Megan Dowsett is a creative consultant working in museums, galleries and the arts, an illustrator who is finding her voice through personal and local projects, and a parent to two young beings who can't help but influence her creative journey.

Through the name Norris and the Flamingo, she shares the sense of adventure that runs through all of life, wherever we are on our journey. A sense of imagination, of possibility and discovery, for children and adults alike.

9 July 2020

The Mud Kitchen

"The thing is, I was born in nature."  Thus spake our six year old, three weeks into lockdown, as she tried to articulate her melancholy at how small her world had become.
So ... time for 'Nature Week'. I hope that in years to come, when the children look back on these strange times, amidst the yelling, the tension and the tears, they will remember some golden days.  And among them, the Mud Kitchen.

20200531_152319Whenever I asked Feets how she spent her playtime at school, she would tell me she was in the mud kitchen.  So it was an obvious choice to create our own - something that would work for both children, allow them to play and imagine, and could be shared by other families passing struggling in tight confines across the estate.

As with everything in lockdown, I had no plan.  The first meltdown happened before we left the flat, when Feets discovered I wasn't providing full-size pans and we would have to make do with spare dessert spoons, a few bits of tupperware and some pans from the toy cooker.

You can imagination the trepidation I had about my vague idea to create a mud cooker by somehow binding some sticks together.  Or something.

And my delight when, by the bins, there were some 'kitchen' (bathroom) surfaces, freshly stripped from someone else's house and waiting to be used in a mud kitchen.  Even Feets was satisfied.
We lay our surface-top in the bushes, painted some hobs on it and (very excitingly), made a tap from a plastic bottle by piercing holes in the bottom and hanging it from a tree.  When the children lifted the lid, it released the pressure and water flowed.

20200531_152351 I sat back while they made soup, birthday cakes and goodness knows what else.  Surely, every parent's measure of success is being able to leave the children to it.

Over the coming days, we began some serious scavenging from across the neighbourhood.  Crates from the corner shop to create an oven and a fridge.  A piece of mdf which we painted with blackboard paint so the children could write menus and recipes.  A basket which we filled with tiny pinecones from the road outside.

When their energy waned a bit, I sacrificed a bucket from the flat, brought down a bunch of old (and very clean!) nappy liners and some pegs, and set up a sink and washing line.  This released a whole new lease of life - of washing up, laundry and water play.
Over the course of three months, the space evolved continuously, and became a 'happy place' for all of us.  People we knew and anonymous 'others' began to contribute resources - from a frying pan, kettle and spoons to handbags and a large crate which we turned into a table.  Later the table acquired a footstool, chair (which someone found on the way home from work) and tablecloth, and we began to see families from the estate on their way to or from playing in the mud kitchen.  Initially a source of anxiety for Feets and Bean, they became proud to share and excited to see what new discoveries had appeared down there each time we visited.

The area we had chosen was in front of the terraces next to our block, and we were reassured to hear that the residents were enjoying the sound of children again since their own children had grown up.  A couple of people were shielding and sometimes we worried that we were rubbing salt into the wound by playing outside their windows, but chats over the fence confirmed that we were a welcome interlude into long and solitary days.  One couple gave us unfettered access to their water tap and another appeared with a box of trinkets.  Without doubt, the warmth of the neighbours was a highlight of the entire experience, and broke down some of the 'shy barriers' that our children struggle with.
20200531_154543 20200628_140441 As time passed, we decorated the area with our artwork, and last week, Feets finally achieved a goal that has been a longstanding priority - to build a swing.  Pretty fragile looking but I was impressed by her resilience, as she tried again each time it broke, and ultimately created something that took her weight.

Finally, Mr Liam joined us to build a make-shift planter using some blue fencing we had found in a skip.  We'd been growing sunflowers and an array of mystery seedlings on the windowsill and they desperately needed a new home.  Then, with the unerring generosity of our community in lockdown, we found ourselves receiving offers of tomato plants and seedlings from people on the road passing by, and from our downstairs neighbours.
20200621_152133 20200628_131022

Sadly, this week, our mud kitchen and planter were removed, completely and without warning.  All that remains is Feets' swing, with the strings cut, left under a tree.  The heartlessness of our estate management is in stark contrast to the warmth of its community.  We knew it wouldn't last forever, but it was a shock to lose it now, and so suddenly.

Time for us all to learn some new lessons - to pick up and try again - the joy of memories and of transience - and a little hint of an unfair world.  And the neighbour who we worried might have least liked our presence there has told us to fight back and build it again.  Perhaps we will!

In the meantime, it's time to make some granola in thanks to the neighbours ...