Why play matters…

By Abby Dix Mason
Picture by Abby Dix Mason

Forgive me if this feels too confessional. I’ve no interest in being a ‘remarkable’ or even ‘heroic’ individual. I want to make sense of what I do by putting it in the context of a bigger picture and seeing what relevance my personal experience has for others. My work is an ongoing conversation about how we can marry our private and public lives, pursue a fulfilling life, create value, and be valued.

I recently enjoyed an interesting conversation with Mike Chitty where we talked about unconscious and conscious stuff – i.e what we are drawn to DO, and then how not to kill it, the moment we become aware of ourselves. We got to talking about the Disrupting Poverty series of events he’d instigated. I mentioned I’d not felt connected to it when it started four years back, but now I can begin to see the relevance of what we’re doing with Playful Leeds.

I still don’t think of what I do as ‘disrupting poverty’, though. I start with a different question and hope that what emerges brings people of all backgrounds, ages and abilities together. To me, this feels like pure common sense, not something that should be out of the ordinary. I rarely start with: ‘How can I solve deep-seated systemic problems?’ My hunch is that play creates the space where those who ‘have’ and those who ‘don’t’ can be together, without feeling the class disconnect that often makes tribes out of us.

Mike suggested that what we are doing with Playful Anywhere and Playbox is an example of disrupting poverty. Children who come out to play in the volunteer-run common land, Charlie Cake Park, get to play with stuff that’s been donated to the playbox (by myself or others) – with people they may never have mixed with before. But I think these distinctions between social groups, however useful and well-intended, can be a bit misleading. It’s not that simple.

Build bridges with play

At last week’s BBQ, one of the parents who I’ve got to know quite well over the two months that we’ve been there described herself as ‘rough’. I asked her what she meant, and we ended up having a fantastic conversation, essentially about class. I think she was surprised to learn I’d grown up on a council estate, brought up by my amazingly hardworking single mum. We chatted about what had made our paths differ. She said she’d been a bit naughty at school and her parents were always out on the lash, and she was determined that her children didn’t experience that. She fears that living in Armley might drag her son down as there is so little for kids his age to do around here, and his mates are bored and looking for kicks. Likewise, I fear that if I don’t DO something in Armley I will regret not making the effort. I can use my skills to make a difference to the experience of my children and their friends, here. But that’s because I have confidence now: I’m sure of my abilities to convene and collectively nurture a sense of community.

Any ‘data’ analysis of our lives would place us both at the lower end of income and aspiration. She aspires for the best for her family, as do I. Why do I now seem ‘posh’ in comparison to her ‘rough’? Looking back, I feel that meeting and hanging out with a creative, culture-loving family at the cottage at the border of the council estate I grew up on with made a big difference to my life horizons. My mum instilled great ethics in me of hard work and honesty, but she didn’t have time or funds to take me on trips to ballet, museums, theatre and the like. We didn’t have a car, we didn’t have a colour TV until I was 11, and we didn’t go on many trips abroad. But I never ever felt poor, not until I had free school meal tickets – and even then I didn’t really feel hard done by. I never went without. But I was surrounded by people on that estate and on the edges who gave us love in spades, who took us camping, threw great parties, baby sat. I feel blessed, and in fact as I write this tears are streaming down my face as I realise just what that proverb ‘It takes a village to raise a child‘ means.

So, if it helps aid understanding, this is what I search for in my work and family life. My creative impulse is to recreate a sense of family, to create spaces for those who aren’t as ‘privileged’ but not to label this as ‘helping’ or ‘solving problems’. All of us are blessed with unique gifts and talents, I believe deeply that I wish to pass on the ‘open house’ spirit I experienced growing up to the community I live within. Not just a neighbourhood, or a postcode, but a place. Our place.

I’m not making a speech from a podium, but I hope I take time to thank all of those people who probably didn’t think they were doing very much at all, other than being welcoming, warm and kind. For tolerating my odd eccentricities, for not judging my mum, for making life one of endless possibilities, not barriers. I want to thank each and every person who performs small acts of kindness, who have donated stuff, and who have taken the time out of their day to listen to me, play, and help guide the endeavours of Playful.

Play matters to me because I think it’s the way in which we attempt to resolve the challenge of togetherness whilst understanding we are unique. It’s my tool for turning my frustrations and feelings of futility when raging against ‘the system’ into a way to create bridges.

We are not helpless

I’d like to make a plea to those ‘tasked’ with solving problems to stop trying to ‘help’ people like me and my mum, or the ‘helpless poor’, and to seek different ways of bringing out the best in people. Convening together will be for the betterment of society, not polarising – which just causes us to turn in on each other. Unquestioned social conventions like these just set up arbitrary rules, making it more difficult for people to come together.

For me, Play is a brilliant trojan. How can we deny people the right to fresh air, freedom and kinship? Street play* and green spaces need to be encouraged ahead of selling off public assets to private profiteers. Austerity might be forcing a fire sale and demolition of public assets, but think what legacy we are creating for the future generations of residents if we don’t reclaim our common spaces and demand better for ourselves. If we truly care about ‘raising aspirations’ we should be bringing people together, not seeking to ‘cure’ them.

*There are some great play facilitators in Leeds not least Scrap Leeds, Better Lives Leeds, Leeds Play Network, Let’s Grow, and many more I’m probably not yet aware of.

Picture by Abby Dix Mason
Picture by Abby Dix Mason



  1. Beautifully and gently said Emma. Welcoming, warmth and kindness are universally recognisable. Whereas no one likes to be a speculation in someone else’s theory.

    1. Thanks Ronnie, your words, as always help me have the confidence to try & articulate what often feels a bit ‘pointless’ in the wider scheme of the wicked problems we are surrounded by.

  2. Hello – “stale, male and pale” political dinosaur here.

    Just thought I would get some self-deprecation in at the start recognising straight away that what follows will be seen as “just what you would expect from a man of his age and political outlook”.

    I was trying to not get involved in this thread which seemed at first glance seemed to be beyond parody but then in a recent tweet Emma B seemed was happy to criticise other people’s approach to campaigning seeming to prefer “getting involved in the local community” to protesting outside parliament.

    OK if “play matters” reflects what Emma B thinks is community activism let’s see what she is saying.

    On first glance through the piece I have to assume that no-one in Armley is benefit sanctioned; has run up rent arrears through the bedroom tax and is now facing eviction; is worried about what happens when their tax credits go; has run up debts with a loan shark; is worried when they are going to see a doctor – need I go on – as none of these issues get a mention. Perhaps because they are too close to being “deep-seated systemic problems” and not amenable to just getting people together so that they can meet people “they may never have mixed with before”.

    A diagnosis of the self-revelation that follows seems to suggest a highly developed sense of status anxiety in Emma B, to use some ill-informed psychology. Fortunately for herself she remains “sure of [her] abilities to convene and collectively nurture a sense of community”. Whist “those who aren’t as “’privileged’” must be grateful she is never going to be “‘helping’” or “‘solving problems’” as it’s enough to “attempt to resolve the challenge of togetherness whilst understanding we are unique” – no problem there then.

    At the end of the day I have to admit that there does seem to be some sort of purpose to all this bringing people together as she states it is to “reclaim our common spaces and demand better for ourselves”. But it still seems a little vague to me and is based on the (oh dear) “polarization” between people working in play, “a brilliant Trojan”, and those seeking to “‘cure’“ individuals (doctors?). But don’t get me started on a critique of play organisations where the last vestiges of innocence and spontaneity in childhood are overlaid with the interests of the adults who organize their affairs.

    In one sense I don’t need reminding how far the landscape of local activism has changed since the decade or so I lived in Armley – romantic nostalgia warning. In those years long ago locals created for themselves three community centres, one and half advice centres, the forerunner of Armley Helping Hands; had a history society producing pamphlets, a forum for community organisations; ran a number of high profile campaigns against the Council and a community festival. The campaign around asbestos and mesothelioma was just getting underway.

    Somehow the people involved didn’t seem to feel the need to have conversations or receive counselling from third sector management gurus or worry too much whether people were different to them. If there was a practical issue in people’s lives, that was inherently political then the answer was to be found in a word not part of Emma B’s vocabulary – community action.

    I know resistance is now impossible but I recall someone once telling me –for any regime to avoid people demanding the impossible it must first make sure those seeking change disable themselves.

    Having made this “confessional” – now I’m not so


    1. I’m sure there’s lots I agree with in your response John, not sure why you are referring to me as Emma B, rather than ‘your’ but never mind.

      Of course I’m a little stung by your response, but I imagine Phil Kirby will be thanking you for pricking the bubble too…

      My tweet I made about marching in solidarity you refer to may have been taken out of context slightly, but I can appreciate why it may have irked, I was thinking you can do both, and every day stuff matters in that growth of feeling connected and therefore more confident to take on the problems as you describe once you realise you’re not alone.

      I grew up in the 70’s where play was just that, it didn’t need third sector interference, and maybe it doesn’t now either, our back street certainly is a place which thronging with kids playing with the bins, balls, making stuff up, chalking, the usual. We’re not posh and we certainly have our fair share of anti social behaviour, poverty and ‘vulnerable’ people here. ‘Curing’ was less about doctors and more about the language a lot of organisations use to talk about tackling problems’ or even the approach taken by NHS and Public health/travel etc on ‘helping the poorest people to improve their own health faster’

      And yes Armley was historically a place of activism, I’m not against it, maybe it’s on the rise again? But a lot of the original activists have now gone elsewhere, maybe there’s room for all types of participation, whether overtly political or developmental? There are campaigns afoot by our political representatives to sort out Armley Town Street which is seen to be in need of reviving. I’m also involved in another ‘gentle’ thing called Armley Good Stuff which is positive in focus, but people are already looking at what stuff they want to sort out for themselves, their neighbourhood and with each other. Activism can take many forms, and I don’t think it’s helpful for us to be polarised in attempting to do something in ways which suit us, the time and energy we have available.

      Anyway you are right to question me, I do question myself too. I’m always nagged by the voice on my shoulder that maybe I’m doing stuff nobody wants, it seems that people do currently, and perhaps the trick is that nobody needed a container to have a conversation?

      As ever John you are great challenge, and I appreciate you taking the time to make me consider whether I’m some terrible missionary preaching play when actually it’s all around me should I look closely enough.

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