Diane Walls is a former primary school head and Newham councillor, and one of the Magpie Project’s volunteers.
“The years between birth and five are the most important years in a child’s development, when they learn to speak, to walk, when they start relationships with other children and other adults. When they first learn their place in the world,” she explains. “And once you cut them off from space and other children and a clean, safe environment, you are inhibiting that progress and inhibiting that development.”
But to really understand what that means, you need to talk to some of the mums. Amelia* is relaxing on a colourful playmat while her one-year-old, Rachel, investigates a toy; her two-year-old is concentrating on a nearby train set.
“We’re always happy when we come here,” she says. “At home, you think, think, think, think. Here it is better, you don’t think, you just relax. Watch them play. It is really good. It’s better than sitting at home and thinking, worried.”
“Once you cut children off from a clean, safe environment, you are inhibiting their development,” Amelia
Home for the past year – the whole of her young daughter’s life – has been one room, plagued with mould and with no room at all for the children to play. At first there was only one bed, so all three had to share. Eventually Amelia, who is from Ghana and is waiting for her documents to come through, managed to find a second bed to cram into the room for her toddler.
“When we come they give us nappies. It was very hard for me – I could hardly buy nappies. And when you come here they will give you some and you also get to talk to other mums here. At least you release some stress before you go home.”
“This one,” she says, gesturing towards her two year old, “when we come he will just jump out of the pushchair when he sees the toys because he doesn’t have all these toys at home.”
Alika’s child is the same. When she brings her two toddlers here, “he gets out of the buggy at the bus stop and he runs”, she says. The small family have been moved time and again as Alika’s violent husband has tried to track them down.
Mice were bad and bed bugs left her covered in bites, but the worst was shared accommodation where one of the neighbours smoked cannabis. “[My son has] got asthma – he was coughing constantly. That man didn’t care; I asked him constantly not to smoke. He smokes in his room but the smoke comes out.”
Katya is in a similar situation. As she bounces her 11-month-old daughter on her knee, her face is crumpled with worry. Her voice is shaking.
“It’s actually a really terrible place,” she says, describing the nearby hotel where she has been housed by social services after fleeing her violent husband. “I have pictures.”
On her phone, she scrolls through one photo after another showing mice droppings all over the bathroom, and even next to the bed which she shares with her daughter. No cot was provided for the baby to sleep in, again forcing them to share.
In the hallways going in and out, she has to brave aggressive beggars. “It’s not a safe place for babies. It’s not clean, it’s full of mice.”
One-year-old Rachel puts down a slice of banana and lifts herself up. She takes a few wobbly steps. “She took her first steps here,” says Amelia proudly.
*Names of mothers and children have been changed