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Growing up, playing out and freedom for my son

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing, Play Streets, Street Space on 11/06/2024

Otis is co-founder of The African Pot project, a central Manchester organisation we and Ubele collaborated with on our project ‘Playing out close to home’  (watch their brilliant film here) . We interviewed Otis on playing out, growing up, being a dad and bringing up his son.

“My son Nekai-Eshé is 5 years old and what I most want is for him to be free in his life

I grew up in the 1990s in Hume, central Manchester, on the Aquarius estate. Back then there was much more open space around us – a big field and patches of grass – and not all the development there is now.

It was a dangerous place and time with a lot of gang culture. I witnessed a shooting at the age of seven. I realise now what a huge thing that was to experience, especially so young. But it was normalised back then to see such a thing.

It was also the norm for parents to allow more freedom. I played out every day with no adult supervision. I was usually with older children – 9 or 10 – so my mum trusted me. And we all knew the universal law: when the streetlights come on, it’s time to go home. I also remember being hungry or thirsty but not wanting to go in, in case it reminded my mum to keep me in!

Seeing friends and being creative

If we wanted to find our friends, we used to knock on doors or look for where the bikes were. We were also very creative. There was a lot of poverty and we didn’t have access to many material things. Instead we played games like Knock-a-door-run and Longies (kicking a football one on one), Kerbie and Man Hunt.

We also created things to play with. If someone threw a mattress out, we would jump on that. Or we’d make Go Karts and create adventures for ourselves. When I was very little and had to stay in my front garden – about four by three metres – I just played Longies there for hours!

Play, football, health

All this playing out helped us to be very active and healthy as children. We were full of energy, out all day, running up and down. We played a lot of informal sports too, especially football, and this quickly led to team sports being very important in my life. In fact, I went on to play semi-professional football for 10 years and even represented Barbados in the under 21s (and scored!). Football was also a massive component in how we expanded our social networks back then. I feel like I’ve been playing football forever and I have life-long friendships from this time.

Independence, resilience

Freedom like I had makes you become independent and more responsible much younger. It makes you grow up quicker, for good and for bad, as I experienced. But so many things are different now. The dynamics and variables have all changed.

I feel sorry for this generation. It’s good to have tech, but it has also damaged their physical connectivity and real-life socialising. They are not out for hours on end like we were and they are less healthy as a result.

Bringing up my son and freedom today

My son Nekai-Eshé is 5 years old and what I most want is for him to be free in his life. This is one reason why me and his mum are home educating him. The school system is outdated and so we’re providing a bespoke education based on his interests, what he’s good at and going at his pace. We have a lot of flexibility in our own work – we run our own businesses – so we can make this work.

Although it’s not as bad in my area as it used to be in terms of danger, I am a lot more protective of Nekai than my mum was of me. Society has changed and we are all more aware of the dangers. Our exposure to crime stories and their impact is amplified – we hear it all. This means there’s a lot more fear for parents. A young teenager was murdered recently in our area and it makes you very mindful of how things can be out there, and how it will be harder to let my son roam free as he gets older.

There are also not the chances for my son to play out in the same way. As more houses have been built, the available green spaces have reduced. And other children are not playing out in the same way. But we meet up with our home education group outside and do other activities too – gymnastics, capoeira, football and lots more. And we travel with Nekai when we can, to give him freedom that way.

I want my son to have the positive experiences I had growing up and to learn to be independent.  As he gets older, I one hundred percent want him to be able to go out and play more. But the barriers need to be addressed.

If I had the power to change things?

A lot of attention is given to the symptoms of problems, like crime. But I think we need to address the underlying issues and root causes, and I strongly believe the main one is economic. Poverty has a domino effect, spiralling out in so many different directions and impacting on so many people in all kinds of ways.

So I would address that. More prevention and more solutions around inequalities and economic disadvantage. Crucially, I would ensure far more positive opportunities for young people growing up – youth clubs, youth workers, activities, outdoor pursuits, the many sports teams I benefitted from… and also enough spaces for children to be out in.

How I am changing things where I live

This is actually part of the basis of my own activism and enterprise. I and some other parents set up a Whatsapp group about improving our community and we did some events and activities together. After a while, we started opening these up to the wider community. Within two years we had some work and funding, and The African Pot Project had become officially incorporated around our aim to reduce social exclusion for the African and African Diaspora communities.  Part of what we offer is activities for young people to come together and get out of doors – like TAP Active Youth – and we also offer parenting support.

What I wish for my son

So now I run my own business and I love the freedom and autonomy this gives me. Including all the time with my son and being part of his education. I don’t necessarily want to give Nekai the ‘things’ that I didn’t have, but I do want to teach him this freedom.

And also the importance of friends and community. The other day we bumped into an old friend of mine from my growing up days who I have not seen for a very long time. I told Nekai ‘we were in awe of him! He could do a back flip off a fence. How did he do it?!’ And my friend said, “Yes but your dad was always the fastest!

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