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How to handle objections and defuse difficult situations on play streets.

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing, Community, Play Streets on 28/10/2022

Children of different ages playing in a residential street

A street, estate or block of flats can be like a microcosm of society – a community made up of all sorts of people, all with different lives, views and opinions.

When you first start thinking about setting up a play street or playing out session, it’s likely that most neighbours will be supportive – or at least neutral. But you may also be confronted by people who do not agree with the idea. And even if your neighbours are on board, when you physically close the road to through traffic, some drivers may be disgruntled at having to go another way or be frustrated at having to wait for you to clear the road of children in order for them to gain access.

Obviously it’s vitally important to keep on good terms with your neighbours – after all, you all have to live together! And building friendlier, more connected communities is an important aspect of play streets – so the last thing you want is for the idea to increase division. The good news is that bringing people’s objections, concerns and differences of opinion to the surface – and responding to them in a neighbourly way – can actually lead to really positive outcomes. So here are a few strategies which can help to defuse any potential conflict and build consensus and understanding around children’s need and right to play out near home.

Listen before you apply

The first of our four simple steps – talk to your neighbours – is essential. It gives people a chance to ask questions and makes sure that everyone feels included and heard.
Prepare in advance by reading our Possible Concerns section – just because someone has questions, does not mean they are anti the idea. They may just need to understand how sessions will work, and what the impact will be on them personally. Focussing on the positive outcomes for everyone is a good strategy – play streets are a great opportunity to get to know your neighbours and come together.

Point people to our website – it’s useful to show that this is a tried and tested process and has been happening across the country for many years. Someone may have an idea in their head about what a play street means, so watching one of our webinars explaining how play streets work and their positive impact can be useful and often reassures people.
Once you have heard people’s concerns, think about what you can do to ensure good relations continue.

Here are some examples of how some street organisers have done this:
One resident was particularly worried about their car. The street organiser suggested they could move their car for a couple of hours or if they didn’t want to do that offered the use of their driveway during the session so it was off the road.

Another resident had been worried as they had a hospital appointment and would need to be collected by a taxi mid-session. The organiser was reassuring and the taxi was safely escorted into the closure.

On one street there is a resident who has severe OCD. The children are encouraged not to chalk outside that person’s house and stewards always sweep up any bits of chalk left there at the end of the session.

Play street in Leeds. Credit: KidzKlub Leeds

Be friendly but firm when stewarding

You may encounter negative reactions and outbursts from people who are expecting to be able to drive through the closure. In this instance it’s important to smile and be polite but also be firm. Explain briefly what you are doing (and why) and thank them for using any diversion. Remember you have a legal right to close the road.

When stewarding, a driver that had to use a diversion said ‘I think this is wonderful for the children, but it’s just annoying for me as it’s getting in my way’! When you need to steward someone into the road, tell them you will clear the road and then walk them in. Ask them to drive safely. Be confident when doing this. A smile also goes a long way – as does getting the children to wave to the driver and say thank you!

If someone is aggressive or is in a rush a useful technique is to repeat back to the person what they have said to you, eg if they say: “I need to get in, I live at number 46.” You could say “Ok great – you need to get to number 46 – I’ll just quickly clear the road, make it safe so all the children are on the pavement and walk you in – please just follow behind”.

Finally! The power of cake and humour

A great way to defuse any potential conflicts is through humour – and also by offering someone a cup of tea or slice of cake! It may seem trivial but these actions can break down any tension and avoid ongoing bad feeling, and also mean that even though people may not be joining in, they are invited.
Whether these conversations occur before, during or after a Play Street happens, an objection can sometimes feel like a personal attack, but try to remain calm. Remember that everyone has different priorities and we never know what is going on in someone’s life.

Recently at a Play Street one resident was particularly vocal about the ‘mess’ the chalk was causing, and thought it made the road look untidy. The streets organisers had litter-picked beforehand so told the resident this and reassured them that they would be doing this each time and that the rain would wash away the chalk. This started to diffuse the situation.

The upset neighbour then also said they didn’t want the children playing outside their house. As the conversation progressed it transpired that children from a local secondary school had been littering and vandalising around their property. In this instance there were lots of reasons why the resident was wary of the play street. Once this was off their chest they seemed happier and the organiser was aware of their situation. The other neighbours were able to reassure them that children would always be supervised and everyone attending were residents, and that one of the aims was to make the street cleaner and safer. They also came to the agreement that they would avoid children chalking outside their house.

The street organiser was relieved that this conversation happened as they didn’t want any bad feeling, and after the chat was able to relay to other neighbours what was said. They felt supported by the other residents and confident they could carry on without issue.

Although these conversations can be tricky to have, it is much better to get things out in the open so nothing has the chance to fester. So if you have an idea someone isn’t happy, maybe approach them and try to ask some questions to really understand what their concerns are.

Playing Out are on hand

If you have any questions about how to deal with any difficult situations, contact us. In some very rare cases, reactions from people can cross a line. In these instances there are other steps to follow such as contacting your local Police/ PCSOs or us for support.

And remember – changing things can be hard. By organising a play street – or even proposing the idea – you are challenging the status quo that streets are for cars and children should be “contained”. But you are not alone! You are part of a growing movement to reclaim public space and freedom for children. And it’s all worth it.

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