Even 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.