Since starting this project we’ve received all kinds of responses – mostly very positive but some sceptical or opposed to the idea that residential streets can be a good place for children to play. This is to be expected – we are challenging a fairly recent but firmly entrenched belief that ‘roads are for cars’.
However, there is another camp that believes it is already safe enough for children to play out on their street and we are just over-protective parents with too much time on our hands. Their argument goes, “Why are you over-complicating it with road closures and hi-viz vests? Just send them out to play for god’s sake!”
Playing Out’s Current Approach to Closing Streets
We would love it if this was the case but something we have been clear about from the start is that until attitudes change, all but seriously traffic-calmed streets and the quietest back roads need some kind of definite intervention to make the space safe enough to allow for big, active, free play.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the ‘Playing Out’ model – we long for the day when we can just have bollards at the end of the road! – but for the time being, this seems to work and allow for an acceptable level of risk.
Our current approach involves a formal road closure, with official ‘road closed’ signage and a physical barrier (bunting or rope) across the ends of the road to stop cars from driving in. The stewards in hi-viz are there to ‘police’ this, redirect traffic and, crucially, to enable residents to drive in and out safely by walking in front of them.
Whilst it would of course be great to have a street completely free of parked and moving cars, the fact that residents still have car access is part of what makes this model work and be possible on a regular basis. It also makes it more ‘normal’ (our constant refrain!), demonstrating that the space can be shared for different uses, more fairly and safely than it is currently.
So, yes, the hi-viz is really necessary, for now!
The Importance of the Steward Role in Playing Out
It has been brought home to us recently just how crucial the stewarding role is and that the consequences of getting too relaxed about it are potentially serious. This is not to say stewarding can’t be enjoyable – it is a great chance to get to know neighbours – but that it also needs to be treated as a serious job.
I want to share one incident that happened to me a while ago when stewarding on my street, but I know that similar incidents have happened on other streets where perhaps residents have got a little too laid back about it.
The Playing Out manual and steward briefing set out very clearly a procedure for safe stewarding which is in no way random but based on our personal experience on many different streets. We ask that the main street organiser reads the manual thoroughly and also ensures that the stewards are properly briefed about their role. It all feels very formal and risk-averse – isn’t this meant to be fun?? – but I can’t stress enough how important it is to go through this slightly awkward process.
But even though I co-wrote the manual and know the procedure inside-out I had a shock the other day when I relaxed a bit too much, assuming that since we’d been regularly playing out on my street for over a year that all residents would ‘know the score’ and behave sensibly.
I was wrong.
A Personal Story: How to Steward Well
I let an elderly neighbour drive through the barrier without first making sure he would wait and let me walk him to a parking space. He drove round me and sped up the street to park up outside his house. The street was actually empty of children at that point which is presumably why he had thought this was alright – but he was also angry and I am not sure he wouldn’t have done the same even if there had been children in sight.
I was really shaken that this could happen – a small child could easily have run out from between the parked cars believing the street to be ‘safe’ – and it made me wonder if the whole idea was actually too risky and we should just call it all off. Then I calmed down and thought through why and how it had happened and I realised there were things I should have done to prevent it.
Mainly, I should have reminded myself of the procedure before closing the road, part of which is to talk to the driver, make eye contact and get a clear agreement from them that the condition of them having access is that they are escorted in at walking speed. I didn’t do this as it felt too formal and I was embarrassed but I now realize we need to get over this sense of awkwardness and ‘bite the bullet’ if this model is going to work and start to change things. We have now updated the steward briefing to make it even clearer.
If you are already playing out or just getting started PLEASE print this out, fold in 4 and hand out to stewards at your next session, with strict instructions to follow it to the letter! Ideally, stewards would carry it on a lanyard along with their whistle!
I bravely went and knocked on that neighbour’s door a few days later and calmly but firmly explained to him how dangerous his behaviour was and how it had scared me. I said I understood that he didn’t approve of Playing Out but that it was only two hours a fortnight and the majority of people on the street wanted it or were not opposed. Also, it was a legal road closure approved by the council.
He apologised, saying he was having a bad day. He now smiles and says hello when we pass on the street.