By Pop-Ups Zan
Sitting at a tiny desk in the middle of a swelteringly hot day in Hong Kong, I stared at an email that had just popped through. I am working in Asia, and my brain is discombobulated from many layers of bilingual conversation. So upon reading this email, I wasn’t sure I was understanding what I was seeing even though all the necessary words were in there. This included dates, the word “tenancy” and “storage”, and something about the council, all signed off by the words “hope this all sounds okay”.
Quite honestly, it wasn’t 100% clear, but then reading in between the lines, it suddenly dawned on me: David from The Met was asking me if I would take over a local empty shop for specific dates in the Summer. I’m pretty sure I didn’t breathe for a second.
How it all started for Pop-Up Play Shop in Radcliffe
Working in my own community started when I received funding from the Co-op Local Community Fund at the tail end of 2017. My 2018 was a blur of pop-up adventure playgrounds, joyfully attended and supported by the local community who clearly wanted more. As the funding ran out in December 2018, I wondered what would become of all that work, all that networking, and all the connections I had made with the children of North Manchester. Would it end up just fizzling out? Would this be it?
My training and experience in the playwork field gives me a little shake every so often. “Trust in the process”, it whispers as I steady myself again. A Pop-Up Play Shop isn’t something brand new to us – we opened our first one in Cardiff and then wrote a toolkit. We know that working with the community from the ground up is hard – we’ve done it before and will keep doing it everywhere we go, even if it is difficult. We know that play is important, for the individual and the community – it says so in the Playwork Principles!
From the moment I step off the plane from HK, to the moment I open the Pop-Up Play Shop doors for the first time was 9 days. During that time, I acquire the keys, hoover up what estimates state as a few different species of spider, sweep away maybe the equivalent of 100 people’s worth of hair, take in some furniture, clean the windows pro bono and move my quirky collection of loose parts into this old hair salon. Despite jet lag, but with delight, I know now that this is a community space for play.
There were 4 sessions in the shop – the lease on the building was a short 2 months and due to the last minute nature of the whole venture, I could only commit to 4 dates. But what glorious 4 sessions they were!
There was a smoothie shop, a castle, a rocket, and several different robots. There was dancing, and singing, and laughing and negotiating. Babies sit in boxes, toddlers make homes in boxes, at one point an adult tries to get into a box and can’t, much to the amusement of their kid. Adults told us stories about how they used to play, of how they used to freely explore materials and roam.
At one point, two of the adults make their own game, earning cheers from a few of the children! Children told us stories, and took us on adventures, and served us drinks, and gave us presents, and wrote us love notes. Babies also threw plastic balls at things and then collected them all back again only to throw them out once again. Teenagers also skulked in, and pretended not to play, but stayed for a lot longer than they intended to. Children weaved in and out of the space, making it their own and taking full ownership of it. This was their shop, and it fills me with delight that they thought so.
In the final session, one of the children cut a hole in a cushion and the whole shop filled with a poof of white stuffing. I smirk as white fluff covers the entire floor, and the children start screaming “it’s snowing!”. It was one of the hottest days of the year and I was weary. But I was also really quite sad that I couldn’t tell the kids when the Pop-Up Play Shop would next be opening. I quietly left all the snow in the shop and put up my “CLOSED” sign, and wondered if I would be back.
Fast forward two months to October and I have received another email. “I think we are in a position to reopen as soon as you are ready to go”, says David from The Met. For the second time this year, I stopped breathing for a moment: I can’t quite believe that the Pop-Up Play Shop might stand a chance of becoming a fixture in Radcliffe, providing children with opportunities to play in their own way for a little while longer. Time to fund-raise and get that hoover back out: those spiders can’t take over the shop because I am back.