Play is a state of mind


I grew up surrounded by Northumbrian and Scottish countryside, so raising children in Peckham was a leap into the unknown for me – though my kids soon showed me the way.

I learned that, in the right frame of mind, every street can provide opportunities for play. Counting games when they were little livened up boring journeys on foot. This time of year was rich with possibilities. Walking up the road to the shops, or to nursery, we would count the freckled brown spiders making webs in railings along our street, or between leaves and gateposts, and growing fat with babies. Each day in September brought more.

And then, suddenly, they would be gone, offspring scattered to the winds (where the mums went, we never discussed). The metal drain covers we encountered along Lyndhurst Grove became a part of our counting game, when the kids started primary school – the first person to the next drain cover would get ten points (twenty if it was an unusual shape); you have to be resourceful to get the kids to walk half a mile every morning! Chestnut trees were always generous with their treasure, and we used to hoard the richly coloured conkers, newly cracked from their shells, comparing our totals year on year. The biggest prize was always finding one still wrapped in its prickly green casing, which we would split underfoot, then prise out their newly minted contents.

Later in the autumn, big, crispy drifts of leaves were just asking to be waded through. And on that rare winter day in Peckham when it snows, all the families on our street would rush out to have a snowball fight as soon as the first flakes settled. It took only a few centimeters of flakes to inspire a communal trip to Warwick Gardens to scrape together lumpy snowmen or even attempt sledging – tea trays and bin bags made great sledges for little ones.


Play is about being alert to what’s around you. Some would say a railway line is a grotty place to stick a park. Not to my train-mad son. As a toddler, the possibility of seeing a train roar past made a trip to Warwick Gardens that much more exciting, or the walk to school along McNeil Road even more so. As soon as we heard the sound of a train-engine approaching from Denmark Hill, we would rush to be on the railway bridge on Camberwell Grove to see the carriages burst through the tunnel underneath us, rattling towards Peckham Rye Station.

Interacting with friendly neighbourhood cats and dogs always livened up a journey. Our favourite was Mitzy, a friendly tortoiseshell female who seemed to live outdoors and was blind in one eye. My toddlers never tired of the thrill of her rubbing her furry back around their legs. Did you know there are cats living wild in the car park on Chadwick Road? Someone leaves food out for them every day. My daughter, when a little older, discovered new treasures in the parking meters around Rye Lane: if you can be bothered to stick your hand in the coin reject slot, sometimes you are rewarded with a golden pound.