us. After, we started the games- the kids had requested Pass the Parcel and a piñata.  The piñata created the most excitement, I’d made it a little stronger than I intended and it needed a good 15minutes of bashing with a plastic tennis bat. We strung it up from the tree and the kids took it in turns to hit it, shouting “DIE, DIE, DIE”! Eventually it fell off its hook, one boy dived on it then ran across the square trying to rip the layers off, a big group laughing and chasing him. They tackled it from him till it got ripped open- but only sweet wrappers and sugar dust fell out, the sweets had been pulverised! Luckily, the kids found this funny and were proud of it rather than disappointed! (Next time I’m using softer, gummy sweets though). We stayed for an extended sessions, we did some jewellery making, it was 80 % girls who stayed to the party and a groups of children and their mums came by from the others squares we work at and joined us. We also played in the hammock and chase games. It was a grey, windy day and the rain brought a natural end to the session but we were really pleased with how it went.

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