Play Wooden will be appearing at the Waltham Forest Games Market on Saturday 25 September, running wooden games on a drop-in basis and selling their products at a stall. We spoke to them to find out a little more about what they do.

When Oluwatosin Shittu was a kid, his favourite game was to take things apart and put them back together.

“I would take apart electronic devices and make them work again,” he says. “I used to play a lot with gears to create motion, I’d try to understand how they worked to make a simple object move.”

As an adult, he retains this impulse towards trying to understand how things work. But now, he uses it to get other people to play.

Oluwa started making playful wooden things in his backyard in Bristol in 2016: just building games and brainteasers, and taking them around to festivals. “I’m not very into networking,” he confesses as we talk, but the objects themselves, wooden and bright and alluring, objects which demand to be played with, did the early networking for him.

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In 2017 he incorporated Play Wooden as a Community Interest Company, and other people started to get involved, particularly in the fundraising and marketing; and in 2018, as part of a Bristol-based incubator programme, the company expanded, supported by the Bristol and Bath innovation fund. After that 2019, Oluwa says, was “a really good year – everything started picking up”. He took the project around to festivals and schools, invented and built new games, experimented with different activities that are environmentally friendly.

He also become member and partner with Children Scrapstore in Bristol, collaborating with them to put on workshops and using them as a source of reusable materials. Reusability and thoughtful choice of materials is now at the core of what Play Wooden does. Not everything is literally wooden — the organisation aims to provide all types of play, including for example imaginary play and soft play, and “it’s hard to create soft play with wood”. So they compromise by using specific foams, fabrics, and other materials that are as environmentally friendly as possible and that look and feel inviting.

Some of Play Wooden’s creations will be familiar to game players and puzzle enthusiasts. “I have a very strong attachment towards many of these games,” Oluwa says, “because I learned about a lot of them through working with wooden game artists, and abroad, growing up in Italy for example with Pianeta Verde in Parma.”

Others are new, invented through experimentation and play.

“Ten years ago,” Oluwa says, “for me it was about reading and understanding the dynamics of motion, of loops, of seeing the movement in the shape of the object. I still do a lot of work like that, I do a lot of reading and observation. That sort of design process for me is about the maths of objects and seeing how they work. I’m looking for patterns and then I give that pattern a graphic form and turn it into a game. My favourite thing is to design brainteasers; it’s really fun to see people try to crack them.”

But more recently his design process has changed. “Now it starts from the observation of children and young people playing. There are a lot of new games I made that come specifically out of observation of how children play and what play means to them, their evolution of play from one little thing to another, how they engage with it.”

He says that designing for adults is easy, but that children are trickier. He quotes “play is the work of children”, variably attributed to Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori. To design play for children, then, it’s necessary to first watch just how they play.

For a while, this was difficult. 2020, of course, was not a good year for Play Wooden: everything had to change, most events had to be cancelled, others had to be transformed. They did run some online events, including sessions for children to make and play games at home, but it was a difficult time for the organisation.

Pictures of people playing wooden games

In 2021 things are looking better, with more outdoor events, and the chance to get back into parks. Oluwa talks a lot about local green spaces: it’s clear that Play Wooden focuses not just on getting people to play at one-off events, but also on bringing them out regularly to their local parks and helping them to feel at home there, asking what they want from the experience, drawing out a sense of belonging. As the organisation approaches it, parks and squares and corners aren’t just useful because they can be the host for play events; if anything, it’s the other way around, and play events are useful partly because they can help people to take ownership of their local green spaces.

After a busy summer, Oluwa says, “our amazing team and volunteers are ready to scale up these projects across the south-west.” The Play Wooden team will draw on the inspiration of what they’ve learnt from positive engagement and feedback this summer with children, young people and the community to create and make more beautiful games and share more play experiences. They’re already branching out into new areas and new communities, and diversifying the accessibility of the games to nurture wellbeing, inclusion and empowerment, working hard to demonstrate the value of sustainability and environmentally friendly alternatives.

Play Wooden will be at the Waltham Forest Games Market, in Walthamstow Town Square (near the mall) from 11am-5pm on Saturday 25 September.