Think back to when you were a child. How did you feel when you were deeply involved in playing? Can you imagine a childhood without this feeling?
We know, from our own experience and from observing children, that play in general and ‘playing out’ in particular has many benefits for children. Play is fundamental to children’s development and their happiness. Academics and experts have identified multiple specific ways in which play helps children to learn, grow and become emotionally balanced.
Having the freedom to play out adds another whole layer of benefits: physical activity; developing independence and resilience; making judgements and dealing with risk; making friends; gaining a sense of belonging in the community; learning to navigate your neighbourhood. I could go on. (For first-hand testimony of these benefits, see: http://playingout.net/playing-out-every-day/ and http://playingout.net/we-came-back-for-meals-older-peoples-perspectives-on-play/)
When we are trying to get people – especially councils – to understand the value of playing out, we often focus on these benefits, providing evidence of the outcomes for children and adults. Policy-makers understand the argument that children need space to be physically active, or that play can be a way to build stronger communities.
But are we missing a trick? Do we really need to “sell” the importance of play through emphasising all the good stuff that comes out of it, or could we just stand up for it on the basis that it’s an intrinsic part of a decent childhood? Being a child and playing are inseparable – or should be. As Adrian Voce says in his book Policy for Play, “children do it simply because they need to”.
Because it’s so core to their human existence, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child declares that children have a right to play and governments – including the UK government – have signed up to this Convention and have a duty to uphold this right. Yet this is often conveniently forgotten and we, along with the wider play movement, are locked in a seemingly endless battle to defend children’s right to play.
On the one hand, this means fighting for adventure playgrounds to remain open and free, parks to be maintained and playwork to continue being funded. From the point of view of Playing Out and the street play movement, it also means standing up for children’s right to play out in the streets and public spaces around their homes.
This is not simple. Children’s right to even be in streets and public spaces has been massively eroded through a combination of physical barriers (traffic speed and volume) and attitudinal ones (‘roads are for cars’; ‘no ball games’; play being seen as antisocial behaviour). Longer term, these barriers need to be tackled through a combination of political, legislative and cultural change and these are all things Playing Out will be part of. But right now, as citizens, there are ways of pushing back and standing up for children’s rights in our own streets and cities.
The ‘playing out’ model of regular roads closures for play has been described as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and a Trojan Horse. It seems benign – just a nice way for the community to come together – but is actually challenging very deeply held beliefs about who streets are for and where children belong. It re-asserts their right to use and feel safe in the space outside their front door. We are already starting to see streets where ‘playing out’ has evolved from formal road closures once a week or month into an everyday, spontaneous occurrence.
This is what we want to see on all streets, for all children. If your council already has a play street policy, this is something you can start doing today. If they don’t yet have a policy, ask them about putting one in place, start a local campaign and contact us for help if you need it.
The international Child Friendly City movement is another way in which children’s rights – not just to play but to occupy and move around the built environment as ‘urban citizens’ – are being restored. In our home town, we are working with other voluntary organisations, the council and University of Bristol, to make Bristol a city where children’s needs – to play, to feel safe, to move around freely, to have equal access to the city – are a priority in all decision-making. We hope that, with the publication of Arup’s excellent guide on designing child friendly cities, many other UK cities will follow the same path.
To conclude, restoring children’s freedom to play out where they live will result in many benefits – for them and for us all. But we must not lose sight of the fact that underneath these benefits – at the heart of it – children need to play in and of itself, and it is for us all to uphold their right to do so.