Why don’t we just… learn how to play again?

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All of us played once upon a time. But then we grew up and we grew out of it. Contemporary adult life doesn’t allow much for story time or colouring in. Unless you have small children, that is.

They offer a magical portal back to a time where the floor was lava. Playing is vital for their development and helps us form strong bonds with them too. But what happens when your own parents weren’t around to play with you?

Growing up as a mixed race child with a white mum in a racist area of Liverpool was hard. Dad wasn’t about and my white Mum got abuse. N****r lover, they’d call her. Once she got her face kicked in.

When her mum died when I was six, it was too much and she lost control of her life. I went into care and stayed there until I was an adult.

That life seems like a long time ago now. These days I’m a poet and community artist based in Toxteth.

I developed my craft with 20 Stories High. It’s a local award-winning young people’s theatre company with a difference. Its members were like my second family growing up.

I never really felt like I learned how to play with my first family – even though I know they did the best with what they had at the time. But a new family was on the horizon. I was about to fall pregnant.

I’d been determined to feel secure before starting my own family, so when it happened unexpectedly in my early twenties, I didn’t feel equipped for motherhood. I looked at myself and said: you’re not ready.

I was ashamed and I isolated myself from loved ones and my passion as an artist. It was painful, but I’m grateful I went through it.

I realised that nobody is ever ready for anything life throws at you and that I had what I needed inside me all along: love – and a willingness to ask for help. With support from my partner, this time we planned for a child.

When he was born it was amazing – but it challenged me. Who was I now as an artist? How could I play with my child and share my creativity when no one did with me? I spoke to other young mums and to 20 Stories High and realised I wasn’t alone. So we decided to do something about it.

We set up a new creative play project for children and young parents and carers called Toast & Jam. We made the sessions inclusive of the diverse community here in Toxteth – we got a local beatboxer in as well as loads of squishy mats, djembe drums, sock puppets and even a capoeira instructor too!

It’s magical seeing parents learning how to play again – something I’m pleased to be learning as well.

Toast & Jam is part of a bigger project, a show called Big Up! – a hip-hop and puppetry show for three to six year olds and everybody who looks after them made by 20 Stories High and children’s puppetry company Theatre-Rites. It’s all about helping parents and carers like me find a welcoming space to relax and have fun with our children.

So if you’re struggling to connect with your child, don’t do what I did and hide away. Ask for help – your local library will be a great starting point for free or affordable activities, and if you see Big Up! at a venue near you, you and your child will definitely receive a warm welcome from us.

Get involved and re-discover how to turn the floor back into lava!

Anita Welsh is a spoken word and community artist from Liverpool. Big Up! is at Z-Arts, Manchester on 29-30 March, various times. Tickets are £6-£9 (20storieshigh.org.uk/shows)

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