History, Notebook, Reviews

Review: Let Us Play Exhibition Balsall Heath City Farm

If you turn off the Moseley Road in the centre of Balsall Heath, go past the Shia mosque and some car repair shops, then head under a road bridge carrying the Camp Hill Railway Line on your left hand side you will spot a tall green wire mesh fence and a leafy garden with large numbers of chickens and other birds wondering around.

This somewhat surprising oasis amidst the terraces of one of Birmingham’s densely populated inner suburbs, is the Balsall Heath City Farm. Today it is run by the St. Paul’s Community Development Trust primarily for the benefit of families in the area. The urban farming project having existed in one form or another since the early 1980s.

The creation of the farm, however, was not the birth of voluntarily run community activity aimed at engaging and enthusing children on the site. Rather it is the current manifestation of a long history of the land being used by volunteers and organisations rooted in the community for such purposes. During the 1970s the patch of land on which the farm stands today was regularly used during school summer holidays as the site of ad-hoc adventure playgrounds, developed by the children of Balsall Heath, under the supervision of a group of dedicated adult volunteers with a vision of bringing adventurous and creative play to a materially deprived community.

This history and the history of sites like it across inner-city Birmingham has been captured and documented by the social and culturally historically minded arts organisation General Public. With the aid of a National Lottery Heritage Fund grant they have spent the last few years collecting the recollections and stories of those involved in the “adventure playground” movement in Birmingham from it’s birth at the dawn of the 1960s up until the present day (all accessible here on their website). The story of this movement, some of it’s key participants, and a really exciting array of archival material uncovered during the project is currently presented (until 25th July 2021) on a series of display panels on the perimeter fence of Balsall Heath City Farm.

Let Us Play exhibition intro panel at Balsall Heath City Farm, General Public 2021, Photo by the author

Which was what brought me to the pavement outside the farm on one of the warmest days of 2021 so far. The placement of the panels on a site which plays a key part in the timeline and narrative General Public has developed around the adventure playground movement in Birmingham, is highly effective. In doing so one of the central ideas underpinning the exhibition that it highlights, or even reanimates, “the ghost adventure playgrounds” of inner Birmingham is brought into being.

The story General Public weaves is richly textured, rigorous without being off-putting or requiring much (or any) prior knowledge of the adventure play movement, and engaging. The mixture of reflections from former playworkers and volunteers, combined with contemporary documents and photographs, as well as background research and information, really captures a sense of the outlook, idealism and sense of purpose that drove the creation of adventure playgrounds. It really conjures up a moment – well within living memory – that whilst it had many of the same concerns (such as poverty, racial justice and access to the means of meeting basic needs like care and play) that we have today, now feels very different from our own time. The richness of the photographic material General Public has uncovered is in of itself very striking. Produced at a time when camera ownership was quite low, and everyday photography a rarity, it is incredible how much of the day-to-day life of the adventure playgrounds was documented photographically.

In many ways the story of the adventure playground movement in Birmingham tracks that of a lot of other voluntary or counter cultural initiatives in post-war Britain. The idea for setting up ad-hoc adventure playgrounds initially called “junk playgrounds” originated in Denmark in the 1930s, arriving in Britain after the Second World War, with Birmingham’s first one being set up in Sparkbrook in 1961. Many of the volunteers at the Sparkbrook playground were motivated by their Christian faith, whereas later playgrounds such as those in Balsall Heath, Ladywood or Selly Oak were predominantly led by students, recent graduates and others whose actions were underpinned by post-1968 libertarian left notions of autonomous organising. This ideological outlook in turn came to be enriched by feminst, multicultural and antiracist values and beliefs throughout the 1970s and 1980s as these movements and the thinking associated with them blossomed and enriched voluntary and community work.

Later panels in the exhibition show how from the later 1970s, and increasingly throughout the 1980s and 1990s, aspects of the adventure playground movement became institutionalised. Organisations like the council and charitable trusts assimilating aspects of the approach pioneered by the adventure play movement, and many of the volunteers gaining employment in the field and become recognised as professionals and experts. Adventure playgrounds such as those in Handsworth, Coronation Road in Selly Oak, and Balsall Heath City Farm itself, became permanent fixtures run by professional playworkers.

These developments have parallels in similar overlapping fields such as community arts, or in changes in the late 20th Century in how long standing areas of local government provision as diverse as museums, libraries, leisure centres, social work and homelessness outreach operated. This kind of institutionalisation always has it’s pros and cons, on the one hand it meant that more children, young people and their families and wider communities could benefit from play schemes and that arrangements became more regularised. On the other hand it meant that some of the early creativity and drive that underpinned the adventure play movement was lost, with playgrounds and other schemes becoming part of the wider local authority led system of leisure, education and social work.

A section of Let Us Play exhibition panels Balsall Heath City Farm, General Public 2021, Photo by the author

Which brings us towards the end of the exhibition and up to the present day, to what is perhaps the most interesting and important part of the installation. At this point the exhibition’s focus shifts ever so slightly outside Birmingham, to Chelmsley Wood north of Solihull, to interview people who have established and are running an adventure playground in their community today.

The austerity policies pursued by UK governments since the financial crash has stripped resources out of the children’s play sector, as well as every other area of youth provision. In this climate the Meriden Adventure Playground, have fought hard and won ongoing financial assistance from their local authority by demonstrating that they have the backing of the Chelmsley Wood community where they’re based. Their community led ethos recalls that of the early adventure playgrounds of the 1960s and 1970s when they were run on a shoestring budget by dedicated volunteers. In this way the story of how Meriden has established and sustained itself, whilst recalling an earlier time, possibly shows us the future. A future in which communities increasingly organise themselves so as to deliver projects like creative and adventure play which benefit children, families and society as a whole, autonomously.

For this reason it is excellent that throughout August 2021 – during the school summer holidays when the playground will be heavily used – The Let Us Play exhibition will move from Balsall Heath City Farm to Meriden Adventure Playground (28th July-31st August). The presence of the installation will enable the people of Chelmsley Wood to see how their scheme fits into the rich, vibrant and somewhat anarchic tradition of community led adventure play. In this way it will show the links between past and present, and the exciting and inspiring story Meriden Adventure Playground possesses in it’s own right, to show how communities have and will continue to organise themselves to deliver services and facilities that meet their needs.

The Let Us Play Exhibition is at Balsall Heath City Farm from 25th June-25th July 2021. Then from 28th July-31st August 2021 at Meridan Adventure Playground. The project has been produced by General Public, with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The exhibition also comprises part of Flatpack Film Festival 2021’s: All Summer Long programme.