Street play initiatives can make a real difference to the lives of thousands of children and families across an urban area. This was the key message of the first ever area-wide study of a street play programme, which I carried out for Hackney Council. My evaluation – launched by the London Borough last Friday – also revealed that schemes have caused minimal levels of traffic disruption, and have faced very little local opposition.
In street play initiatives, local residents come together to organise and oversee regular, 2- or 3-hour road closures – supported by the local authority – so that children can play in the street and people can meet their neighbours. This post of mine gives one parent’s perspective on why she took up the idea, while this post takes a wider look at the global resurgence of interest in street play.
The model used in Hackney was developed by the not-for-profit group Playing Out and first emerged in Bristol. Similar initiatives are being taken forward across London by London Play, and the idea is spreading throughout the UK (Playing Out’s website states that schemes are running in over 30 local authority areas). It has even reached the suburbs of Adelaide in South Australia.
My aim as evaluator was to gather robust evidence that might persuade the unconvinced of the potential of the street play model. My report, funded by Hackney Council and commissioned by Hackney Play Association, found that a year-long programme to support regular resident-led sessions in local streets has:
- Led to 380 hours of street play sessions in 29 locations that have reached around 1600 children and nearly 800 families.
- Supported 8100 child-hours of physical activity – on a par with 14 extra classes of weekly term-time PE lessons.
- Caused drivers minimal disruption and led to very few complaints, with an average of 9 cars affected per session and less than one complaint per scheme.
- Recruited and supported parents to run schemes across most parts of Hackney, reaching beyond the more affluent parts of the Borough where schemes first started to include areas of disadvantage.
The programme – funded by Hackney’s Health and Wellbeing Board – also showed a strong consensus amongst organisers about the perceived benefits – especially in terms of improving social interaction among neighbours, and giving children more freedom and choice in their play. The attraction of the model was further shown by the level of interest from local schools and children’s services. Four have chosen to put time and energy into organising termly sessions at the end of the school day. One Children’s Centre manager said:
“Children had the chance to play in safety with other children in the community. There was more space and freedom in the street than in the Children’s Centre, and more than many families have at home. Children played in a freer and more open way, with lots of running around and socialising. The events have brought the community together, and we have had fantastic feedback from parents.”
The evaluation shows the effectiveness of the 3-way partnership that was in place in Hackney. The Council took on the bureaucracy, and ensured practical support was available. Hackney Play Association, as a trusted local agency, delivered that practical support in a way that helped groups to help themselves and become self-reliant. And crucially, local residents themselves were the catalysts for schemes, taking them forward and ensuring that they run on the day.
Street play cannot possibly meet all the needs and wishes of children and families. And as the report shows, challenges remain in taking forward schemes. The bureaucracy, despite Hackney Council’s efforts, is slow (something that can and should be tackled with new legislation). And local groups can struggle to recruit and retain stewards and volunteers. However, this report shows that schemes are already giving thousands of children and hundreds of families the chance to make playing outdoors a routine part of their lives.
At a time when many parents are struggling to give their children time and space for active play, this partnership model offers a simple way for councils, groups and local families to come together and take practical action. It also has the potential to be a stepping stone that builds support for more progressive transport and planning policies. This is a timely finding: as the report notes, traffic and car ownership levels have been falling in Hackney (and to a lesser extent across London) for at least a decade, creating the chance to rethink the way streets are seen and used.
For me, this last point could be the most potent outcome of Hackney’s programme. It shows that streets need not be the sole preserve of vehicles. They can also become valued public spaces: places where children laugh and play, where neighbours get to know each other, where new friendships are forged and where community ties are strengthened.
Both the full report and a 4-page summary are available to download from Hackney Council’s play streets web pages. The Council has also funded an engaging, positive video promoting the model (which includes a rousing declaration of support for street play from one young participant, at around 2 minutes 49 seconds in).
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Hackney Council and Hackney Play Association for commissioning the evaluation and for helping me complete the work (especially Claudia Draper, HPA’s play streets coordinator). I would also like to thank all the organisers who agreed to be interviewed.