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Why Street Play?

posted this in Childhood, Community, Free Play, Playing Out on 01/07/2012

Children need to get outdoors more, we all know that. Talk to almost any adult over the age of 30 and they will be able to reminisce about all the time they spent just hanging or messing about outside with siblings or friends, without too much interference from adults.

Whether this was based around climbing trees or climbing lampposts, the many benefits we gained from this relative freedom are universal: “getting exercise without knowing it” as one parent recently put it; learning to mix with other kids of all ages, gaining independence, developing resourcefulness and creativity, getting to know your neighbourhood….I could go on!

This experience and these benefits are in danger of being lost and we, as adults who cherish our own memories of free play, need to intervene now to reverse the current trend towards children’s lives becoming increasingly scheduled, indoors and sedentary.

Making Streets a Place for Play

Playing Out focuses on residential streets as one potential solution. Why streets? Aren’t these dirty, dangerous, boring places full of dog poo and parked cars? Surely better to encourage kids to get to a healthy, safe green space, to connect with nature, to get away from all that concrete and tarmac?

Well, yes and no! Children do need contact with the natural world for all the reasons given by Richard Louv in his brilliant book, but I also think we need to be careful not to conflate ‘playing outside’ and ‘playing in a natural environment’.

For the majority of children in the UK, easy independent access to a decent green space (i.e. one with proper trees, wildlife, capacity for big and imaginative play) is not a reality.  One could argue that this needs to change, but the urgent need for these children (I include my own here!) is much more basic: to just be able to get out and play in their immediate environment, which often means the street they live on. Not so much the ‘Great Outdoors’ – more ‘Out the Front Door’.

This immediacy is one strong reason for a revival of street play but also, residential streets are not the boring, impoverished spaces we sometimes dismiss them as. In terms of ‘playability’ they actually lend themselves really well. The mainly (only) real problem with them is fast moving traffic but if this is removed, as during a Playing Out session, the street becomes, as one organiser’s 4-year-old daughter said, “A beautiful amount of space”. For wheeled activities – cycling, scooting, skateboarding – they are perfect.

They are also places where “real life happens” (D. Engwicht) and, importantly, not designed as play spaces, so have some of the same benefits of a ‘natural play’ environment, encouraging an imaginative, creative response rather than dictating behaviour.

Our own childhood memories can be a powerful motivator to take action but we do need to be careful not to fall into the ‘nostalgia trap’. Yes, making dens and climbing trees are wholesome, skill-building activities for any generation of children, but we shouldn’t get too absorbed in trying to recreate our own childhood experiences and lose sight of the real question: why aren’t children playing out as much as they used to and what can we do about it?

This post was first published in Outdoor Nation

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