The Giftival and exploring what gift culture means to us

By Rowan Salim

For the last few years at Free We Grow, we’ve been exploring what gift culture looks like for us as a community, so that we can hold each other, and this space for the children, and the land we inhabit, with love and reciprocity. When we started, we thought gift culture was about accessibility, but as we explore it, we realise it’s about more than that, it’s a way of being together, and with the land, in relationships of care and trust.

So what is gift culture anyway?

Gift culture can look different in different places, but it exists in one way or another absolutely everywhere. Below are two examples from India and Mali, but there are myriads, in all our lives!

By virtue of being born, we all live in a gift culture, held by the air we breath, nourished by the energy of the sun’s rays, captured by our plant kin. We may live, held by the gift, in our homes, with our families, amongst our neighbours and communities; all in different ways. Gift culture is about gratitude, reciprocity and generosity. 

I first came across Gift culture when I spent 6 months interning at Shikshantar Andolan, The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development, in Udaipur, India. There was something about how that space was held which created space for freedom. Freedom of expression and freedom of association. Things were happening all the time, creative things, and there was a sense of an invitation to give, and mutual growth.  Here’s a little video tour of Shikshantar on one afternoon to give you a sense of the space. Soon, it seemed that the idea of gift culture somehow seemed to be at the source of what created that magic. So back in England I was keen to explore it further. 

In sharing the idea with the Free We Grow community, the words “gratitude, reciprocity and generosity” seemed to resonate. The project itself is a gift from the parents, the founding members, the holding team members and the time, energy and love they give to the project. The children’s joy and curiosity is a gift to us all.  It was also clear that the community of families had so much to give to each other, so much to offer and so much to learn. There were ideas flowing about and an energy to explore together. And so, the idea of the Giftival was born – as an opportunity to grow together and share. 

Once the idea was spawned, that then opened up an ocean of questions;  our WhatsApp channels were filled with eddies as we explored the contours of what gift culture meant to us. 

What is gift culture again? Can we have a succinct definition? What does it mean for us living in a society where we have bills to pay? How do we acknowledge and honour our own gift & the gifts of others? What does it mean to receive a gift?  What inspires us to want to express/share our gifIs? What about money?

The question of money and funding for our project was a big one

At Free We Grow, a few years ago we made a commitment not to ever turn a family away for financial reasons, and somehow we’ve always made it work. As we strive to make our community more inclusive and accessible, that also brings up the real question of how to cover costs. We have plans to become a CIC and apply for grants, to register as an official child care provider with OFSTED and provide child care credits, and to try out a go fund me page to supplement our Community Fund.  

In the Giftival all tickets are offered in the spirit of gift. This means that there is no cost, but for those who can, and want, there’s the opportunity to donate to our community fund. We were clear that we didn’t want this option to cloud the purity of the gift giving, but also know that this need will resonate with many of our guests. But reciprocity comes in many ways. A festival won’t work without attendees and an audience, without events and food and ideas, without joy!  In planning this festival, it’s been clear to us that gift culture is also about creativity, courage and connection. 

The Giftival is an opportunity to care. To care for each other, for Dacres Wood and our local neighbourhoods. To care for and engage with our Kin and Kith. 


The program has been curated by many within the Free We Grow community; including parents and children, past and present, holding team members, facilitators, and members of the extended network of people who have lovingly related with Free We Grow and Dacres Wood over the years.

We’ll be exploring gift culture together through creating spaces to experience it in this festival. We’ve also harnessed this opportunity to tune into our own gifts, and share them with the wider community and there’s an invitation for you to do the same.  This process has been life giving, as we look inwards to what we each want to offer. Many of these ideas come from the children, like Xy’s Tie Dye workshop, the 4 Square offering,  and the desire to find closure to the story of the Sydenham Park Road Plane Tree. The children also have many ideas for offerings at the Open Day


The Giftival will take place in many spaces – We’ll be running a series of events at Dacres Wood, with the aim of enabling the site to be opened more regularly during the month of May for more local families to visit their local nature reserve. There will be themed offerings like art workshops and litter picks all while opening up Dacres Wood to the public. The extra openings of Dacres Wood are being organised in partnership with the Friends of Dacres Wood and Lewisham Council.

Events will also be held at other local venues affiliated to members of our broader community, These include The Village, a support hub for parents, carers and their children living in South East London,  friends’ homes and online. 

We’re also keen for the Giftival to flow into our local public spaces, to meet in parks for conversations, for games on the green, to enjoy the spring. 

This Giftival will take place throughout the month of May 2023. The preliminary program is being launched on the 15th of April after which there will be one more week to submit an event if you’d like to host one yourself.  Please use this link to submit an event.   

If you’d like to find out more about gift culture, you can start by reading The Serviceberry by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It’s beautiful. To see examples and reflections about gift culture from different parts of the word, you can explore this anthology on reclaiming the gift culture, gathered together by Shikshantar.  This talk by Kaushiek Pranoo , a friend I met at Shikshantar, is a thoughtful and gentle exploration into some of the contours of gift culture. You’ll also find plenty of books, websites podcasts about it online.  We are also hosting an online conversation as part of the Giftival, sharing and exploring our stories of gift, join us!

The Giftival is an opportunity to celebrate and share our gifts and interests, to bring people together, to explore and learn together, to create, to dance, sing, tell stories and play. Lots of play! Join us! You can find more about it and see the program here!