The summer holidays are now behind us, but how many of us can hold our hands up and say that our children enjoyed the freedom of playing on the streets during those weeks? Back in the day (yes I sound like a right old git!) I remember rollerskating endlessly up and down my street without a care in the world. But did I see any children playing in the streets over the summer holidays?
How sad is that?
As far as I know, there are no laws against children playing in the street yet there is one thing I think that has led to this sad state of affairs – fear and anxiety. The fear of our children getting hurt or abducted. The same fear that is now releasing a load of snowflakes into this world who can barely cope with the day to day banalities of life.
It’s a crying shame. But what if it was one that we could change? What if our children could play out on the street once more? It might sound like a pipe dream but one organisation – Playing Out – is seeking to make this a reality once more. Hurrah! I talk to Founder and Director Alice Ferguson about how we can ring the changes and get children playing on the streets again.
Whatever happened to our culture of playing in the streets?
I think it’s a combination of things – increased traffic on streets; increased general (often media-induced) fear about children being outside; children’s time becoming more restricted; the rise of indoor entertainment and a reduced sense of community and knowing your neighbours. There’s also a vicious circle – the less children are seen playing out, the less appealing the idea is to others. Eventually the whole culture begins to disappear. We now meet younger adults who didn’t play out as children and don’t really have a concept of what it means. That is quite scary – we know that if we are to revive the culture of playing out as a normal part of children’s lives, it needs to happen now.
What are children these days missing out on by not being able to play in the streets?
So much! Some of it is obvious: the chance to get daily physical activity; making friends in the community; the simple enjoyment of free, imaginative and active outdoor play. But there are other less tangible things that I think are just as important: being part of the “real life” of your community; a sense of belonging in your local environment; the emotional and practical resilience you learn through independent play; the experiences and memories you form… I could go on and on. Although the world has changed, children haven’t. They still need all this!
Is it just children who benefits from being able to play in the streets?
Not at all. A street where children can and do play out together tends to be one where adults also know and trust each other – where there is a good sense of community. The two things go hand in hand and everyone benefits. We know that adults – including older adults – also benefit hugely from ‘playing out’ sessions, where the whole street has a chance to come together. Loneliness and isolation is becoming a real problem in society and this is a way that we can really start to turn things around, using the space outside our front door to re-build the idea of neighbourliness.
How can we make the dream of playing in the streets a reality again?
The ‘playing out’ idea – where residents get together to close their street to cars for a couple of hours, up to once a week – is the model my neighbour Amy and I came up with in 2009, when our children were little. We saw it not as a long-term solution, but a way to reclaim the space outside our front door – for children, play and community. It is meant as a catalyst for change – showing how streets can be shared spaces and starting to make the idea of children playing out in the street normal again. The idea has now spread to over 50 local authority areas and 600 streets across the UK and is really starting to change things for children.
Does it cost a lot to close a street off to have children play in it? What is the process?
The process most councils follow is pretty simple and doesn’t cost residents anything. You just have to consult with everyone on the street, then apply to the council with a simple application form, showing how you would do it safely, with the proper signs and volunteer stewards at each end of the street. We’ve got a list of all the councils actively supporting street play on our website, with link to their policies. We’ve also got loads of free resources and everything you need to get started. Lots of people join the national Playing Out Facebook group as a way to connect with others doing it on their streets and get a bit of advice or moral support.
What can my readers do if they want their children to play outside in the streets and how can they support the Playing Out movement?
Organising regular ‘playing out’ sessions is a big way to change things and can be hugely rewarding, but does take a bit of time and commitment. If that feels a bit too much, you can also do smaller things such as letting them play out on the pavement with a bit of chalk – or people might have their own creative ideas for making it easier and safer for children to play out. We’d love to hear them. One easy way people can support the movement for children’s freedom is just to join in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #playingout – we want to build up a really strong voice of parents calling for children’s right to play out in the streets and spaces where they live.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Since I was a child myself, I’ve had a passion for children’s rights and a sense of injustice. When I was ten, I even thought about setting up a children’s political party! As a parent, this passion was renewed and the thing that I felt most strongly about was my children – and all children – having lost the freedom to roam and play out that I took for granted as a child. I was very lucky to have grown up surrounded by community-minded people, where I was given the feeling that it was possible to change things for yourself, so I think the ‘playing out’ idea came out of all that. But the fact that it has taken off as a UK-wide movement involving thousands of people is really down to the fact that it’s an issue that many parents feel equally strongly about. I’m constantly amazed that so many people are willing to take action to change things in their own streets and communities – it’s wonderful and gives me hope that we can turn things around for the next generation of children.
Would you love to see children playing in the streets again? Do share in a comment below.
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