I’m at border control, about to walk through the frame of the metal detector – all eyes are on me. As I step forward the light bulb above my head turns to red. “What does that mean?” I ask. “It means you’re bad,” says one of the officials, before bursting into a fit of giggles.
Despite the red light, I have been granted access to the Children’s Republic of Shoreditch, an embassy run by children for children. The officers overseeing the operation, and who stamp my new passport, are all nine or ten years old and attend St Monica’s Primary School.
The Ministry of Stories (MOS) organisation is behind this project. Set up by author Nick Hornby, Lucy MacNab and Ben Payne just over a year ago, their aim is to help children with literacy – through creative workshops and projects. This is their latest innovation.
Over the past month, 60 children from Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Islington schools have been designing and building the centre and they will be running it until 11 August.
On a grey morning in London, the bright yellow signs of 156 Hoxton Street – the base for the children’s embassy – glow invitingly. One shop window is filled with questions: Are you hardworking? Do you like politicians? Are you mad? And the other has cardboard cut-outs of world foods.
Inside there are various stations stewarded by youngsters, including an advice bureau, a map-drawing table – with instructions and colourful materials – and an eco-envelope-designing competition: must be made using natural materials such as leaves and feathers.
Hornby explains that the idea is to place young professional adults – 600 volunteers have been trained for this project, mostly local artists and writers – with children, to see what they can create together: “Kids are very imaginative and ambitious,” he says, “and working with designers – this is what can be achieved.
Hornby is gesturing towards the Museum of Childhood Treasure, a big orange box, requesting that you deposit one of your treasures through a hole. The child-run ‘machine’ produces a drawing of your treasure (you have to dance while you wait) and the finished artwork pops out of another hole.
Next to it, a small silver plane is suspended in the air, clipped to a tightrope. Children can conjure up ideas for writing tasks, attach them to the plane and fly them across the room – to be removed by the professional writer sat at a desk below, ready to respond. “The best thing about this project,” explains Anthony, 10, “is that it proved we can do everything that adults can do.”
Ben Payne, co-director of MOS, says that this is what the country would be like if children ran it. “The manifesto encourages positive values. The children wanted to invite visitors to learn from their ideas about what is important.”
The Children’s Republic of Shoreditch is open for school visits until the summer holidays and then there are holiday clubs for children who live in the immediate local area. From 7 July – 11 August there are free family activities every Saturday from 10am – 4pm – no need to register, just turn up.
For more information go to the Ministry of Stories.