This week was my first day out with the Imagination Playground big blue blocks since last summer – as is now traditional whenever I’m down for delivery, it rained, but fortunately not enough to put the children off their play! This booking came as a result of one of my teacher training sessions, where I used the tabletop version of the blocks as part of a DT session.
The school, Children’s House, is one I have visited before briefly: it has a very beautiful but sadly at risk mural by the artist and writer Eve Garnett whose One End Street books I loved as a child. It’s an interesting place – designed by architect Charles Cowles-Voysey based on Maria Montessori’s vision of an ideal learning environment for young children, opened by the author H.G. Wells in 1923 and visited by Gandhi when he stayed at Kingsley Hall as a guest of Muriel Lester. It’s a nursery school, so filled with tiny, curious little under fives who love to play.
Planned as an opportunity for parents to join their children for a play session, we kicked off with a small group of adults and children but it quickly grew as more kids decided to join in. We had our blue blocks, swathes of fabric in different textures and colours, marker cones and plastic play balls, and piles of shiny crinkly emergency foil blankets, and laminate floor underlay cut into strips and shapes. Kids adore these last two things for some reason!
Way back in the mists of time I trained as an early years teacher so am a big supporter of open-ended play and loose parts as part of child development. The big blue blocks were designed by Cas Holman for just this purpose. We have the largest version – just over 100 pieces, from long ‘pool noodles’ to chunky rectangles which were bigger than the children. We have added various other bits (see above) to the kit to bring more colour and what we have ended up with is a bright, pop-up experience that works for all ages.
I had a great day, and so did the children and adults: the headteacher was unable to resist appearing in the sessions to get down on the floor and play, which is always a good sign, and we’re going to visit their federated school in a few weeks as well. The channels in some of the blocks inspire creations like marble runs which work with the plastic balls, and the size of these runs mean a group of children can all join in. Once one child starts, the others join in, adding to structures and building on ideas to make them bigger and better. The sheer size of some of the blocks means co-operation is necessary to manoeuvre them into position. With the aid of adults, dens were created using fabric and the playground structures, allowing all sorts of imaginative play.
With the younger groups (the three year olds) there was a high level of additional need in the form of hearing impairments so the bright colours and textures of the kit became sensory experiences. The wonderful thing about open-ended play is that it’s impossible to get it wrong and the possibilities are endless.
The older children – four year olds – brought their story telling powers out to play with them. We built the tallest tower in the world so we could reach the teachers’ biscuits, and we built a boat to go on the sea with. At one point I got taken on a magic carpet ride to the seaside where we had ice creams and went for a paddle before going on a rollercoaster and then flying back home. All around me I could hear other adults discussing what was happening around them and making plans to buy fabrics and other things to add to their own blocks. I was quite sad to leave at the end of the day!
This week I am working with Key Stage one and two children as well, which is a less open-ended but just as creative session. Let’s just hope (for my team’s sake!) that the rain holds off.
Hope your week was as much fun as mine!
What I’ve been reading:
Abbatoir Blues/When the Music’s Over/Sleeping in the Ground – Peter Robinson
Well, here we are with post 104 and that means I’ve been knocking these weekly rambles out for a whole two years.
And what an odd two years they have been. I have just looked back at week one, where I made a list of projects I was going to finish and some of them did get done, but several didn’t. Let’s mark them as ongoing (all the best action lists do this) and move on to the next item. We are still in the grip of Covid-19, despite the prime idiot’s best efforts to convince us otherwise by throwing parties and stuff: once again, this week more of my friends and family have tested positive at the same time than at any other point. It’s the second time round for one friend’s daughter, and the first time was less than six weeks ago. The tube is ridiculously busy and so many people aren’t wearing masks (I forgot mine a week ago and felt quite reckless, but after the person I was with tested positive two days later I have remembered it every day). It almost feels as if Covid is ‘soooo 2021’ and now we have to get on with worrying about nuclear buttons and Putin’s ‘special military operations’ instead.
This week I worked at an awards event – a black tie do, hosted by the fabulous Robert Llewellyn (aka Kryten from Red Dwarf). He was very professional and a thoroughly nice chap, and I got to be a glamorous assistant and hand awards to the presenting sponsors as they came up to announce the winners. One of the speakers has since tested positive for Covid, so I am still testing daily as I’m out and about in schools a lot at the moment and I don’t really want to be the one that carries it back in with me! I wore a red velvet M&S dress that I had grabbed in a charity shop without even trying it on as the last time I had to dress up was for this same event in 2019, and – quite honestly – who still fits into anything from back then?? Luckily it fit like a dream, and for £6.50 it was definitely worth it.
I finally got home at just before 1am, in a cab with a lovely driver who talked to me all the way home which meant I at least stayed awake! Back in London for teaching the next morning, I was so tired that I had a proper senior moment with my brain on autopilot: I got off the DLR three stops early, and had to get on a bus to get to the school I was working at. The sessions – Imagine This, delivered by artist, writer, facilitator and all round fabulous person Julia Deering – were a good way to spend a morning. Designed to get kids thinking about set and costume design, they are an explosion of colour and imagination with the end result of amazing jungles, ice caves, castles, restaurants, game worlds and seasides peopled by heroes, magical characters and (on this occasion) Sonic the Hedgehog. I’m back at the school this week with the ‘Think Small’ session. I always think you get the measure of a school as you walk through the door, and this one is so welcoming and friendly. The pupils are confident and happy, and keen to share their ideas – we’ve really enjoyed spending time with them. I was at another school in the afternoon to cover a coding club session, and somehow I made it back home without falling asleep anywhere – two days later I’m still shattered, though I did make it out to swimming this morning and for a walk yesterday. If anything has proved I can no longer party like it’s my birthday, it’s a midweek late night….
And that’s been week 104 – here’s to year 3 and more weekly rambles through the life of a middle aged muddle.
Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to a four part podcast from the BBC World Service’s The Compass, called ‘Why We Play‘. Each part explored a different phase of life, from childhood through to old age, and the impact and potential benefits of play. It covers things like video games, which can help adolescents navigate issues around anxiety and depression; why we shouldn’t stop playing in old age; the importance of play in making sense of the world in the early years; and how play can increase productivity at work. I won’t go into too much detail here but it’s an interesting listen.
You may not recognise Rylands’ name but for people of my generation his toys will have been part of your childhood. He was the creator of Playplax, which – along with its direct descendant Super Octons – was still a staple part of nursery kit in the late 1990s. He talked about Playplax as something that was ‘just stuff’: there were no pre-determined outcomes, only what the child made of it.
“A toy that does everything by itself, does nothing for the child. The main purpose of a toy is to enable children to enter into a world of make-believe, as it is in this way that children relate to reality.”
The power of these little perspex squares is amazing: when we were doing some training with a childcare setting in the summer on how to use the big blue blocks we took the Super Octons along and several of the adults latched onto them and spent ages with them. A teenage girl at Epping Forest College made a set of sunglasses in a session which she was very proud of. People love the simplicity of slotting the shapes together, of mixing the colours and building up and out. The blue blocks (and Lego, and any building kit!) have the same effect – they are an invitation to play, to build and create.
Where was I? Oh yes, banging on about play again. Going out and talking to teenagers can get a bit depressing at times as a) they don’t want to talk back to me, so getting them to answer questions is like squeezing money out of HMRC and b) they often tell me that you stop playing when you stop being a child. The definition we often use, both in the sociology and the play sessions, is that childhood lasts from birth to puberty, although we do discuss legal and social definitions as well. They talk about play – when I can get them to talk at all – as something they ‘used to do when they were young’ (thanks, 15 year olds!) or as something they do with younger siblings or cousins.
There are many definitions of play, especially when you start getting all academic about types of play and things (it’s Sunday, so I won’t) but the very simplest one, the one I use when talking into the teenage void, is that it’s something you choose to do for enjoyment and recreation, rather than for a serious purpose. If you ask them what they do for fun, they tell you that they go and hang out at Westfield (other shopping centres are available, apparently), play online games and so on. Some may play football or skateboard, some might have a hobby that they enjoy, and some – very occasionally – admit to enjoying the odd board game at Christmas or with family. They then often mention Monopoly, which to me is less a game and more a form of hideous torture, but there we are. I’m still not sure they agree that their non-game activities are ‘play’ but at least they are talking to me.
Before I joined the museum, the Importance of Play session finished with a chance for the students to play with various toys that they had seen in the galleries – a teddy bear’s picnic, dolls house, Playmobil sets, building blocks etc – and their task was to set them up as they might if they were inviting nursery children to join in and then we’d discuss what children might learn. This might be fine or gross motor skills, social skills, colour matching or maths. After several months of the teenage void I noticed that as we walked into the classroom the students were more interested in the activities than in the talk, so I flipped the session and invited them to play at the start of the session. It was a revolution, as far as I was concerned, and the sessions became much more open: they’d play, and then we’d ask them the same questions about what young children might learn. But now they’d answer me, and they’d talk about their own activities, and were more confident in sharing their prior knowledge.
The podcast (see, you knew there was a point) made me think about whether I was practising what I preached, to coin a phrase. Am I playful enough in my adult and work life? You all know what I enjoy doing – I make things, I hurl myself in lakes and so on – but do I play?
Sometimes, I admit, I forget: having to be a proper grown up and keep other people alive, negotiating peace settlements among children, being the grumpy one that makes them turn the Minecraft off and so on are not conducive to playfulness. But I sing and dance in the kitchen while I cook those dinners and spin passing children into a twirl, and sometimes have the urge to bake a cake and smother it with Smarties ‘just because’. When London sister and I went to Ireland for our niece’s First Communion there was a bouncy castle and we regressed entirely, spending a lot of the afternoon on it and ganging up to bounce our mum off the apron at the front; playing with the niece and nephew and being entirely silly. When we have our big family holidays the various children often accuse us of being childish, as we tend to get a bit giddy.
Things 2 and 3 do enjoy board games and both of them will help me if I get a jigsaw out at Christmas, and Thing 2 likes to play with beads and make things. Thing 1 enjoys playing with make up and will be doing a course at college next year which will teach her about special effect make up. Popular games here have been Tsuro, Mijnlieff and Horrible Histories’ Stupid Deaths games, as well as traditional fare like Pop-up Pirate, Hungry Hippos and Connect 4. My mum bought us Sorry!, in a vain attempt at revenge for the Christmas when she got so annoyed at being sorried once too often that she threw it across the room and we’ve never let her forget it. It failed – I just saved it till she came to stay and made her play it with them.
Last September I joined a Dungeons and Dragons campaign – I used to play when I was at uni, so when I was invited to join this set of characters that I’d already made voodoo dolls of at the Dungeon Master’s request, I jumped at the chance. So every Thursday night I wander off down the road with my dice and my tablet and for a couple of hours I’m a bardic gnome (or possibly a Gnomic Bard) with a magical dragon plushie I haven’t brought into play yet, a set of spells and a good excuse to make extremely silly puns on a regular basis. And I love it – I’m still finding my feet and sometimes my dice hate me and conspire to kill me, but it’s so much fun. Some weeks are tense and battle filled (I got grappled by a giant monstery thing!) and other weeks are completely daft and giggly (last week we ‘helped’ someone with the world’s most uncomfortable first date) but I love it. Some weeks, if we have people missing, we end up playing board games and that’s great too. One of my lovely colleagues also plays D&D, and we often sit over coffee and talk about our campaigns – neither of our partners play, so we can nerd out in safety!
A secondary school I visited a few months ago, which is for boys with social, emotional and behavioural needs, has a D&D room. These boys can go and work through different scenarios in a safe space, giving them a set of coping skills they can apply in real life. They might not run into owlbears or svartalves in the streets of East London but the skills they learn are very much real.
All our new learning sessions will have elements of play as well as imagination and design, so I’m learning to build it more into my work life. Enforced playfulness in work life can be excruciating, especially when confronted with ‘role play’ activities in training sessions, but being more playful in how I build activities is definitely more fun!
So, I might not be entirely playful – but I’m working on it….
With that, I’m off to do the ironing and then I’m going to play with some yarn. See you next week!
The House at the End of Hope Street/The Dress Shop of Dreams/The Witches of Cambridge – Menna van Praag
This week I took my new school session out to Thing 3’s primary school to test it on Years 5 and 6 – still playing with blue Imagination Playground blocks, but this time the tabletop version which are definitely easier to carry around. Added to these were scraps of fabrics, pipes, string and other loose parts, building on the work we’ve been doing over the summer.
The session, called ‘Think Small’, is an introduction to user-centred design, helping children to understand the iterative design process, work collaboratively and communicate ideas, and finally to work creatively with materials. These are some of the 5Cs of 21st century skills and are the some of the building blocks for learning in the new museum.
We started by thinking about chickens, and what they need to be safe and happy: brainstorming ideas as a class, and then looking at the Eglu. The chickens in question can be seen above – Mabel, Doris and Tome, who belong to one of my colleagues and who were previously commercial egg-laying chickens. We’re in a relatively rural area, so some of the children already had experience of chickens, and were keen to share their ideas. ‘Space to play’ was the most important thing according to one child whose granny is a chicken keeper. We looked then at the Eglu, a chicken house which was designed to make it simpler to keep chickens in garden and which you can see on the left of the picture.
We moved on to talking about what pets we have at home – cats, dogs, guinea pigs, chameleons, geckos, the odd bird and tortoise, hedgehogs – and how they need different environments. I split the classes into four groups, and each team picked a mystery bag with an animal model. As a team they generated a list of things their animal needed which became their ‘client brief’. They were surprised to discover that they wouldn’t be the designing the home for their animal, but had to swap their briefs with another team. Each group then became ‘animal architects’, looking at the brief together and each child designed a home that they thought met that brief. The hardest bit, we discovered, was when the children had to decide which design from their group met the brief best and would be the one put forward to the ‘clients’. Some groups decided quickly, while others needed some support.
The clients gave feedback on the designs and then the architects used the creative kit to build the chosen design, incorporating the feedback, and finally the groups looked at all the designs while the architects talked us through them.
Over the four sessions I refined the format and changed some of the timings, and delivering it to the different year groups allowed me to see how it works with different abilities. The classes are quite small, with less than 25 in each which meant four groups in each session was viable. One thing about working with ‘animals’ was that it gave all the children a chance to shine and share prior knowledge from their out-of-school experience rather than reinforcing classroom learning.
I didn’t let them use sellotape or glue, so they had to come up with other solutions to hold objects together or in a particular shape. One boy shone as a project manager, helping his team realise the design he’d created.
Feedback from the children themselves was entertaining: one of them informed me that he didn’t know DT actually involved ‘making things’, another was keen to find out more about making structures stable. Apparently it’s harder to build than to draw, and it needs more brain power than they expected. Building with blocks takes a ‘lot of thinking’. They were surprised when they had to swap their animals to let other people build their ideas; DT is not just on a computer; and it was interesting to think about what other people need. One asked how long it takes to become an architect, so I’m counting that as a win! One wanted to know if I was really Thing 3’s ‘actual mum’.
Thing 3, of course, was mostly just concerned that I didn’t embarrass him too much…
As you can see I have some sewing to be getting on with! My first foray into swimwear, for example: a two piece that will be easier to get out of in the winter swimming. The water was 12.6 degrees this morning, so we’re on our way to single figures. There’s also been cross stitch in the evenings, which I’ll share when it’s finished. See you next week…
What I’ve been reading:
Forests of the Heart/The Onion Girl – Charles de Lint
Back in 1999, when I was still a Tower Hamlets primary school teacher, I taught a year 3 class. It was a typical class, with the full range of abilities from ridiculously bright to identified levels of SEND. It being Tower Hamlets, the intake was both socially and culturally very diverse, with the usual levels of kids on free school meals, in social housing, etc. This was in the glory days of ‘education, education, education’, as Tony Blair would have it: I didn’t agree with a lot of his policies but that one I could get right behind.
One child in my class was B, a very sweet boy who these days would probably have been identified as having ADD. I tell a lot of trainee teachers about B when I am talking about the importance of museum visits, and the need to offer children a range of learning activities to meet different styles of learning. His cartoon equivalent would be The Simpsons’ Ralph Wiggum: I was never sure how much of what happened in the classroom actually went in and he was a by-word for vague in the staffroom.
Like most year 3 classes, we covered Invaders and Settlers – Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, and during the Romans topic I organised a trip to the Museum of London for an object handling session. These school trips are so important: yes, they are ‘nice to haves’ but they are also the experiences which build cultural capital for children, and what I like to call London capital. London, especially diverse and poor areas, is not a city but a connected group of small villages. People tend to stay hyperlocal, and museums are often not on a family’s agenda: a day out costs money, even when museums are free, and there is often a feeling that a museum is ‘not for them’ (that’s another rant for another day). School visits help children experience the tube, the museum, social norms and more – it’s never just about the workshop. This is particularly important with families where the children have English as an additional language, and the parents may not have any English at all.
Anyway, back to B and the handling workshop. The facilitator held up an object – a wax tablet and stylus, in fact – and asked the children if they knew what it was. My class looked at him as if they’d never even heard of Romans…. except B, who put his hand up. I braced myself for a Wiggum-style non sequitur and out of his mouth came an explanation of what the object was, how it was used and re-used, and the name of the writing implement. My jaw dropped. 29 children’s jaws dropped. And he flew for the rest of the session. He knew what things were, he was confident in sharing his knowledge, and I went away with an entirely new view of one small child. I’m not saying that the effect lasted for ever – but we had seen hidden depths and I made sure that object-based learning made more frequent appearances in the classroom.
These visits and other experiences are ‘nice to haves’, yes, but they also provide key learning experiences for children who are not auditory or visual learners. It would be nice to think that teachers could just talk at children for 13 years and they would leave school knowing all the things they need to know, but for many children that isn’t the case. They need these ‘nice to haves’ to embed their learning and to help them connect understanding and knowledge. There have been so many occasions since I left the classroom and became a museum educator where I have seen the same thing happen to other teachers: a floodgate opens in a child’s mind when the connection is made, and both teacher and learner go away with a new understanding.
This week, for example, a child with autism focused for longer than he’s ever focused before on one thing: building with the blue blocks. Over three days this week we saw every class in a primary school, working on coding, creativity and collaboration and giving children a chance for some physical play, some kinaesthetic learning. The headteacher came to see us on our last day and said that so many parents had come to her and said their children hadn’t stopped talking about their session when usually they answer ‘dunno’ or ‘can’t remember’ to the ‘what did you do today?’ question. Teachers had also raved, and would we come to their other school as well please. These sessions were a ‘nice to have’ too, as are those days when companies like Time Steps or History off the Page come into school and your kids spend the day immersed in history and come home with peg dolls or Stone Age bread.
You may well wonder what’s brought this on. Read on…
This week, Google offered up this article for my reading pleasure. I’m quite sure that inciting me to fury probably wasn’t its intention, but that was the result. The article was about how schools would tackle the issue of ‘catch up’ following last year’s closures. It talked about schools focusing on the poorest pupils, ensuring they had food (gasp!) and ‘going out visiting’ (ditto!). Apparently this meant that they weren’t providing an education offer for all children. It was acknowledged that private schools had three times as much money than state, which was nice to know if not really much of a revelation.
Who knew that children might need to eat? Who knew that their families might need to eat? Who might have suspected that the poorest families, who rely on school dinners to ensure that their kids are guaranteed a hot meal every day, might need pastoral support – especially when dealing with a government who were prepared not to feed these kids in the holidays? When their parents, if they were working at all, were furloughed on 80% of a minimum wage that wasn’t enough to live on anyway? She didn’t mention digital poverty, which meant many of these children were trying to work on their parents’ phones, or the problems with getting laptops to these children, or unreliable/non-existent broadband. I have sung the praises of Marcus Rashford before – although I haven’t mentioned Maro Itoje who campaigned for children to have access to laptops and the internet during Covid. (Gavin Williamson, the mercifully-now-ex Education Secretary, managed to confuse the two earlier this month.)
Selfishly, though – speaking as a career ‘nice to have’ – that wasn’t even the paragraph that made me most angry. It made me pretty angry, because – working in Tower Hamlets – I believe that schools made the right decision and the wellbeing of their pupils absolutely should have been their priority, especially at the beginning of lockdown. None of us had a crystal ball and could not have known that we’d still be doing lockdown learning a year later.
No, this was the one that really got me: “‘Nice to have’ things could be cut out for worst-hit pupils” to ensure that pupils are ‘catching up’.
Apparently, most catch-up would take place in pupils’ “main classrooms with their normal teachers”. They referred to a “sort of everyday magic that teachers do of really motivating children to want to learn and introducing them to the whole curriculum, taking them through in a well structured way with the minimal wastage of time…There are experiences, ‘nice to have’ things that are often built into curricular, and I suspect a lot of those will get cut out for the children who have missed the most.”
The comments follow guidance… which warned that “time is not infinite and so, alongside identifying what content from missed topics should be prioritised, careful consideration must also be given to choices of teaching activity”. “Do the pupils who spend a lesson on the Egyptians wrapping their friend in toilet roll remember the details of Egyptian religious beliefs, or do they just remember the fun activity,” the guidance said.
Well, speaking from experience, I am pretty sure they remember both….because the practical activity embeds the learning into their brains. Learning is supposed to be fun. The teachers you remember decades later (for good reasons) are the ones who made lessons memorable, and not the ones who treated you as vessels to be filled with knowledge. I think if we take away the ‘nice to haves’ we run the risk of not a lost generation of learners but a disengaged generation of non-learners. There is no one size fits all, which teachers have known for years.
Speaking as a kinaesthetic learner…
I like to keep my hands busy, as you know – and apparently so does the person who said all the things above. She knits through meetings as it helps her focus. I do wonder sometimes what goes on in people’s heads.
Anyway…as well as finishing the socks I have been working on for ages, I started a dragon scale dice bag (and then started it again when I realised I’d done it upside down) I also made these pouches which can be used for jewellery, shiny rocks, dice, sewing kits and more. They have little compartments and again were made of fabric leftovers.
The blue one is from a tutorial by Wandering Hare on Etsy and the patchwork one is from a free tutorial by Serendipity Studios, found here. Both very similar, but the second one has a padded bottom which will keep your preciouses safe from knocks!
That’s it from me then – see you next week! There’s a bacon sandwich with my name on it….
What I’ve been reading
Unseen Academicals/Going Postal/Making Money – Terry Pratchett
Thief of Time/Wyrd Sisters – Terry Pratchett (Audible)
I’ve seen a lot of posts this morning on social media headed ‘twenty years ago…’. Twenty years ago I was a nursery teacher in Hackney, and on the afternoon of the 11th of September (or 9/11 as the Americans would have it) we opened the nursery door to let the parents in.
‘Have you seen?’
‘Did you hear?’
These were the days before smart phones, before computers in everyone’s pockets, so no – we hadn’t heard, but we went to the staffroom after sending the kids home and someone had set up the portable TV. Along with the rest of the world we sat in silence and we watched and we cried. Our year 4 teacher joined us: her brother worked in the second tower. The shock and fear in her face was terrible to see. The skies were silent over City and Stansted.
As the evening unfolded we drifted home and carried on watching: there was nothing else to do but to watch the news roll out.
The next day I went into school, because life goes on. Our year 4 teacher had had no news and was with her family. When she returned the following week she was like a ghost: her brother was still among the missing when I left the school the following spring.
Far from the usual chaos and noise generated by 30 four year olds, my nursery children were subdued and thoughtful: at four they were really too young to process what was happening, but knew something important was going on in the world.
J (a small East End boy who would usually spend the morning hoovering in the home corner dressed in a wedding dress, daring anyone to comment) sat on the carpet with M, another small boy with a tendency towards boisterous play. Over and over they built two towers from blocks, and ‘flew’ their hands into them. No sound effects today, just silent building and destruction all morning. I sat on the floor with them for a while, talking to them about what they were doing and how it made them feel.
Another child, B, watched the tiny TV we had set up on top of the cupboard and said ‘I saw this on the movies last night. It made my mummy cry and I was scared.’
Many of the children needed more reassurance that day, and most of them played out – as children do – their thought processes and feelings. It was a quiet, serious morning in what was usually a space filled with noise and colour.
I talk about this day a lot when I am teaching sociology, childcare or teacher training students about the importance of play in helping not just small children but older ones to process feelings and experiences. It was a moment when theory became reality and I watched children make sense of the world through the play environment around them: small people trying to understand something that was consuming their adults and that had impacted on their lives.
I don’t know whether those four year olds remember where they were on 9/11 but that day, and the one that followed, will stay with me for ever.
Normal service resumes after the last couple of weeks! It’s September after all, with the new school year kicking off: new shoes, new bits of uniform ordered if not actually delivered thanks to the shipping delays, driver strikes and shortages that definitely aren’t anything to do with Brexit, good heavens no, timetables downloaded, last minute coursework that Thing 1 assured me all summer she’d done, and so on.
Last weekend I braved Westfield (is it only me that feels the need to shout ‘Westfield! in a bad Radio 1 DJ sort of way?) with Thing 2 in order to buy school shoes. She has very very wide feet (an I fitting) so I knew Harlow at the end of August really wasn’t going to provide what we needed. Instead we had a mum and daughter day out shopping. We also needed school trousers, as we haven’t been able to find the particular style she wants online – the Next ones came up like thick leggings, the George ones were too high waisted, the suggestion of the Banner or Trutex ones either earned me a withering look or weren’t in stock (ditto New Look, Very, Tu, Morrisons, Matalan – everywhere!).
Thing 2 has been, from a very early age, a child who knows her own mind. In many ways this makes me proud. In other ways it makes me want to slug gin in my coffee and leave her to it. Despite Westfield’s (Westfield!) many shops, we failed to find either shoes or trousers so I ended up buying shoes we could both live with online and she can either alter her thinking about the kind of trousers she wants or wear skirts for the year. I too can be stubborn. We did have a lovely lunch at Wagamama followed by bubble tea for her, and she chose some new clothes at Primark and New Look as well as some bits and bobs from Flying Tiger. I bought some more notebooks – I do love some stationery!* I took her over to the less shiny side of Stratford too, as she wanted some baskets for her bedroom: after Westfield (etc) I think the old Stratford Centre came as a bit of a shock to the system. I used to shop there when I first lived in London as it was the closest place to Forest Gate. It hasn’t changed much, really, in the last 25 years. The planners tried to make it look pretty by installing shiny leaf sculptures (or possibly fish) in front of it in 2012 in case tourists happened to glance in that direction on their way to the Olympics, but it didn’t really help. I suspect some actual investment might have been a better idea, except that just didn’t happen, and what they were left with was an island of Poundlands and Shoe Zones.**
*as it turned out I did not need to buy notebooks as I came home with many many new notebooks from the Digital Accountancy Show I worked at later in the week. Ah well. Still, you never know when you’ll need a notebook. Or ten.
**I could go on about the regeneration of Stratford for 2012 at length, but I won’t because it makes me quite annoyed.
Making and doing
I had a few days to recover from the ordeal of shopping with Thing 2, so obviously this involved fabric and leaving pins all over the floor, crochet and cross stitch. After the challenge of making Irish sister’s 1920s skirt I gave in and bought the Japanese Haori and Hapi pattern from Folkwear that I have been ogling for several years. They are not cheap patterns, but come with wonderful histories of the garments and traditional detailing information. They are also adding more and more of their paper patterns to their PDF catalogue, which makes me happy indeed.
I used a gorgeous fabric from Kanvas Studio – Moonlit Lilypads from their Moonlight Serenade collection, and for the lining some tie-dyed cotton that was sold as a star print but when it arrived the print was distinctly…. herbal. The fabric is a one way print which the pattern isn’t suitable for but I rather like how its turned out despite that.
I made the Haori option – a lined, mid-thigh length jacket which comes up quite long on me. The pattern was occasionally a bit confusing to follow, with hand drawn illustrations, but as long as I took it slowly and did a lot of pinning and tacking it wasn’t too bad to construct. My hand sewing is shocking, so if I ever decide to enter the Sewing Bee I’ll have to work on that, and I cheated by machine stitching some of the bits I should have slip stitched but hey, I’m the one wearing it. I love the sleeves, and this is quite cosy to wear so I think it should get a lot of use.
Continuing the Japanese theme, I used some of the leftover koi fabric from making a Simple Sew Lottie blouse to make this Nori Kimono bag. I lined it with some ladybird print polycotton fabric that was an ebay purchase, and it’s had a compliment or two already. I haven’t worn the blouse yet! I love this fabric, it’s so colourful.
As ever I have been cross stitching and crocheting: the temperature tree is up to date, the Hobbit Hole is finished, the Build Your Own Beehive Shawl and the socks are ongoing, and I took a break to make a chicken sweater as one of my lovely colleagues adopted some commercial laying hens (not battery ones!). These are all the bits I haven’t shared with you in my last couple of sensible weeks.
The chicken-adopting colleague, myself and two others also visited Tate Modern to see their summer activity – drawing freely in the Turbine Hall as part of the Uniqlo Tate Play programme. The artwork is amazing and it was great fun adding our little bits to it! I really want to make something out of one of those banners!
The latest thing I have been up to is dabbling in Dungeons and Dragons for the first time in about three decades – I filled in for someone who couldn’t attend a regular game on Friday and managed not to kill his character off so hopefully I’ll be allowed back! The host (Dungeon Master) and his wife have a beautiful gaming table so dice trays are very much the order of the day – I played around with an online tutorial yesterday, and using things from in the craft shed I made a collapsible fabric one and another using a shadow box frame. I’d forgotten how horribly velvet frays so I shall have to do something about the edges but it was quite quick and fun to make.
It’s been a very productive few weeks, as you can see! I’ll see you all again for week 77…now I must go and do the ironing I have been putting off for months.
Afghanistan has been all over the news for the last couple of weeks, as the Taliban take over the country once more and the US and UK evacuate troops and civilians in an unplanned, chaotic dash – but not, in many cases, other people who have links to them and who will now be left vulnerable in their home country. Activists, for example, promoting women’s rights or democracy: according to some reports, the Taliban are going house to house seeking out people with links to foreigners and the government. Twelve people have died simply trying to reach the airport in Kabul to get out of the country this week, from stampedes or gunshots.
You may be reading this and wondering what this has to do with my usual ramblings, and may be inclined to point out that this is hundreds – possibly thousands, given my tenuous grasp of world geography – of miles away.
You may be reading this and wondering why I am venturing into the world of international politics, given that I am usually going on about crochet and dressmaking and lovely ‘hello clouds, hello sky’ walks, with only the occasional rant about free school meals and things.
Well, this week I had one of those moments when world politics ended up within a few feet of me, in the shape of a small girl and her dad, and a pile of those blue blocks my colleagues and I have been carting round east London since the beginning of July.
This week we were at a children’s centre in Whitechapel, at a family play day, meeting children and parents from the local area to do some building and playing. The majority of the children we encountered were pre-schoolers: very small when the pandemic started, who had missed out on many of the baby groups to which they would usually have had access. Language and social delays are common.
We set up the session with figurative structures, which they could either interact with as they were or rebuild to make something else. We had a rocket car, a tunnel, a den, and I had great fun building a castle. We built very tall things and knocked them down, we engaged in Godzilla games, we made a finish line and cheered when people came through it. We wondered where you could go in a rocket car and we pantomimed and clowned around.
After a while a dad and his daughter arrived. She was clutching a doll which she wouldn’t let go of and her dad was trying to get her to build something with him, which is quite hard to do one-handed. So I began to build a castle, big enough to get inside. One girl from another family decided it needed a door, so she added one and after going in and out a few times she wandered off.
The dad came and started helping me to build the castle taller, checking it was OK: of course it was, and we built it taller and taller and then added a fabric roof. His little girl crept into the castle and stood there with her doll, so I began to play ‘peepo’ with her through the gaps between the blocks and the holes in them. It took a while to get her to respond, although she watched me very seriously to see where I would pop up next. Eventually she smiled when I appeared in a different hole and even, at one point, giggled.
My castle needed something to make it less blue, so I started using the gold foil cutouts to link some of the holes and to make tubes. Marble runs had been very popular, so I found the small plastic balls and began to roll them through the tubes. At first, my new friend just pushed them out through the gaps between the blocks, but after a few minutes of watching me roll them through different tubes each time she started to join in, and to try and push the balls back to me before they could drop. I added a second ball and she put the doll down so she would have both hands free to play.
Her dad began to talk to me: he had very little English, and he told me that her name was Raya, and her English was better but she didn’t talk much. She knew the animals and colours, he said, and she talked at home. She didn’t know many people. This was the first time she had been able to play outside safely, he said. She’s three. I assumed this was because of Covid – isn’t everything, after all?
After a while Raya came out of her castle, leaving the doll behind, and came over to her dad for a cuddle. He picked her up, so I made another foil tube and used it as a telescope – dad joined in the game and moved her closer and further away from the end, and she giggled some more. It’s hard to resist a giggling child, so we carried on playing.
A pair of the bigger boys – Eastern European, again with very little English – asked me using gestures whether it was OK to knock the castle down. Of course, I said, and we cheered as they demolished it thoroughly.
‘That is what they are doing in my country, too,’ observed the dad. ‘In Afghanistan. They knock things down.’
As we were packing away the kit, one of the children’s centre managers came over for a chat and was telling us that they had been phoning a local hotel where a group of newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan were staying, to try and get them to come along, but she didn’t think any had. The penny dropped and we talked about Raya and her dad, and how it had taken a while to engage the little girl but we’d got there in the end.
A new country. A new language. Three years without being able to play safely outside. Three years.
Raya and her dad, and our play session, have stayed with me all week. This country isn’t perfect, heaven knows, but I can take my kids to the park and they can play outside. They haven’t been displaced from their home, although if you listened to them for the first couple of years I’d ruined their lives by making them change schools.
What else has remained with me is that play truly is the universal language: you don’t need words to play peekaboo, or peepo, or whatever its name is where you live. And that sometimes the world lands on your doorstep in the shape of a small girl and her dad.