The Messy History of Sydney Creative Play

This is the very long, and appropriately, very messy story of the history of Sydney Creative Play (2014-2018).

In early 2014 I started a small, very informal playgroup with some friends. We met at the park and did art projects with our toddlers, that was the gist of it. Inevitably the kids would want to go play on swings and abandon their projects, and we’d be stressing about the mess of it all. I lived in a small unit at the time and had no yard for my daughter to play in an unrestricted way. So I started musing “wouldn’t it be cool to just have a space where kids could make art and get messy?”

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I had studied arts, education and some business at university and had a background teaching theatre classes so I started extending my existing knowledge by reading up everything I could on the benefits of unstructured play, Reggio Emilia approach to education, process over product in art, loose parts, you name it. I got a job teaching art at a Reggio-inspired preschool where I learned about setting up provocations and incorporating natural materials.

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I had so many ideas for what a space could be, so the next step was the business side. I took a course in starting up a social enterprise. My mentor there helped me create a business plan and navigate the bureaucracy of registering as an Incorporated Association. I wrote a constitution, assembled a board (well, me + four friends) and we held our first meeting in my apartment in Ashfield. By July 2014 we were officially incorporated. We crowd-funded around $1300 to get us started.

The next big question mark was space. I’d researched some council programs but they all seemed to be geared towards independent artists, not kids’ programs. We decided to try Addison Road Community Centre and I thought we’d hit the jackpot.

The rent was cheap and the Marrickville location was ideal. They showed us a space right next to Reverse Garbage (great for sourcing furniture and supplies!). It was dirty and in desperate need of repairs, but I vowed I’d make it work, and a few volunteers and I put in a lot of elbow grease to make it into a really welcoming little space.

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I assembled a team of volunteers, ran training, and even hired an employee (the only paid employee SCP has ever had – I’ve never earned any money from this work). In September 2014 we opened to a huge crowd of families and before long, our space was filled with artwork and imagination. No joke, this photo was taken 2 hours after we opened our doors:

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In our first 4 days we served over 100 kids. We knew we were onto something.

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Unfortunately, from the get go we had trouble with the ARCCO staff. I won’t hash it all out here, but the lease terms we’d verbally agreed to never eventuated in the form of a contract. After multiple failed attempts to negotiate and despite the huge number of families we were bringing into the centre, we were told we would need to vacate by the end of the year. So just three months after opening we were forced to pack it in.

I kept going for a little while, running some “Sydney Creative Playdates” but it never really took off.

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We went on hiatus for about a year when I became pregnant with my son and then in 2016 we started talking about starting up again. I had gotten involved with the group Mums 4 Refugees and had begun a playgroup in Lakemba and I had so many ideas that I thought could be incorporated into something bigger.

I was now living in Canterbury along the Cooks River and by chance found a Gumtree listing for a mixed-use warehouse space just on the other side of the river, next to a reserve. It was perfect in many ways, allowing for both indoor and outdoor play.

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Because we wouldn’t have exclusive use of the space we had to shift our format into more of a playgroup structure but we still tried to stick to our ideals of messy, open-ended creative and sensory play.

Our proximity to the river allowed us to incorporate lots of nature play and explorations as well. We ran scavenger hunts, participated in Clean Up Australia Day and learned about the local flora and fauna.

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We did heaps of free outreach projects during that time, which I’m still getting around to posting, but I’ll tag them as I add them: Harmony Day, Refugee Week, International Women’s Day, Respect March in support of 18C, Earlwood Community event and more.

As a group of entirely volunteer mums, we created some innovative school holiday programs (here’s one example) and served hundreds of families from around the Inner West and Canterbury-Bankstown area.

After re-launching in August 2016, we ran fairly undeterred until early 2017 when we got word that the manager of the warehouse was not having his lease renewed because the building was going to be knocked down for a high-rise apartment development.

I was devastated both as a community organiser and local resident, as over-development of the suburbs was a hot-button issue. In a bit of a last-ditch effort to save our space I got very involved very quickly in local politics – I was suddenly speaking at council meetings, meeting with action groups and being interviewed in numerous publications.

Sydney Creative Play was still attempting to live on. In June 2017 we ended up arranging with the Canterbury Theatre Guild who were managing the former Canterbury Bowling Club to start running our playgroup out of their hall.

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However, we were really interested in what was happening (or in this case, not happening) with the outside green space. We hadn’t been given express instructions not to use it, so we started running activities out there as well, from flying kites and parachute play, to even putting in a mud kitchen.

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It was such a huge open space in an area where children’s access to nature play was becoming scarce as high-rise after high-rise was going up. It seemed almost criminal not be utilising it – especially as I’d come to learn that the bowling club had been left “to the community” by the former owners.

Again, I won’t get into all the details but I learned A LOT about corruption within Canterbury-Bankstown council and ties with real estate developers. A kids’ playgroup trying to fight the man made for a pretty good story and we became the proverbial poster child against development.

We even had ABC News come interview us with State MP Sophie Cotsis (whom I later spoke with at a community forum).

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However, as the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows, and not everyone was happy with my activism. In a single day in August 2017, two things happened:

First, I was threatened with a lawsuit. I’d been publishing information about candidates for the upcoming Canterbury-Bankstown council election, specifically on which ones had ties to real estate. One of these real estate companies found out and threatened to sue me for defamation if I did not take down my posts.

Second, I got a phone call from the Canterbury-Bankstown council banning Sydney Creative Play from using the bowling green. In fact, the next day, they had already erected fences to keep us out. (We had to be very resourceful to get all of our play equipment back.)

At this point things were beginning to feel absurd. All I wanted from the very beginning was a space where my kids could play and make art. We had evolved into a community of families – of volunteers, children, local organisations with a common purpose. Why was it so hard for us to find a space?

The mental anguish and strain it was placing on me and my family became too much and I resigned, with the rest of the board voting to step down as well. I grieved really hard. I spent the next several months focusing instead on my neglected photography business, I moved to Newtown and my daughter – not even two when this all began, started Kindergarten.

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Both of us struggled with the transition to “big school”. The structure, the long days, the lack of play opportunities, and lack of art. I could go on at length about this, but this story is already out of hand in its length. However I’ll never forget the night she cried to me at bedtime “At preschool we could draw whatever we wanted, but now we can only draw when the teachers tell us to.”

That was when I decided I had to do something for her. I developed a curriculum for an after-school arts program specifically for Kindy kids. But her school wanted nothing to do with it. I tried a few different community centres and somewhat serendipitously a fellow mum contacted me about a playgroup she was running at the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre and wanting to get some support for it.

A few friendly meetings later and a new partnership was born, with SCP rising again from the ashes to run a morning playgroup and pilot my afterschool program beginning in July 2018.

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We ran weekly themes and continued with the school holidays programs that had been so successful in the past. Once again, drawing inspiration from our local environment, we gave our programs more of a Newtown vibe, focusing on street art.

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Unfortunately this was a partnership that wasn’t meant to be. Although I love the staff I worked with at NNC and think they do amazing work in the community, their space just really isn’t intended for kids. There were some big logistical and security issues that, try as we might, ended up being prohibitive to running our programs from there for more than one term.

I spent the remainder of 2018 meeting with other organisations, looking at other spaces, talking to the Inner West council, writing up proposals but ultimately we just kept hitting dead ends.

Then a situation came up with The Bower at Addison Road. Remember them from WAY BACK at the beginning of this story? The Bower and Reverse Garbage were facing steep rent hikes and possible eviction. Having been in their position I began speaking up in support and coming out to run activities with them.

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ARCCO came back against me hard and I got my second lawsuit threat. Suddenly it was like I was re-living it all again – the heartbreak of starting up my dream organisation only to have it shut down over and over. Feeling rejected by the city I’d been serving for so long. Exhausted from coming up with so many ideas for building a community of families that never came to fruition.

I took a look around. My kids were growing up. Many of our long-time volunteers were going back to work. We didn’t have any prospects for new space. So in December 2018 we threw in our final towel.

I’ve filed the paperwork to dissolve our incorporated association.

My passion for creative play will never wane however, and I hope that now branching out on my own, I can continue to work with children around Sydney and get my hands messy (but only in the literal, painty sense!)

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