Peter Pan champions free play

Bristol Old Vic's acclaimed production of Peter Pan is full of references to the importance of free play for developing childhood imagination. It is also, unusally, set in a very urban landscape - the Lost Boys scale and jump off walls, swing from ropes, build a Wendy house from pallets and use 'found' objects for imaginative play. The pirate ship is a skip and the crocodile which defeats the child-hating Hook, wonderfully, is a gigantic traffic cone! We were delighted to be asked to contribute an article about Playing Out to the programme and to get a mention in Lyn Gardner's 4-star review in The Guardian. Here is what we wrote for the programme:

“On these magic shores children at play are for ever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf, though we shall land no more.”

― J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

If you grew up in the city, as I did, you probably didn’t do too much beaching of coracles, but J.M. Barrie’s sentiment may still resonate.  As a child in Bristol in the 1970s, apart from school, mealtimes and the odd bit of telly (mostly Blue Peter!) my life from aged 7-11 essentially consisted of what experts now call ‘free play’. Although I was very lucky to have access to woods and gardens, much of this play took place in less-than-bucolic surroundings – car-parks, estates, disused patches of land and on the street. This didn’t matter. What mattered was having some freedom to roam and to just ‘be’, to call on friends and hang out with other kids, to be away from the adult world and to create our own. Looking back, this meant that we learnt to occupy ourselves, to be resourceful and creative, to feel at home in our neighbourhood, to deal with tricky people and situations, to make and learn from mistakes and to trust our instincts. It also incidentally meant, although of course we weren’t aware of this, nor would we have cared less, that we were reasonably physically active.

When play expert Bob Hughes talks about the importance of ‘wild spaces’ for children, he does not mean untouched natural environments such as the Lost Boys experienced, but any spaces which children can independently access, occupy and make their own, unwatched by adults. The importance of these spaces is largely to allow children’s imagination to take root, to build their own worlds, make their own rules. Thinking again of my own childhood, there were many such spaces in my immediate neighbourhood – a run-down churchyard where we went ghost-hunting; a concrete platform overlooking the ‘Portway’ perfect for a runaway picnic; space for roller-skating under the flyovers in Hotwells. My own children are now 7 and 11 and I keenly feel the difference between my life then and theirs now. Their world – both external and internal/imaginary - feels limited. Much as I am aware of their need for outdoor play, independence and physical activity, it is just not that easy to have the front door open and let them go off until tea-time. Other than in a few fortunate pockets where this culture still survives, playing out is no longer a normal part of children’s lives and this very fact (as well as very real worries about speeding cars) makes it difficult to buck the trend and get your own children off the sofa and out in the street. As well as vastly increased time in their own house, playing or in front of screens, children’s time now tends to be absorbed by scheduled activities or spent in designated, adult-supervised, play spaces and the ‘critical mass’ needed to make playing out safe, appealing and acceptable just isn’t there any longer.

My neighbour Amy Rose and I came up with the idea of ‘playing out’ sessions as a way to try to reverse this trend and to give our own children a taste of feeling visible, safe and accepted in their own street. The basic model is a short, after-school road closure, stewarded by neighbours, where the children are left to their own devices to invent games, make friends and explore their street without worrying about traffic. It has proved pretty successful in Bristol and now the idea is being picked up in cities and towns across the country. This is great as a way to demonstrate the desire to get children outside more and to increase community cohesion. It has also helped start a national conversation about children’s need for play and freedom and we hope to help it spread much further. But it is not ‘the answer’. It’s certainly not a return to the imperfect Neverland of my childhood, where adults were only there in the background, providing security and boundaries, not looming over our every move. For that we need a wholescale cultural shift in the way think about children in society and the way we plan and use our streets and neighbourhoods. We need to recognise what J.M. Barrie understood – that for children, free imaginative play is a serious business and an essential part of eventually growing up.

Alice Ferguson, November 2012.