Tic Tac Park.
The site was first identified on a walkabout on the estate.
It sits behind a boiler house and is walled on three sides with railings on the fourth allowing full visibility to the site whilst retaining a sense of privacy. There is one padlocked, gated entrance, next to a front door of one of the flats and opening onto the main walkway of this section of the estate. The blocks around are six storey maisonettes with deck access largely overlooking the site. The space as found was covered with ground elder and patches of grass with an established London Plane Tree and a few over grown shrubs suck as buddleia. It was badly littered but not terribly, but there was no evidence of it being used as a dump for large items. On closer inspection (much later than the original mapping of the site) no evidence was found of drugs use or condoms. The local demographic seems to be long established residents, from elderly folks to high numbers of young families, white and black with a smaller number of Bengali families than on other estates we have visited. There is no play space on this estate, although there are large swathes of treed green space, they are not used for independent play by the local children and parents do not consider them to be viable doorstep playspaces.
The playwork team were doing their first full team walkabout of this area, just learning the art of the play psychogeographer. We were taking a picture of a sign that said ‘no loitering’ when a local resident popped out of her front door and asked what we were doing. We out lined the project, that we were looking for spaces in the area where local kids could play near their homes. She said that she had several children and pointed out houses very nearby where other large families live. We asked her about the space behind the boiler house and she told us how her children longed to play in there. She said that sometime ago it had been left open by accident during the summer holidays and the kids had gone in and made dens. Unfortunately they had gone back in the morning and found a homeless woman sleeping in their den.
Since that time the gate has been padlocked and the children had, rather wistfully, made dens in the little corridor entrance way to the space. These were abruptly cleaned away by estates maintenance.
Mum then told us about how it was for her, growing up on this estate. She had played ‘on the concrete’, a site that we had been asked to work with and were seeking monies from ‘natural play’ to develop. Her description of ‘the concrete’ was fond, but it seems to have been a typical municipal site. The point seems to have been that it was there for the children and well used by them. While mum was talking several neighbours had gathered around and they agreed with what she was saying.
‘Yes it was great there. But there’s nothing there now for our kids. Its just a patch of concrete. You even get clamped if you park there.’
Mum also told us about ‘The Dump’ that the kids all used to play on. It has now been turned into a school. But they used to roller skate on the smooth tarmac of the little dead end road or go into The Dump to play. It seems that there were playworkers there because they had a little shop that she used to be allowed to run, in the summer they improvised a splash pool with sleepers and tarpaulin. They could climb and light fires and build dens, mum mentioned the dens many times with sparkling eyes and great excitement. She also said that there was really tall grass in The Dump and when your mum came to get you when it was time to go home, you could just lie flat and still in the grass and she couldn’t find you.
From these and other memories that parents shared with me about playing in their childhood, I realized that they were very play literate and appreciative of the experiences that they had had. They were painfully aware that their children were not having access to the same playful childhood. They were enlightened about the need for the play to be natural and un- supervised. They were also very clear, as was every one else who we spoke to about this work, that the children had nowhere to play, that they felt that the space did not want them and they would start to become ‘troublemakers’ if they didn’t quickly have somewhere to play. There was agreement that the children were not bad kids, they just needed to play.
We very quickly got the go-ahead, in principle, from the RSL. It was clear that we needed to do some work with this space. We were asked to provide Risk Assessments and proof of CRB for the playworkers. However finding a way to gain access to the site to do Risk Assessments proved complex. We understood from the maintenance team that the site had probably been padlocked many years ago by the local authority to save the money that was needed to spend on regular maintenance. The space has obviously been designed as a garden yet it was in a poor state of repair it had become one of the spaces that we have come to refer to as being so overlooked that they are overlooked. The space has become invisible, except to the wistful child. Because there are no spaces identified for play it is no-ones job to attend to the care of such places. For this reason the messages about keys and access in preparation for a days work in October half term, were passed around from willing and excited ear to ear. Every one was keen to help, but not sure how.
Eventually a key was found and entrusted to PATH for a couple of days. We were able to do Risk Assessments and plan for a play session the following day. The eleventh hour nature of the timing did not affect the work at all. In fact it may have enhanced it because we were able to share our excitement with the people that we had mention the estate and get their eager support.
The team is an experienced one and a hard working one too. We had shared our thoughts and feelings about this space as we had with all of the site we have looked at. We were clear with each other that the area should be made safe, cleared of littler and broken glass, then the children should be left to get on with it with very minimal support from us. We had hoped that the parents might take on a supportive role but had become aware that it was possible that there was some personal politics that might flair up and make shared responsibility for the space an issue of territory rather than free access.
Despite this hazy concern, we hoped that they would come and help us in the preparation of the area for play.
Our work day was scheduled, very cleverly, for the day before Halloween. It was very cold, we had had snow earlier in the week. We had a ceremonial unlocking of the site. A celebration for ourselves marking a triumph of playworker over key culture so early on in out project. Then we set about working on the project. I had promised one of the dads that we could work together on the Risk Assessment of the site so that we could learn from each other about play and about the local area. However that dada had wished us good morning and gone off to work, so maybe the invitation In itself was enough. We had also spoken with him about what would go into the site. He had suggested a basketball hoop. We said that that was possible, though we have no money for ‘things’ in this budget. However if we put a basket ball hoop in then the nature of the space would change and the little ones would once again be without a natural space to dig in and make dens in. He understood this at once. He was able to see that different sorts of playing are necessary and that just because many play spaces have basketball hoops and are sporty and tarmaced, doesn’t mean that this is always the right thing to do.
The team set about litter picking and bags were soon filling up with sodden old carpets and corrugated iron and scaffolding poles. As we filled these we decided to moved them outside the playspace so that the work became very visible and high profile. Gradually parents started to pop in to the site and chat with us. However there were no volunteers to help with the work even though they agreed that it should not be done by ‘the council’ because the land should be looked after by all of them for the kids.
It was in fact, the kids who came out in numbers. About half a dozen children spent all day with us tidying the site.
We explained the work to them and told them that we were doing this so they would have some-where to play that they were in charge of.
They found loose part tools and started to fill up rubbish bags.
They had no ability to differentiate between the litter and the ground elder and overgrown shrubs.
Many plants were needlessly slashed to ribbons with baseball bats and sticks that day.
The children seemed to be quite literally fighting for a space for themselves.
There was a constant witty and intelligent dialogue between the children and the team even though we were total strangers on their turf. So we were able to talk to them about the wildlife they were slashing.
(‘that bush is called a buddleia. It has long purple flowers and the butterflies love it’….
‘Oh, coz of that pollen’.
‘That’s right. It has a nickname of the butterfly bush’
‘I am going to get all the bad bark off that tree!’ –raises baseball bat to trunk-
‘well the bark does help to protect the tree, a little bit like your skin protects you.’)
In both instances the action stopped after the somewhat ham-fisted intervention. The children were not told they were doing anything wrong, but were just given some information to help them think about what they were doing. It should be said that the child hitting the dirty bark had actually correctly identified the tree as a London Plane, which does shed pollutant filtering bark, or so I understand… so this may have been an inappropriate comment from me. However we all felt some need to advocate for the natural environment and we wanted the children to find a connection with it rather than fighting it.
A more successful intervention went like this:
‘can I beat down that bush?’
‘well yes, you can. But could I try out something with it before you do?’
We twined the branches together to make a roof and I cleared the glass and stinging nettles away from beneath it. They scraped away at the soil and started to dig a hollow to sit in.
There were conversations between the children about survival programmes that they had seem on TV. They tried many different loose parts for digging. As they did they recounted the narrative of the film and the book ‘Holes’ with a very good précis and great insight. They clearly identified with the children in the film and each of them spoke of the tiny underdog character ‘Zero’ with huge sympathy and affection.
Their work on this den was rewarded almost at once by a most excellent shower of rain, from which they were able to shelter.
They seemed to find it very hard to understand that they would be able to play here as soon as the space was tidied. We were expecting the usual rush of wanting a swimming pool and a flume. But there was not much of this sort of conversation. There repeated motif seemed to be that the children wanted bark chippings to put down on the site. I kept responding that it was not necessary as these were ‘used if children were going to fall off stuff’ (sic). It seemed to me at the time that they were concerned with safety. It only later occurred to me that the bark chippings would make it look like a ‘proper playground.’
They fought with themselves to name the space, trying to name it after the person who had started it..
(.. ‘God this is amazing right? I don’t know how to say it, but you just had this idea, and then it just happened. You made this happen!’
Hard to reply to this… I tried several tactics, ‘the space shouted at us!’ ‘ We are all making this space together…’ etc But this lad’s wonder at seeing something that was a thought made real was staggering and it was important not to diminish this discovery he had made.)
They did not want much in the way of stuff. They did want a tyre swing which we will accidentally allow to happen for them.. loose parts will find their way to the spot. They did say: ’The government should give money for children ‘s play places.’
I was able to say that the government had done exactly that (LBTH Pathfinder). But that the money that we had (Lottery) was for people to spend time working out play stuff with kids where they needed it rather than to buy things.
A surprising response from the littlest member of the group, the Buddleia beater… ‘that’s much better. You can do a lot more with peoples time than you can with stuff’.
A couple of boys climbed onto the boiler house roof . They were agile and sure footed as mountain goats, other kids explained that they were free runners. I asked them to come down, not because I thought it was dangerous – the really dangerous things had been pointed out to the kids and explained to them pending repairs. I asked them to think about the moaning people who would complain and get the site closed before they had had a chance to use it. It was a bit to ask , but they were clever enough to be a bit political… ‘yeah we are doing this for ourselves and for our little sisters and brothers’.
We do not want to make them think that we are running the place at all. Although we were concerned that the space should be open for them when ever they wanted, the space did need some sort of security. The caretaker of the space turned up to see what was going on. He had got left out of the complex web of communications and we were able to apologise for that. He was so eager and supportive of the opening up of this space that I was utterly wrong footed. He knew that this was exactly what the children needed and spoke of the with admiration and affection.
‘They are bright kids and they are nice. They really need somewhere to play. I hope this will help them.’ He gave me his mobile number and made it clear that he was an ally to this work.
This has been the consistent response of every single person we have spoken to in this piece of work. There is an innate need to see children play. and a deep understanding of what playing is and what happens to children without it, and how that impacts upon communities. The Playwork Principles may not be familiar to these folks, but they are certainly trying to work towards them despite the historical municipal shortsightedness that has been at the root of so much play deprivation in this borough.
The day ended when it got too dark and wet and cold to continue. By the time we left we had promised to come back the following day and have a little halloweening. Some teenagers had passed by and asked if the space could be tarmaced and have a ball court, we must attend to that agenda. The parents were having a bit of a set to… not sure why, but we will keep an ear to the ground on that one.
The children had named the place ‘Tic Tac Park’, named for the smallest of them. The little Buddleia Beater who had spent the whole day bashing things tidy with out a single break. It was him who had said, if we have here, then we will not get into trouble.’
This must be a real and abiding fear for these children, especially the boys.
I was reminded of their conversations about ‘Holes’ and how tenderly they had spoken about the littlest of the boys in the film, Zero. There were certainly very clear echoes of their tenderness in their choice of the name for their shared potential space.
We are off now to take some satsumas down for the Halloween party. I think we will ask them to look after the key for the site, so it is really within their control. I will read up on Roger Hart’s work on participation.
This just keeps on getting better!
October 31st 2008