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Find your village: growing play and community on a tower block estate

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing, Community, Play Streets on 03/05/2022

Samira is a parent and community activist who lives on the 14th floor in a tower block and mainly Somali community in central Bristol. The estate has eight blocks with an estimated 2000 school aged children. Along with two other parents Samira co-founded the Barton Hill Activity Club, made the Find Your Village film, and the community now also runs regular play streets.

Here Samira talks to us about the different things she and other parents are doing to create positive change for children and families where they live. You can also read Samira’s brilliant and inspiring play street story – why and how she makes it happen.

Playing out in Somalia

“In Somalia, there are no tower blocks where people live. Only hotels or offices, where people pop in and out. Houses are usually single storey, not even two storey. And life is mainly lived outside.

Children play out from the moment they wake up and before school, after school and until they go to bed. Adults are also outside most of the time. They gather and meet and talk. Everyone knows each other. People pretty much only sleep indoors. Everything is about being outside.

Family life in UK tower blocks

Ever since the 1990s civil war, more Somali families have been coming to the UK and they have mainly been put in tower blocks. The total opposite to life at home. Can you imagine? High up, crammed into small spaces, indoors all the time, not knowing anyone. Nowhere to meet and nowhere to go. And most parents do not go into Bristol city centre or to other places. They cannot afford the buses or do not feel part of all that.

Because of this, life can feel very stressful, hard and isolated. Not surprisingly there are many mental health and other problems. You see people going in and out of the flats and people seem depressed, downcast. And for children too it is very hard. They are on screens a lot of the time. They don’t move around enough. There are many behaviour problems and anxieties. And also poor health.

Covid and lockdowns shone a light on how hard it is for people in big blocks of flats, with very little money or outside space. What people maybe don’t know is that in some ways, lockdown was not that different to how everyday life actually is for us. We feel trapped inside these boxes most of the time. The truth is there is always a kind of lockdown for a lot of people.

Barriers to freedom and children being children

I and my friends believe that children should be allowed to be children. To be free and to have fun, and not restricted all the time like they are in school. Childhood is such a short time to get this and there are not many opportunities. Parents need it too. We all need our ‘village’.

But there are many barriers. There are a lot of drug users in our area and it does not feel safe to let children out alone. It needs a trusted adult around to keep an eye.

Racism is definitely part of the barriers too. There is overt racism, where people are openly angry at us for being here and for who we are. Then there are people who are just afraid of difference – they don’t know about our culture and they react to that. And then there are people who are angry or struggling in their own lives and they see us as someone to blame. But actually they are angry at a lot of people.

A group of us adults and children had a racist experience at the park. It was widely condemned, but this kind of thing makes people feel they cannot go to that space again. They are afraid. And that is terrible. And yet so much could be done to make all this better, starting with children, and starting with bringing people together so that they understand and respect difference.

Positive change: the Activities Club

We wanted to find a way for our young children to be active and outside, to have role models around them, to be in a community where they could have friends and be safe.

First we had the idea to start doing things together with other mums in an organised way so that our children could feel part of a community.

We were already part of a home-work club at our primary school and we started meeting outside school once a week too, in a small local community space. A kind of ‘stay and play’, with organised activities too. We had no money, we just did it. The children played together, the mums sat and talked, and everybody loved it. As soon as the weather was better, we just moved outside into parks and other local spaces. It ended up being about 40 mums and children and it was amazing.

Next in 2018 we started to organise trips out of Bristol to see other places where families had never been. We got a bit of funding to help and had over 140 people on some trips, including older people.

All of these things gave children friends from different schools, a community, a feeling of belonging, and trusted adults and role models around them. They have a very strong sense of ‘our club’ and our place. In Covid they missed this a lot.

Getting involved in parks

In 2019 I went to a meeting about local parks and how they could be better. We helped with a plan and funding bid for new equipment and developments at our local park and met with the council. I met an academic from University of Bristol, Dr Tom Allport, who was interested in health and wellbeing and wanted to support us. We made this film together called Find Your Village. So much of what we did over these years was about getting children and parents to ‘come out’ – for play, walks, to the park, talking, and other activities.

Play streets

My motivation to do a play street was to open up a different kind of space for children and families, right on the doorstep, and more informal, so people could continue to come together and children could play. It was still creating somewhere safe, with trusted adults around, but there was a new freedom because it was the road and green space together.

It was wonderful! Younger children came out and were chatting and playing, whatever they wanted to- chalking, running, hide and seek, kicking a ball around. Even singing. Mums came and chatted together in a different part of the road. People stepped up to help. You can read all about why and how we did it in my play street story.

Speaking up and changing things

Lots of people feel that they have no power to change things. Authority can be intimidating – council, police, housing management – and they are afraid to speak up. People can also feel there is no point as “nothing will ever change”. The people who have been here the longest or who grew up in the UK have normalised this situation. The newest struggle much more.

But if you don’t speak up, nothing will ever change. And things could be different! Like with the play street. It’s like being back home. You come outside, talk to neighbours, there are people all around, children playing. It’s like the village.

I always say to people who think they can’t change things: you don’t need money and you don’t need to do something big. Start small! Just a few parents and children, meeting in some outdoor space, a bit of food, and see what develops.

Make access to space more fair!

At the same time, things are not fair! And this needs to change. Outside our blocks we have only a small bit of green space and a very small play area. We have no outside sheltered space where we can gather, and some spaces are closed to us.

There is a small bit of green space at the back of my block next to the laundry rooms – perfect for letting children play when you’re doing the laundry, as it is safe and contained. But the council won’t let us open the fire door to it. Instead there is a kind of caged area next to the toilets indoors where they say small children can be. It’s not nice for children or safe – we can’t hear them over the noise of machines. There has to be a way around this! If we all want children to be healthy and well, then we have to find ways to give them the space they need.

And also, I see how different people have access to different things. People with less money, in tower blocks, have less access to green spaces, to spaces where children can play. We need to make things much, much more fair. We don’t need more consultations about this – we and children have been asked so much. We need it to actually change.

Samira's film 'Find Your Village'

Find Your Village from Relevant Films on Vimeo.

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