Street play: can you have too much of it?

Road closed signI have written before about street play, and plugged the Playing Out project, whose community-based approach to opening up streets for play is spreading fast. A couple of weekends ago I witnessed a whole Playing Out session from beginning to end (and you will have the chance to see the edited highlights on primetime TV [Update Weds 3 July 2013: watch a clip from this blog post of mine]). It was a thrilling event, welcomed and enjoyed by people of all ages. But while I shared their enthusiasm, I was left wondering if the sheer energy of the occasion could paradoxically weaken the initiative’s prospects. I’ll come back to that thought later – but first, let’s set the scene.

The session took place on a Sunday afternoon in Westcourt Road, a  residential street in the South Coast seaside town of Worthing (where the nearest park is on the other side of a main road and an unstaffed railway level crossing). It began at 3 pm with two pairs of volunteers in hi-vis jackets blocking both ends of the street with ‘Road Closed’ signs and wheelie-bins. Within a few minutes the street was filling up with children of all ages enjoying the space. Not surprisingly bikes, trikes and scooters were popular. Other games sprang up too, including keepy-uppy, catch, tennis and a 2-a-side ball game in a tiny chalked court whose rules were not familiar to me.

Chalk message on roadDrawing on the street with jumbo pavement chalks was another big hit. (By the end of the session, one gang had written a number along the whole stretch of the street. It had 1,300 digits, they said – and was apparently meant to tell people the entry charge for the event.)

After an hour or so, there must have been 40 or 50 children in the street, and a similar number of adults. The overall scene was not unlike a crowded beachfront.

Street play sessionIt was fascinating to watch how people of all ages negotiated the space in their groups, casually interacting with each other as and when they felt the need or the inclination. People found connections with each other: a girl aged around eight made friends for the first time with her four-year-old next-door neighbour, and spent much of the session shepherding her around. Two older women (both of whom were there on their own) discovered a shared link to a neighbourhood in Liverpool, where they had both played out in the street.

As the session went on, the vibe became a little less intense. Parents and other residents sat on the kerb, or pulled out tables and chairs for an impromptu picnic. Pre-prepared cakes were shared out, and (in a glorious echo of some exotic Middle Eastern street market) one couple set up a falafel stand. Their children had grown up some years ago, but they still valued the chance to get involved. (The falafels were free, and very tasty!)

Car being shepherdedOnce or twice, a resident’s car was shepherded in or out of the street at walking pace by one of the volunteers. From what I could see, drivers were not troubled at all by the procedure. Other drivers, who may have expected to be able to drive along the street, simply followed a short diversion (although Westcourt Road is a through street, it was very straightforward to avoid the closed stretch).

I was blown away by the impact of the Worthing road closure. The numbers of people out in a short stretch of street spoke volumes about children’s appetite for outdoor play, and about adults’ wish to feed this appetite.

Residents cheering in the street

The whole event was filmed by a team from the BBC1 magazine programme The One Show, which plans to air a piece on street play on Monday 24 June (declaration of interest: I am down to make an appearance in the film).

The filming had been set up with help from the Playing Out team. Intriguingly, they tried hard to persuade the programme-makers to visit a street that had run a few sessions, rather than a first-time street. One of the reasons is that for Playing Out, the long-term aim is to normalise street play. That is precisely why they aim for repeated, regular sessions, and why they tell organisers not to go to town with bunting, bouncy castles, and cake stalls. They are well aware that first-time sessions almost inevitably have a celebratory air – and a level of participation and energy – that is not an accurate picture of the long-term pattern. With regular sessions, once the novelty has worn off, the numbers of children are likely to decline somewhat, and the nature of their play is likely to become less frenetic.

I am sure the One Show feature will generate a lot of interest, and highlight the scheme’s obvious qualities. But I think the Playing Out team is right to have concerns. The project places great emphasis on good community engagement, and is aware of the issue of resident anxiety about noise and disruption. The danger of the high-impact, energetic first-time road closure is that it may feed some people’s worst fears about what regular street play sessions might lead to.

Not everyone is sold on the idea of lots of kids filling their street. Some are going to be actively hostile, and probably just don’t like children. For instance, check out some of the comments after this misleading news story, about a Reading street play initiative. But others may be undecided – and having a realistic sense of what regular road closures for play will be like will help win them over.

What is more, the idea of promoting community spirit – rightly seen as a positive outcome of street play projects – needs to be handled with care. Many, perhaps most streets have at least a few residents who have little or no interest in their neighbours’ lives. For them, home may be the place where they literally and figuratively close the door on the outside world. Appeals to community spirit will cut little ice with such people. While we may disagree with their world-view, we cannot and should not dismiss it out of hand. This point is nicely made by Kevin Harris in his always-readable Neighbourhoods blog, when he talks of how street parties can create a ‘sense of enforced sociability’.

It may seem that I am conceding too much ground to the opponents of street play. After all, over the last few decades children have metaphorically watched through their windows as their most important play space has become ever more colonised by adults and their cars. Is it not high time to compensate them for this loss – even if it leaves some grown-ups very unhappy?

I can see the force of that argument. But I believe what is needed is an approach that is more consensual: one framed around mutual rights, responsibilities, respect and fairness. This is quite apart from the tactics: very unhappy adults are often a powerful and effective local lobbying force, so it is good sense to avoid picking a fight, if possible.

Man pulling children in trailerSo my plea to those who like the idea of street play, and who are interested in promoting it – which probably includes most of you reading this post – is to think carefully about the way you make your case. Opening up residential streets for the everyday enjoyment of the children who live there is reasonable, achievable and desirable. Of course, we need to point out the obvious benefits to children and families, and the fact that there are gains for the wider community too. We are more likely to make progress if we give a realistic picture of what regular street play looks like, if we accept that there are differing viewpoints about that slippery concept ‘community’, and if we try to understand and respond to legitimate concerns.

PS: there is a nice back-story to Worthing’s scheme. Local mum Kathryn Kay first heard about Playing Out from my blog a couple of years ago, and was taken by it. When Kathryn and her family moved to Worthing, she decided that taking forward the idea might be a good way to meet new people and get more involved in her community. Adur and Worthing Councils were supportive, so she organised some sessions in her own street – and they were so successful that she is now helping other street groups too, including the one I visited. It’s a powerful illustration of community action – and I must say it was nice to hear this example of my work making a difference!

21 responses to “Street play: can you have too much of it?

  1. The contrast with the state of play in NL comes to mind. Walking around the unexceptional urban residential area in Den Haag my brother-in-law and his family stay in (I think it would rate as a “Woonerf”) it’s entirely normal to encounter a wee yellow “children playing” sign in the street (as available from local shops, it’s not a legal or official thing) and… children playing. Just a few, but at any time and without any fuss. Since the design of the neighbourhood is such that motor vehicles only use such streets for access there’s little traffic to worry about, interrupt games or get delayed.
    I wonder if this is a better way to go than making big events out of things which are rather under pressure to succeed on a large scale? (and the Dutch seem quite able to have general street parties when the mood takes them!).

    I found the following in the Wiki on the section on Living Street: “Legislation was introduced in the United Kingdom with the Highway Act 1835 which banned the playing of football and games on the highway. In 1859 a total of 44 children were sent to prison for failure to pay fines for playing in the street in London/Middlesex, rising to 2,000 young people under the age of seventeen by 1935.”
    We’ve come a way from that, but it highlights the British emphasis on roads being places for transport to use, as opposed to some being for transport to use and some being for transport to serve.
    I salute the efforts of the folk closing off streets like this, and in the current British climate where many of us are forced to live in thrall to motor vehicles it’s something I can see the value in, but in the longer term I’d like a rather simpler general arrangement where a typical child can go out and play in the street without formal intercession from the council according to a strict timetable. That won’t happen overnight though, especially as it would probably be touted as part of the War On Motorists (TM).

    • Nail-on-head in terms of the bigger picture, I would say Peter. I am going to be meeting the Playing Out folk in a couple of weeks, and longer-term goals are very much on the agenda.

      • There is a lot more to say about street plans in NL and GB. This quote comes from an blogpost about pedestrians in NL:
        “At a higher level, one significant way in which the Dutch plan their towns and cities differently from Britain is by creating ‘cells’; blocks that are primarily residential, through which it is pretty difficult – if not impossible – to drive. This is very different from Britain, where many residential streets are a route to somewhere else, even a short cut, unless they are a cul-de-sac. The Dutch are quite explicit that residential streets should be just that – residential – and that motor traffic should be access only. This requires a connecting network of distributor roads, which are through routes.”

  2. Hi Tim, a good review and analysis. Their good model emerged out of this street party capital of Bristol where we are based. Many will already have had a street party or street meet and these are important in our view so that all residents can get something ie neighbourliness. Ours is a more multigenerational approach. And they have to do a full consulatation.

  3. What a great event and article Tim! Longer term, is there a way to legislate into new build design so that going out to play is completely an everyday normality? That’s when we’ll know our job has been done!

  4. It was great to see you in Worthing Tim and you are right – it was a wonderful partyish atmosphere in Westcourt Road. The One Show were very keen to see a street experiencing playing out for the first time as I guess they want colour and vibrancy for tv. My own street’s first playing out session was also accompanied by bunting, tables groaning with delicious home-made cakes and a sense of excitement from the children and adults. I trace our journey towards more regular (not yet ‘normal and everyday’ but somewhere on that route) monthly playing out sessions by the quality and quantity of snacks on offer. No one has the time or energy to bake carrot cake every second Thurs of the month and instead a hastily-bought packet of jammy dodgers from the corner shop is now the norm. I saw last week’s rather stale oatcakes I left out for the children as a positive sign that playing out has become part of our routine in the street. My children and their friends didn’t quite see it that way and took themselves off to the shop ‘upgrade’ to chocolate digestives!

  5. Hi Tim – Really enjoyed your piece. I’ve just done a piece on this for my Magazine, Every Child Journal – will send you a copy when it’s out. I agree that there are objectors and progress needs to be cautious (there have been some in our street and when our street has had playing out events we’ve resolved any differences amicably by changing the part of the road where children play and so on), but we also need to be aware of who and what our cities are for and that the privatisation of space is increasingly handing over our cities to vested interests, that cities are being monopolised by cars, commerce, institutions and that space is gradually being privatised. Children’s play is chaotic (in a good way!) and history tells us that adults will always try and control the chaos children bring. So while I agree that being sympathetic and explaining is the right approach and that you don’t get anywhere by enforcing change unilaterally, there is also an important need to reclaim spaces for people, including children. I have to say, like you, we’ve found the overwhelming majority of people incredibly supportive and welcoming.
    Of course I agree with you that children (and their parents) need to be responsible and respectful to all residents. But adults should also acknowledge that (young) children inhabit the same spaces and by and large don’t make as much noise as adults (they don’t have late night parties, don’t build extensions on their houses, don’t drive noisy or fast cars or motorbikes, don’t get drunk). On the whole, as a cohort, they’re probably better behaved. Not that our neighbours do any of these things of course! Apart from build extensions. And that was us.

    Tim Linehan

  6. I love the motivation behind Playing Out but share the reservation that its focus on young kids can sometimes be counterproductive. Every place that manages to show every day that streets are for people not just cars is a good thing. We were lucky enough to persuade the council to work with us to remodel a street to become a precious outside space for everyone!

  7. I think the answer to the question that headlines this article is a resounding NO!
    Whilst the TV company want to capture the excitement of a first time event, the point for us in Hackney, where we’ve been trialling a Play Streets initiative for nearly a year, is actually to normalise the idea of children being able to play outside where they live. There have been some local objections, of course, but these have mostly faded away when people have seen that what they have feared hasn’t materialised or have been outweighed by the positive benefits. As an adherent to the Playwork Principles I would also argue that the play process takes precendence over adult-led agendas, in this case motorists and rabid Daily Mail readers.

  8. Thanks for all the comments. Mandy – there is guidance on street design in new developments, and ‘home zones’ (play-friendly streets) are sometimes mentioned in them – but there’s a lot more that can and should be done. The problem (in England at least) is that the Government is moving away from central regulation and guidance. Tim – your comments echo Peter’s in terms of the bigger picture, and I heartily concur – and your points comparing the behaviour of adults and children are well made. Lucy – I wouldn’t quite say that a focus on kids is counterproductive, more that this focus is legitimate but needs to be made sensitively and thoughtfully. Thanks for the link to Van Gogh Walk – I will try to visit it soon! Nick – pleased to hear news of the progress in Hackney. While I support children’s claim on the streets, and am a fan of the Playwork Principles I don’t think you can apply these to streets in the same way as to Adventure Playgrounds – indeed, the difference between these two play contexts is central to my case. In an AP, children’s play is its raison d’etre. Streets are different. So it is essential to start from a basis of mutual respect between different user groups. In most streets, to say ‘play has precedence in this space’ is the wrong starting point. But that doesn’t mean the car (or the rabid Daily Mail reader) should be king.

  9. Hi Tim

    The short answer to your question is ‘no’!

    Playing Out has developed an effective and well thought out model that enables many more children and adults to enjoy play and to enjoy their local neighbourhood.

    In Hackney most of the playing out sessions are for a couple of hours either once per month at the weekend or once per week after school. Is this really too much to ask?

    What a playing out session ‘looks like’ varies hugely from street to street, the time of year and the biggest factor of all – the weather. Some are bigger (which is great) and some are smaller and more low key (which is also great).

    We are clear in Hackney that Playing out sessions are not street parties. The aim is to make children playing outdoors a normal part of everyday life in the local street.

    Lots of hard work goes on behind the scenes to make playing out a reality – much of it done by volunteers.

    I think it is unfair to suggest that playing out advocates are in any way ‘picking a fight’ with other residents. In Hackney street organisers participate in workshops and carry out consultation and engagement with all the residents in their street. Local consultation and engagement is a mandatory part of the process.

    Street Organisers work to include older residents and neighbours who do not have children. The feedback from older residents is usually that they enjoy the sessions and welcome the opportunity to participate in street life with families in their street.

    Most of the objections received are very similar to the objections to development of play space and children playing out in general – risk (mainly to cars), noise, and not in my back yard.

    A lot of work goes into addressing and adapting to concerns raised by residents (eg making changes to timings and locations within the street) and – as with objections to development of play space in parks – many objectors are won round once the playing out sessions get under way. It is important to note that whilst some objectors are quite vociferous, the number of objectors borough-wide is small and is hugely outnumbered by the supporters.

    Street organisers have gone to great lengths to engage constructively and sensitively with objectors (sometimes despite being on the receiving end of highly personalised and unpleasant abuse from objectors – which is particularly difficult to deal with when the objectors are also your neighbours).

    They need our support.


    • Thanks for the comment Nicola – a helpful insight into the realities of organising road closures that shows how some of the barriers I raised can be tackled. I was not suggesting that any street play organisers were actually ‘picking a fight’ – my point was that advocates need be careful to avoid framing the initiative as one of ‘kids v other residents’. It sounds like you are being careful to avoid this, in Hackney at least. However, during the campaigning for Home Zones there was evidence of some parents in some schemes seeing the initiative in more narrow, oppositional terms (as I found in my report for London Play).
      As for my headline, its job is to be a hook to get people to read on (and it seems to have worked). I am mindful that much of the traffic to my site is from ‘the converted’, so I try to come up with headlines (and content) that are more eye-catching than “another reason why we need more street play”. But rest assured, that is my view!

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  11. You can see the programme on the BBC iPlayer service here until Monday 31 June. The segment is pretty much first up – I felt it was a very positive piece, which made a good case for street play as potentially a legitimate and normal use of street space.

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  14. Tim – I regret that I haven’t been able to see this, but it’s obviously a big shot in the arm for our movement(s) that this event was captured by the BBC. My slight hesitation in embracing this coverage fully, if I have any, is that the event is not reflective of everyday life, and that it’s substantially adult-directed.

    At my Playborhood (yes, that’s what we call it now!), I get my biggest satisfaction once or twice a week when groups of kids come there spontaneously and engage in vigorous, self-directed play. Some of those groups of kids are accompanied by adults, but the culture we’ve developed here is to get adults to engage socially with other adults, often with glasses of wine in hand. When we do jump into the fray of kid play, it’s to follow the kids’ lead. For instance, I often become a player in a street hockey game that the kids organize.

    Obviously, spontaneous “events” like this are more difficult for the media to capture, because one can’t show up with a camera crew at a specific time and count on it happening, but I do believe they’re the holy grail of our movements. I’m very happy that we have these once or twice a week, but I’m shooting for four or five or six (or seven) times a week.

    • Mike – thanks for the thoughtful reply, and nice to see you here. (By the way, you can see the clip on youtube now.) I had a lively morning chat a couple of weeks ago with several leading lights in the Playing Out campaign, and some other interested people. The group is well aware of the problems raised by the fact that organised road closures are adult-led. Their goal is clear: they want spontaneous street play to be a normal, everyday activity and a reasonable expectation in neighbourhoods. for them, road closures are a stepping-stone to this. However, they feel that cars are so dominant in many, many neighbourhoods that there is little prospect of reclaiming streets for play without significant organised community action. They also know that in some areas, spontaneous street play does happen, and in others where it currently does not, their approach may not be needed. I agree with their analysis. If you’ve any insights on normalizing street play, I’d love to hear them – I know you’ve been doing a lot over in the States.

  15. Thanks for the link, Tim. Indeed, it’s very gratifying to watch. To respond to your query about normalizing street play, I’ll say the following.

    First, of course, the extent that traffic danger can be mitigated depends on how much traffic there is in the first place. A road with a constant stream of many cars per minute is hopeless for free on-street play – i.e. kids simply can’t occupy the street to play their own games. While children who live on these streets can’t play on the street, they should be encouraged to play on sidewalks, and they should learn to cross at intersections to roam their neighborhoods independently.

    In my experience, streets with traffic flow of, say, less than two cars per minute can be shared by children and cars, but even in that case, parents and children must take some extraordinary steps. I write about all these steps on my blog and book, Playborhood. I’ll try to boil down my observations to three points. First, parents should spend a lot of time in their neighborhood streets with their children, especially while they’re young, building relationships with neighbors and encouraging the latter to join them outside. It’s interesting – merely knowing one’s neighbors a bit makes that neighborhood feel much safer for parents and kids. Second, parents should make a conscious effort to build independence skills in their children on neighborhood streets. The primary vehicle for this is the commute to school every morning. Walking or biking to school with children provide a great opportunity for children to learn to be comfortable navigating their neighborhoods on their own. My 9-year-old son rides his bike 1-1/2 miles to and from school every day. I got him to this point after riding with him every day for the first 2+ years of his schooling, giving him a little bit more independence every week or two.

    Finally, parents and their children should be prepared for the power struggle that will emerge with motorists who do not recognize children’s right to occupy the street. Yes, this is inevitable in an age when most motorists believe that streets are only for them driving in their cars. My wife and I place a Playborhood sign in the street in front of our house often. Other times, my boys bring hockey nets into the street to play street hockey games. They also frequently bike and scooter there. One neighbor has vociferously complained to me about my kids playing in the street. I’ve listened to her and tried to assuage her concerns, but I haven’t prohibited my kids from being there as she demanded. She and some other neighbors, no doubt, think twice about driving past my house. Other routes are totally dominated by cars, but on our stretch of street, cars are forced to share the road with kids. That’s good. Car’s aren’t the undisputed kings of our patch of street. Kids here have rights, too!

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