Guest post by Eleanor Shipman

PLAY SWAP began as part of my six-month artist residency funded by Near Neighbours at Pembroke House, a community centre and settlement in Elephant and Castle, South London. The residency aimed to bring local people of different cultural backgrounds together, and what better way to do that than through sharing play?

Inspired by a spontaneous visit to The Museum of Childhood, an exhibition exploring themes raised by the National Trust report ‘Natural Childhood’ by Stephen Moss prompted my exploration of contemporary play as a platform for cultural exchange. After happily reminiscing on my own childhood’s scraped knees, grass-stained shorts and the odd bruise from tree-climbing, river-paddling and scampering about, I was shocked and saddened to discover the rising numbers of children who have never rolled down a hill, built a den or climbed a tree[i].

IMG_6671I wondered how these statistics related to my new neighbourhood in Elephant and Castle – a diverse, largely deprived urban area encased in the intimidating tower block fortresses of the 70s, yet shaken up by the flashy, slick shards of new buildings. Boarded up buildings, mountains of rubble, abandoned playgrounds and concrete walkways challenged real-life renderings of perfect plazas, ‘no ball game’ courtyards, tiny glass balconies and shiny new apartment blocks in the options of spaces to play. The Elephant’s private and public space both repelled users in obvious, aggressive and isolating ways, leaving no space to play at all.

Surely this vibrant area full of history, character and people must have known playfulness at some point? And those attempting to live in its messy, ever-changing patchwork must too, have known play? What about the children, whose playtime laughs and shrieks can be heard twice a day from the local schools but not after they are released back into their concrete surroundings?

I decided to initiate PLAY SWAP as a way to talk with local people about their experiences of play, through collecting street games and documenting them in an archive, as well as running weekly workshops for adults and children in the local area which would encourage play outside through the exploration of our urban surroundings.

From working with the older person’s lunch club, whose members spent their childhoods on the traditional South London terraces and played out every waking moment, to the local young people and children from Surrey Square Primary School, to the international market traders of East Street, to all residents and neighbours in between who have known play in hundreds of countries across the world, I began to gather quite a collection with some fascinating results.

Play is universal. Play crosses cultural, religious, economic and social divides, with everyone from every background I came across recognising what play is and how they played. Many games I heard about had different names for the same game, from ‘Hopscotch’ being called ‘Heaven and Hell’ in German, to ‘Tim Tam Tommy’ known as ‘Kick the Can’ or ‘Blockey 1-2-3’ in different regions in England, to ‘Gulli and Danda’, an Indian stick hitting game, claimed by locals as originating on the streets of Southwark. Talking about play made people smile, provoked elaborate mimes and intricate diagrams, enthusiastic gestures and, of course, the games being played themselves. It was fantastic.

IMG_0663The workshops aimed to put this further into practice. From Tug-of-War with the whole street; chalk drawings scattered across the playground at Surrey Square School; a big play with over one hundred infants in five circles of, almost, simultaneous Duck Duck Goose and Wink Murder; to visiting the tree-high walkways of a local abandoned housing estate with local children and members of the lunch club who then put up a tyre swing together, PLAY SWAP brought play out onto the streets of Southwark.

To conclude PLAY SWAP after five months of game collection I enlisted the help of filmmaker Michael Radford to create a short film as a more visual way of capturing these fantastic stories, memories and ideas. Through interviewing local people of all ages and backgrounds of their experiences of play, we created this short film.

It was a pleasure to find that inner city children are still playing, finding pockets of green space and a healthy dose of imagination to utilise the resources they do have. Perhaps that is why play is so universal – it occurs naturally, even if there is only concrete to nurture it. It is flexible and sustainable, and seems to happen against all odds. Although the statistics are concerning, I believe the flame of inspiration and uncensored spontaneity is still very much alive – but perhaps doing more to pass games down, across and up between generations, cultures and communities could help fuel this flame further.

This film along with the games written, recorded, photographed and collected will be added to Southwark’s Local History Archives as an ongoing legacy, local resource and time capsule documenting how people play, and have played. I wonder what the future will hold?

Eleanor Shipman

[i] OnePoll research for Playday 2011

Photo credits: Eleanor Shipman


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