During the spring lockdown, researchers Alison Stenning and Wendy Russell explored play and playfulness at a street level. Here they share their initial findings.
During the spring lockdown in the UK, when play street sessions were unable to go ahead and playgrounds were closed, we witnessed all kinds of other activities that connected play, neighbours and streets, such as clapping for key workers and rainbows in windows.
With the restrictions on movement, debates emerged around access to public space. Pressure on public parks led to threats of closure and the media reverberated with testy discussions about what were legitimate reasons to be outside. Children’s right to play outdoors was challenged, at times by police and neighbours.
In this context, we worked with other play activists and researchers to protect and advocate for outdoor play on streets. We also wanted to understand the connections people were making with their streets in lockdown so developed a research project to explore this.
We created a survey to gather data about playful activities, changes in the physical environment and feel of the street. We surveyed and interviewed 78 people from across the UK including in depth interviews with 13 participants and some of their children.
The conditions for play
If conditions are right, children will play; these interdependent conditions have been categorised as time, space and permission. During the spring lockdown, these conditions intermingled in various and sometimes contradictory ways.
Most children had more time, with schools only open for vulnerable children and children of key workers. And although not all parents had extra time, some talked of spending more time with their children, and of children spending more time playing with any siblings, more time exploring and playing in local streets and green spaces, and more time inventing their own ways to play.
All the people we spoke to witnessed a number of changes on their streets, the most common being less traffic and more people walking in the road, reflecting widespread narratives of street life during lockdown.
Children experience streetscapes differently and notice many possibilities for playing. The kerb becomes a balance beam or place to enjoy jumping on a scooter, sometimes restricted by the parked cars. We explored the places they played using maps, photos and videos.
Many people highlighted a changed relationship with their most local environments and talked about staying hyperlocal. The maps reflected this, showing the newly discovered small spaces of the local park, and the route there through snickets, alleyways and side roads.
Permission to play
Although most felt their streets were quieter during the first lockdown, responses suggested a mixed picture in terms of children playing on the street.
“I have really missed the sound of children playing…during lockdown. At first I found this eerie and sad.”
“The sound of laughter and general buzz really does lift the spirits … It has been nice to see the street come alive again.”
“For the first couple of weeks, there was no traffic at all and we could see children playing on the street corners – this has never happened before”.
All of these patterns were temporary. During the peak of the first lockdown from 23 March to 13 May, there were generally higher levels of street activity. However, in some cases there were fewer children out and about as parental anxieties and unclear rules restricted children’s access to outdoor space. Some talked of playing in the nearby woods because they felt less watched over.
Types of playfulness during lockdown
People reported simply seeing and talking to more neighbours (something significant in itself), as well as a wide range of activities including bingo, doorstep discos, music, dancing, singing, sports, cycling and scooting, chalking, nerf wars, chalk trails and hopscotch, nature trails and bug hunts, rock snakes, rainbow trails, teddy bear trails and tea parties, toy and book swaps, football, kerby, hula-hooping…the list goes on!
These diverse forms of play were experienced in all sorts of ways but a few common themes emerged.
- A simple joy in seeing children playing.
- Hope in the context of the pandemic.
- A sense of playfulness creating a space for connection with neighbours.
- An increased sense of security and comfort with knowing more neighbours, especially for those more vulnerable and shielding.
Much of this was connected directly to physical changes in the street and the atmosphere, created by playful acts such as chalking and planting, which shifted not only these respondents’ relationships to their street, but more broadly.
“Planting in the street makes me feel hopeful. And I felt really proud, sharing footage with friends and family to show them what a great street I live in! And how a sense of community can be fostered.”
Play in the shadow of covid
Of course, these experiences were not all joyful; the pandemic and the lockdown rules encroach on street life and playfulness in sometimes difficult and painful ways. The people we spoke to were aware of diverse attitudes to the rules, sometimes unsure of what was and wasn’t permitted, wary of upsetting their neighbours but also anxious that their own attempts to be playful might be watched and shamed from a neighbouring window or doorstep. Others, including those shielding or with vulnerable family members, swung between the comfort and security offered by seeing their neighbours animating the street and the fear that too many connections might exacerbate the pandemic and extend the lockdown.
In many ways, the first lockdown opened up spaces for play and connection for the people we interviewed, and remade streets and neighbourhoods in multiple and positive ways, but these playful transformations took place in the shadow of Covid-19. This meant that play on streets was (and still is) also at times restrained and restricted.
As official guidance on outdoor play and children socialising remains confusing and contradictory and as we are experiencing more lockdowns over the autumn and winter, the need to advocate for and make space for play on our streets and in our communities continues.
This is especially the case for those children whose conditions for play are more restricted than for our comparatively privileged and fortunate respondents, including those in overcrowded, temporary or sub-standard accommodation and those whose access to outdoor space is limited.
This research is part of a larger project that Alison is working on, funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship, focused on how organised street play sessions using the Playing Out model are remaking relationships between people and places on the street.
A slightly longer version of this report was originally published in the The Playwork Foundation newsletter