“It should be normal for kids to call on each other unannounced and say ‘can you come and play?’," says Alice Ferguson. "We need to get away from everything being prearranged and organised and scheduled.”
This was the feeling that, in 2009, drove Ferguson and her neighbour Amy Rose to find a way to make their Bristol street more people-friendly. They had it closed to through-traffic for three hours one evening after school and let the children run free. “It was as if it was something they did every day. The adults started reminiscing about childhood memories of playing out we all said that this should be a normal part of our lives.” The result was not just a day of play, but a whole campaign – Playing Out.
Playing Out is a not-for-profit that wants to make our residential streets safer to play in, drawing us all out from behind closed doors and computer screens to rediscover simple things like having a cuppa with the neighbours, or letting children ride up and down the road on scooters without a parent always two foot behind.
While it was never intended to be an ongoing scheme, it became exactly that. Bristol city council got involved and ran a pilot scheme, offering residential streets the opportunity to apply for temporary play street orders, allowing the roads to be closed to through-traffic for up to three hours once a week.
Today, over 60 streets in Bristol have had at least one Playing Out session and there have been nearly 50 temporary play street orders. But the scheme has spread far beyond Bristol, with 30 local authorities across England adopting a positive street play policy and over 100 streets regularly playing out.
The communities are spread across the country, from Reading to Battlefield, Aberdeen to Norwich. London boroughs include Haringey, Enfield, Ealing, Lambeth, Acton and Hackney.
In Leeds, West Yorkshire, organiser Helen Foreman says they started Playing Out because the Bristol group showed them it was possible. “There are so many other reasons though,” she says. “Health and social benefits, free fun, it helps children develop an awareness of their neighbourhood and prepares them more for more freedom in later years. The adults also benefit – our street community is very strong now after a few years of playing out."
Kathryn Kay held the first event on her street in central Worthing in 2012. She said “When I was pregnant I had all these ideals about how kids learn by getting out and doing stuff, not by parents hovering over them saying ‘be careful’. I had ideas about how I wanted my life with children to be, but that needed to be balanced against making it work in an urban situation. When I was young, we used to play out and if someone fell over we went to get help. I’m scared to let my children do that, but I don’t want to be.”
Kathryn tagged the session on the back of the jubilee weekend in 2012 so she could avoid paying a £100 road closure fee. “We were blown away by what happened. No one even knew there were that many children living on our street. It’s not just the children who have benefited though. The social ripples have carried on and important connections were made between adults.”
As in Bristol, Adur & Worthing councils have been highly supportive, helped in large part by Lucy Adams, the active communities officer, who pushed for temporary street orders to be available. In 2013, Kathryn and the council launched the Adur & Worthing Play Streets pilot with 15 streets taking part, and culminated in over 500 children playing in over 30 sessions. This year, residents across the district can apply for a road closure for two hours up to 12 times a year. The original streets are reapplying, and new applications are flooding in.
For Kay, Playing Out is much more than just an opportunity to play. As a musician and teacher, today’s highly structured approach to parenting concerns her greatly. “Children aren’t ever really given the opportunity to work stuff out for themselves. The lack of subtle learning worries me. If you only do what’s force-fed to you, you don’t work out how to turn it on its head. Where are all the engineers and scientists and artists going to come from? It’s not just computer screens that are a problem but all the ‘you can’t do this’ or ‘you have to do it like this’.“
For Ferguson, it has been a justification of all the things she thought about parenting. “I’ve realised other people feel the same about their kids, that other people support the idea that children should be able to be outside in public space and it’s not a neglectful thing to want your children to play out semi-independently." She talks about how her son now calls on the boy who lives opposite with a wonder that belies the simplicity of the act, and there is a little sadness that in efforts to move away from the cult of constantly scheduled activities, the free play itself has become scheduled.
But it is part of a larger stepping stone – not an effort to roll back the clocks to some fictional It Was Better Back Then, but to find a way to rebalance the shift of power away from the predominance of motor vehicles and towards more egalitarian street usage, where children, adults, bicycles, scooters, hopscotch and cars are all given an equal weighting. “This isn’t an anti-car movement,” Kay points out. “It’s about sharing out streets.”
Ferguson says: “The next thing I would like to see is it just being normal for kids to go call on each other unannounced. It’s alright for your child to go knock on someone’s door and say ‘can you come and play’. If children are to regain a sense of freedom and belonging it is down to all of us at all levels to do something about it. We’ve all allowed the situation to happen. It hasn’t been intentional but we’ve all been part of the shift to our public spaces being dominated by motorised traffic and retreating into our own homes and away from a sense of community. We’re all overprotective, but we look too much to the risk of children being outside and not enough to them being inside.”
To find out more, visit the Playing Out website.