Who let the kids out?

Do you let your children out to play on the street? Probably not, according to an ICM survey conducted in 2007. It found that just 21 percent of UK children play on the street (and I haven’t noticed many of them in north London). Yet 71 percent of adults report having played on the street as children.

 ‘We’re looking at the total extinguishment of children playing on London streets,’ says Paul Hocker, of London Play’s project Street Play. ‘It makes me wonder what kind of adults these children will become.’

Everything you can’t learn in a classroom, says Paul, can be learnt through free play out on the street with the neighbours’ children. For instance, negotiating the rules of a game teaches important social skills; cycling, scooting and running improves physical development; all of it involves taking risks and using your imagination. None of it can be learnt indoors in front of the TV.

When my elder daughter began school, our daily trips to the park stopped, and a more sedentary lifestyle took over. If I could throw her outdoors until supper was ready, she’d get an extra hour of play, make friends in the neighbourhood, and I wouldn’t feel obliged to switch on the TV. So why don’t I? Well, nobody else around here does, and for two apparently good reasons.

‘Stranger danger and traffic,’ says Paul, ‘are the two main obstacles to letting your kids out.’

According to The Children’s Society, ‘stranger danger’ fears are exaggerated. ‘Murders of children by strangers average around one a year in Britain. The annual risk of murder by a stranger is one per million and of abduction six per million. This compares with 2400 children per million who are injured in a road accident’ (The Good Childhood Enquiry, February 2009).

So concerns about traffic, on the other hand, are well-founded. Our street is a good example, a typical Victorian terrace with cars parked on both sides and boy racers regularly burning up the tarmac in between. The thought of one of my children crossing it unaided gives me palpitations.

It’s a depressing situation, but it’s not going unchallenged. Two mothers in Bristol made headlines last year when they started ‘Playing Out’, an organisation which encourages residents to have occasional road-closures and give the whole street over to the children. See if you can watch the video on their impressive website, http://playingout.net, without a lump in your throat. I thought their street looked a lot like ours. The only difference was that with no traffic allowed, all the smallest residents were out in force, skating, biking, scooting, skipping, drawing with chalk, even doing a spot of gymnastics. Adults were in the minority, chatting with cups of tea or joining in the games – the street belongs to the kids, but the picture was of a whole community at play.

‘Isn’t it a hassle to organise?’ I asked Alice Ferguson, co-founder of Playing Out. ‘We’ve worked out it takes roughly 15 hours,’ said Alice, ‘which is mainly talking to your neighbours to raise support for the idea, plus doing a street consultation and getting permission from the council. 15 hours seems like a long time for a 3-hour play event, but actually it kick-starts something with much longer-term effects.’ 

She gives examples of residents feeling more at home in their own street afterwards, and of children beginning to play on the pavements outside their houses after school. Residents got to know one another through the process of organising the event. One unexpected bonus was elderly people coming out and meeting their neighbours.

What about London? Well, London Play’s Street Play project received a lottery grant to get children outdoors, and they used it to facilitate street parties. 100 streets across 19 different boroughs took the opportunity to close to traffic for a day. What happened then varied from street to street, but there seemed to be a lot of bunting involved, and the one consistent ingredient was unhindered play for kids.

For those streets it was just a one-off event, but a transforming one. Feedback said the street felt more like a community afterwards, and showed strong support for children playing outside. ‘These are the adults of the future — it would be nice to think they could look back at their childhood friendships and games and not simply have their memories constructed by computer games manufacturers,’ said one Hammersmith resident.

Street Play is about to receive funding for a new scheme. This time the idea is for residents to organise a rota of volunteers to sit outside and keep an eye on the kids. In streets where play is just too dangerous, the volunteer would accompany the children to a safer space at an agreed time. With enough volunteers, any day of the week could be outdoor playtime.

‘The Playing Out idea, and others like it, aren’t meant to be a long term solution,’ says Alice. ‘It mainly gets people thinking together about how things could change. But long term, we need safer streets for our children. I’d like to see better public transport and lower car ownership.’

Paul points to Islington, where all residential streets now have a 20mph speed limit, as an example of what could be done. ‘Motorists need to remember that driving down a residential street is a privilege, not a right. That’s the difference between a street and a road. Streets are for everyone, not just cars.’

Ideas abound – Street Play look to the US’s ‘playborhoods’ (see http://playborhood.com) or consider resurrecting the disused ‘play streets’ idea, established by law in the 1930s, in which children are meant to have right of way (or ‘right of play?’) at certain times in the week.

I’m looking at our road, and getting a vision of bunting and bicycles. I can’t help thinking that an afternoon’s street closure or party might actually change it forever – even if it may not be child’s play to organise.

Useful links:
•    Playing Out can support you to close your street for play: http://playingout.net
•    Contact Street Play if you like the idea of volunteers supervising children outdoors: www.londonplay.org.uk
•    A fascinating history of street play: www.londonplay.org.uk/document.php?document_id=1333
•    Sustrans – use this to put pressure on your council for a ‘quality street’: http://www.quality-streets.org.uk/index.php?id=4