Why would you want to let your child play out in the street?

Boy in streetEven a generation ago, most parents would have greeted this question with blank faces. Playing out was just what kids did – why would you need a reason? Of course, things are different today – for all sorts of reasons. In almost all neighbourhoods, parents need to take a stand, and to resist the norm of parenting that says being a good parent means rearing your child in captivity.

For parents who come together to set up Playing Out road closure projects, taking this stand means extra commitments: talking to neighbours, liaising with the Council, setting up rotas, and maybe spending a couple of hours a week out in the street. So, to rework my opening question: why do parents get involved in organising road closures for play?

Dinah Bornat – who lives in Hackney, East London – is one such parent, and in a guest piece she explains what she thinks is in it for her child.

I wish he could have started earlier – my five year old. He’s only been playing out for a few months; still, it’s amazing how quickly he’s picked it up. The other day I realised that he’d reached a bit of milestone; he’s now really good at ‘mucking about’. Mucking about, in case you’ve forgotten; is when you’ve got no organized game so you just muck about. It did involve a bit of tree hitting, and one time one of the kids poured my plant food all over the path. But other than that he’s getting really good at it.

So, one gold star for me! I say that, because he doesn’t need any gold stars. Unlike all the other hot housing we’re doing (violin lessons, swimming, tennis, not to mention the ones he’s given up), he needs absolutely no encouragement to play out. In fact it makes him happy when he does it. So that’s good. I myself have to do quite a lot of standing around, sometimes by myself. And usually I’m wearing a high vis jacket (surely enough to merit that gold star).

Where are we going with this? Ok, I’ll be honest; by eight I’m hoping he’ll be old enough to go round the corner and knock on his mate’s door to see if he wants to come and play (on the pavement obviously, or maybe in the park). There, I’ve said it: a lot to hope for, I know, and maybe quite young to reach such dizzying heights, so that’s why I’m hot housing him.

Actually it’s not just me; a few of us are hot housing our kids in this way. Not many of us, yet, but they’re doing all right mucking about with just a few. And lets be honest, there’s no point going round to your mate’s house if s/he’s not going to be up for coming to the park with you. So I’m glad he’s not on his own.

I reckon if he’s only got three years then we need to do playing out a lot; every week in fact. This is quite hard work, for the grown ups; a lot of standing around getting cold quite often, and the house doesn’t tidy itself or cook the dinner while I’m out there. But hey, no one said it was easy. Quite often the children aren’t even on the street, they’re on the pavement, sometimes hitting the tree.

So by the time he’s eight I’m thinking he’ll be on the way to ‘hanging out’; that’s one up from ‘mucking about’. Hanging out and mucking about aren’t really that hard to learn of course, but kids have stopped doing it. With our best intentions so many of us have fallen into the awful trap of controlling our kids’ time and space; they’re always in our sight, or we’re rushing off to another after school activity. Their relaxation is the telly, or maybe a play date with one other child. If we’ve got enough energy we’ll do a drawing with them, or maybe some glueing.

‘Why once a week?’ people ask. ‘Why not once a fortnight, or once a month? Make it easier for yourself!’ We’ve asked ourselves that and we think it’s because kids don’t think in fortnights. If we want to make it their thing it has to be every week; so it’s on Friday, every Friday. And we’re going to carry on that way, until they grow out of it, which they will. Before then others will join us, and our kids can teach their kids how to muck about.

And when he’s ten and social media creeps in to take over his social life, I’ll know he’ll have had the best start I can give him; physical, loose, easy going friendships with people of different ages, backgrounds and genders that live round our way. Years of hanging out and mucking about, that I hope he’ll keep doing for the rest of his life.

So that’s why I’m giving myself a gold star every week when we do a playing out; because it’s hard work standing around on the street controlling traffic, when I could be sitting down at home, or catching up on the housework on the one afternoon I’m not at work.

So give yourself a gold star. Come along, start up a Playing Out project in your street, but don’t miss out on what could be the most valuable bit of hot housing you could ever give your child.

Of course it is wrong to assume that parents who get involved in Playing Out are only in it for their child. Many also have wider aims,  such as promoting a stronger sense of community (though this does need some unpacking, as I have argued). Nonetheless, it is clear that the goal of reclaiming streets for play will only succeed if it appeals to ordinary parents up and down the country. Dinah may have her tongue a little inside her cheek, but I think she has also put her finger on what street play is all about: creating some space and time for children when adult concerns fade into the background, and they are left to play with their friends, to make new ones, to meet their neighbours and to practise the art of mucking about.

22 responses to “Why would you want to let your child play out in the street?

    • Mucking about activities have many life lasting positive side effects.Moving around and being exposed to the natural world feeds the brain and increases all those dormant connections to become active. Not only will it counteract obesity and overweight problems,often connected to boredom and low selfesteem, but outdoor freeplay will also have a direct impact on general school performance and yes happyness and a feeling of contentment will follow. Selfesteem will increase, as you are encouraged to take self determent risks and then experience the natural consequences.
      The learning is really endless. Social skills and caring and sharing are another integral development area and a respect for each other and nature that can not easily be replicated in other ways. So yes congratulations to all you parents and communities for finding ways to keep our future generations in good shape to cope with live in a constructive and peaceful and non consuming, simple and yet fulfillment oriented way.
      Best wishes for keeping up the energy involved … Kind regards …Margret

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  2. Claire Colvine - Play England

    Reblogged this on Love Outdoor Play and commented:
    Lovely guest post from a Hackney parent recognising the value of supporting street play. Play England is working with Playing Out, London Play and the University of Bristol on the ‘Street Play’ project. Our vision is for every child to have the freedom to regularly play actively and independently in front of or near their own front door, contributing to a healthy lifestyle. Find out more about the project at http://www.playengland.org.uk/streetplay.

  3. Thank you! We closed the road for a street party yesterday and the kids had a great time. I’m going to get together with my neighbours and get started on a regular playing out. Thanks for a timely nudge.

  4. Yes, a lovely post! Thanks to Dinah for beautifully articulating from the parent’s viewpoint why “mucking about” deserves at least an equal place of importance in the lives of children as all the “hot housing.” Sharing with my folks here in the US.

  5. Having just moved to a gated community (I know…) I have suddenly recognised the benefit of having a safe place to play outside your front door. I open the door and the kids (4 and 6) run out to play with the other kids on our road, climb the rhododendrons, fish things out of the fountain and crazily run or scoot up and down the road (“mind that Porsche, Columbus!”). It’s great.

    Most people don’t have this opportunity (we won’t soon, when we have to buy) and it’s a great shame. Time for the kids to reclaim their street!

  6. Thanks for all the comments. It is especially interesting to me to hear the experiences of other street play supporters.

  7. A platinum star for Dinah from me! Of course it isn’t easy – but if a few more, and then a few more…and so on then it might just become the norm and the easiest thing in the world. Only down side is more time for household chores!

  8. Good for you Dinah! Kudos for doing this, we are trying to do the same too, and are fortunate to live in a very traffic calmed area with a 5 mph speed limit. The kids are out every day and my 6 and 2 year old are able to go out with limited supervision.

    • Thanks for the comments. It’s great to have this framed by Tim, as he’s right to bring up the wider community benefits. My guess is that this is what puts off some parents from getting involved too, so it’s a tricky one.

      But my hope is that the regular sessions become ‘normal’ and people find their own ways to become engaged (quietly, just children perhaps).

      My biggest hope is that we run for years and watch the long term benefits emerge. I’d like it to grow up with the kids and the kids to grow up with it. Big dreams!

  9. Living in a suburb of an Australian Country town, I recall that our now 40+
    year old children regularly used the short street we lived in as their playground. Stretching rubber bands across the by being handheld by a child on either side and the rest of the gang lining up to perform their stunts
    over or under the stretched line by giving orders of the desired heights of the string and increasing the skills and risk taking and taking turns by self developed group rules could take hours, days and weeks until a new game evolved. Many hours in between would see them just sitting on the footpath discussing the latest ‘whatever’ or making plans for a new project etc.while patting a neighbourhood dog or helping a younger child to learn to tie shoelaces etc.When the dog started to get shoes from front doors and take them to his own ;lace without destroying them – the kids came up with the great idea to just display the collected shoes on the dog owners picket fence and the lost item got reunited with the partner shoe or boot – no need to get an angry person knocking on the door!!
    If a car turned into the street there was an instinctive chain reaction going through the group to clear the street space, drop the rubber band etc and
    yes we were probably lucky that it was a street used mainly by locals,but
    on occasions I noticed that if a higher speed car entered they also reacted accordingly, so must have developed an unconscious feel of adjustement to situation – quite a useful skill. We adults unwittingly helped them to build up trust in themselves.I clearly remember when one family let their 2 year old join the older sibblings and friends and I was a bit startled at their risk taking attitude at first.I often did gardening and we had a lot of bushes,so the kids would not fully be aware when I was there or not. Over a short time I observed that it was that 2 year old who would react first and initiate the
    chain reaction happening, when a vehicle entered their territory from either side.Either he had better hearing or developed the skill at the perfect stage
    of human development. It stuck in my mind trough my later studies in Early Childhood Teaching and I am still thankful that this important free play in street situations are recognised as valuable life skill experiences.
    Thank you all for keeping it alive …. Margret

  10. Thank you everyone for cheery comments and especially to Tim for inviting Dinah, and Dinah for giving us a pretty unique insight into the thoughts and feelings of the key group of people us play advocates are trying to reach: parents.

    Made my day.

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  14. We don’t want ur kids playing outside our homes, that is why we have back gardens, they are bloody nuinsences, how would you like me to come and stand outside your house and kick a ball and scream and shout..why don’t you take your children out, there are parks, they are YOUR children, NOT ours. Piss off with em

    • Carole – this story may make you think again. Here’s an extract: “One of the team bravely asked the mum who had most vehemently opposed us: ‘Can I put you down as a yes, no or don’t know?’ ‘I’m a yes,’ she said. ‘The adults might hate it but the kids love it.’”

  15. guys like i’m a kid and i play out everyday no road closures or anything lol

  16. Finally! We live on a country road, where traffic is intermittent. My H is ready to call CPS on me because Im teaching my son road safety and engaging in play with him on the road….geez. It floors me honestly how big a deal this is to some people. I think we all get so caught up in the “social norms” we forget how to think for ourselves. I remember when being younger and playing kickball and other games in the street. We just moved over for cars. They saw us out and slowed down. Nowadays you lose your child because people are so damn uptight. We walk everyday. I teach him about safety and give him knowledge so that he doesn’t fear the road, but feels confident to understand what it is. I have the belief that a child will gravitate to something if they fear it or think it is off-limits. Why not go with them when theyre young and show them? Engage with them? As for me? I will continue to be the “idiotic crazy parent” So be it. We need to take back our freedom. Rise on my little world-changer, Momma’s got your back. ;)

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