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“It’s changed our lives”: how playing out helped my children, my neighbours and me

posted this in Children's play, health and wellbeing, Community, Play Streets on 16/11/2023

play street

Emma first got interested in play streets seven years ago. Since then, with help and advice from Playing Out, Emma has supported her own street and many other parents and residents across Hull to do the same. She’s also worked with Hull local authority to put a supportive policy in place. As Emma moves on, she tells us what it has meant for her boys, her community and for her.

How I started playing out

Our road is a quiet street off a main road. About seven years ago the boys were seven, five and a baby. I always wanted my children to have more freedom so I started letting them play in the Ten Foot (alley way) but it wasn’t big enough. Then we moved to the front garden, with me there. Then a friend sent me information about play streets, saying ‘this is you!’.

We did the play street together as a family and my children grew up with it. It means you’re right on your doorstep with two or three hours playing right there. No need to pack things up or get anywhere, no driving or money involved. It’s actually easier than a lot of other things.

Oliver, my youngest, is now seven and he’s autistic. He struggled with difference, particularly age three or four, and with the play street he might say ‘why are people outside?’ But actually, it was good because he could just go in whenever it felt too much – something he could not do at the park or someone else’s house. He went to his room, his safe space, and came back out when he was ready.

What playing out gave my boys

Jack and Tom are 14 and 12 now, and Oliver is seven. Looking back, playing out has made a big difference to their lives. It helped them to understand traffic and what to be careful of, because they saw how seriously it was managed. I gradually allowed them to go further: round the little block, round the big block where you have to cross a road, to the park and eventually to school on their own. They took that understanding of road danger and safety with them.

They also learnt so many problem solving, independence and community skills. Problems would crop up in games between children and we used to stand back and let them solve it, and then talk about it later. They also had to learn to interact with adult neighbours of different ages in a way that was friendly and polite, and that helped them get what they needed. For example, while kicking a ball around they learnt to ask nicely for the ball back, avoid kicking the planters and kick upwards to avoid cars.

These are important skills way beyond sport. And I have seen how they’ve stayed with my boys as they’ve got older. They’re not afraid to approach adults and to deal with things in this polite way, when many of their friends might not know how, and adults respond much more positively.

Many adults can actually be hostile to young people, even if they’re just outside. They’re not seen as ‘cute’ like smaller children and are treated very differently. But they need play too! We’re the only black family on our street and have never had any problems there, but my boys have got followed round shops and other things which is terrible. Without playing out, my boys would be way more sheltered. And I would be much less confident in their ability to handle themselves and any problems.

My neighbours and community

My boys have always helped people on the street and mucked in on jobs. One time a neighbour had a parcel left on her doorstop and my son hid it behind the fence so no one would take it. All this shows such thoughtfulness and belonging. Jack and Tom have moved from the street to local parks now and just this summer they spent ages making a den. When my husband Abdou popped down, he said there was a litter bag in the corner of the den! We always started and ended our play streets with a litter pick, and I felt so proud.

Together we also made so many good neighbour friendships and connections through our play street. Two important neighbours have been Brian and Isobel. They’ve been surrogate grandparents to my boys which is wonderful. This morning Brian was out and waved Oliver off to school, as he often does. I asked them both what the play street had meant to them:

Isobel: “Before playing out we barely knew anyone. Now we know everyone. Instead of just a wave or a nod like before now we’ll cross the street and have a good chat because we have something in common. And it’s an amazing thing for people who live alone or feel lonely.”

Brian: “I’m hoping that through playing out kids see that old people are not just grumpy men and women. We can be fun. I’ve done everything from having buckets of water thrown over me to being in goal and having a go on the kids’ scooters! If we go out now the kids feel they can come say hi and have a chat. And us oldies can see that not all kids are up to no good. Mostly they just want to play out and that’s all I wanted when I was a boy.”

In Covid, the community we’d already built through our play street helped everyone to get through, and we were able to do more! We started making food parcels, from food donated by M & S, to drop to people in need in our street and beyond. We still do this for anyone in the community that needs it and is struggling right now.

What playing out gave me

Playing out changed all our lives for the better, including mine. There is a tendency these days to want to keep children inside and safe. But I’ve always known this is storing up problems for later. Playing out taught my children independence and I now feel “you can do this! You’ve got this!’. This independence then freed me up too, including to get more work.

I even ended up getting my new job through my work with play streets! ‘Back to Ours’ is an organisation that engages people in the arts that are not normally engaged or able to participate. It takes the arts right to where they live. They brought some events to our play street and I got involved. Eventually I got a job as a ‘chatter’ at our shop, ‘The Living Room’. I organise children’s play sessions and encourage chatting across generations and work as an engagement assistant who goes out and about and works directly in communities, so playing out is never far from my mind!

Getting this job was directly because of the skills I learnt from my play street and supporting others. I had to door knock and chat to neighbours of all ages and backgrounds and it was daunting at first. But then I got used to it and gained a lot of confidence.

I would like to say a huge Thank You to the Playing Out team for all the support you have given me over the years. And thank you for all the playing out memories that wouldn’t have been created without such an amazing team of people.

Want to see Emma's play street?

Here it is on ITV News!
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