Train tracks to new places

by Creative Homes

Building a richer environment where children can play, learn and grow.

Lead Artist and Hub Manager,  Helen Maier talks about the challenges of being a Creative Homes artist:

“Children keep you on your toes – one minute you are building a den, the next it’s on its side turning into train tracks”.

It’s a dark November afternoon. I’m standing with my colleague Holly in a carpeted hallway of an L&Q housing estate in South London carrying cardboard and our big yellow den building toolkit. Aaida opens the door in a light flowing hijab, two-year-old Basim squeezes past her, runs into the hall and starts pushing the call button for the lift. We usher Basim back inside, Aaida smiles and leads us into the living room/kitchen. The heating is on and the room is hot. There are two large sofas along one wall facing a very large mounted TV playing cartoons. The blinds are half drawn. There’s a clear space in the middle of the room and a bag of building blocks on the laminate floor.

The TV is off now. Brazilian Bossa Nova music plays quietly in the background. Holly and I are on the floor by the cardboard den we’ve come to build with Basim and Aaida. Basim is next to us he has a large plastic Thomas the tank engine train in his hand, which he is rolling along the floor. I try to show him how to stick tissue paper on the cardboard wall with a glue stick. Basim is focused on his train and doesn’t look up. “Look at this den” I say. Basim reaches up to the cardboard and pushes to the floor. He takes his train and runs it across. “Ok”, I say, “let’s make a train track”.

I’m sitting on the sofa with Aaida as she watches Basim play with his train. “I’m really worried about his speech”, she says. “He doesn’t talk and I don’t know if he understands me. I say things to him but I don’t know if it goes in. He’s my first child so people have given me lots of different advice but I don’t know what to do. I just want to know if he’s normal”.

Holly has a piece of chalk and writes the numbers one, two, three on the cardboard. Basim picks up a piece of chalk and makes marks on the cardboard. “He’s never done that before”, says his Aaida “We don’t make things like this at home, I just let him play with some toys or he really likes his iPad”.
Basim picks up a star sticker and sticks it onto the cardboard next to one Holly stuck down. “Wow”, says Aaida. “That’s the first time he’s done that as well. Well done Basim!”


It’s a grey morning in mid November. I’m standing outside a five-story tower block in South London. The door opens and Aaida comes out, pushing Basim in a pram. “Good morning”, I say, “the other families are meeting us at the playgroup so we can go”.

As we walk along the tree-lined street Aaida says, “I’m still so worried about Basim. He doesn’t talk at all, do you think he’s normal?”

15 minutes later we arrive at Hillside Garden’s, a medium sized park tucked away behind rows of houses. “Wow, I never knew this was here”, says Aaida, looking at the playground and tennis courts. Basim is out of the pram now and running up the path to a small, rectangular wooden building surrounded by a garden and low fence. Inside I greet Holly and the other family who is there, Walia and her daughter Reza.

The weak sun shines through the windows that line the length of the centre. I sit on the floor playing cars with Basim and Reza. Aaida and Walia sit on the other side of the room watching. Aaida turns to Walia and says in a soft voice “how old is she?” There is a pause.
“How old is Reza, Walia?” I ask a bit louder.
“Oh she’s two”, says Walia.
The two mothers start talking together. “Reza sees a speech and language therapist”, says Walia.
“Oh”, says Aaida “the doctor told me Basim couldn’t see a specialist because he was too young”.
“I was worried”, says Walia, “so I asked the GP to refer us to one. Now we go every week and Reza learns sounds and signing”.
I come over and join them. “There’s a playgroup especially for helping with speech and language every Tuesday at the local Children’s Centre called Chatter Time”, I say to Aaida. “We could go there next week with you and Basim if you like?”
“Yes please”, says Aaida smiling at me from under heavy eyelids, “I would really like to go next week”.

I’m outside with the two families. Reza and Walia are at the top of the slide with a baby doll. Reza pushes the baby down and slides after. Basim watches. “Do you want to go down the slide?” I ask him. He stands by the ladder, his mum puts his hand on the frame, he holds his bright blue Thomas train toy in the other and won’t let go. “That’s his favourite toy because that’s all he has at home”, Aaida says. Basim doesn’t raise his legs or grab on to the frame, he just looks around so Aaida and I lift him up a step at a time. Aaida leads him to the edge of the slide and he stands at the edge. “Thomas can go down the slide”, I say and we pushed the toy down. “Would you like to go now?” Basim sits and slides down, his eyes wide and his arms stretched out to either side. “That’s the first time he’s been down a slide”, says Aaida. 

Aaida was struggling with worries about Basim’s development so helping them leave the house and link to other local services for play and health was such an important part of our work together. Building Aaida’s confidence and knowledge as a parent opened up new opportunities for play and better communication with her son. As a result the two of them had so many first-time experiences together and Aaida began to really appreciate Basim’s small achievements. Meeting other parents allowed her to start understanding that help with one of her biggest parenting worries, her son’s speech difficulties, could be achieved.

As for me I’m learning all the time alongside parents that no plans are set in stone and at any moment could be turned completely upside down or even into a train track and how if we really tune into kids they often have the answer to what happens next.

Read more: “Inside Out” – a story about building the confidence to play in and out of the home.

More information about speech and language support in Lambeth.

*All names have been changed to protect the families’ privacy

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