The skies above your street are leaden grey. The rain is running in cold droplets down the back of your neck as you stand shivering by the ‘Road Closed’ sign. Your reflection in the window of a nearby parked car stares back at you: soaking hair plastered to your head, bulky waterproofs, mascara running. There’s no other way of describing the vision but ‘Misery in High-Viz’!
And it’s not even as if you’ve had anything to do. No drivers have needed diverting, no children have strayed, not a single resident has asked to be escorted out and no pedestrians have walked through and chatted. Meanwhile the children – pink-faced and glowing with all the racing around – are having a wonderful time at the other end of the street. Scooting through puddles, making colourful, watery patterns with chalk and opening their mouths to drink the raindrops, they are loving every minute of the downpour.
Surely you could just leave your post and go inside for a hot drink and warm slippers? Isn’t it enough just to have the signs there? Of course the Playing Out manual and stewards’ briefing are clear about how and why to steward. But aren’t there some streets where stewarding is all a bit unnecessary?
My street is short, quiet and not a through-road. We have played out every month for three years now and I have spent many of those sessions on my own at the far end standing by the closure point. We rarely have enough stewards to double-up at both ends so we take it in turns to be on our own at the quiet end of the street. I must admit to times when I have felt thoroughly bored. The whole point of closing the street for the children to play freely is exactly that; for them to be free to play how and where they like. And often they all choose to be at the other end doing French skipping, chalking or playing tag. I watch them from afar enjoying the sight of their activity – the blurs of legs jumping into the skipping rope and dodging each other as they shriek and laugh. But I have often feel a bit lonely on my own at the closure point and have wondered whether we could just cut down to one steward and have an ‘unmanned’ road closure at the quieter end of the street.
It took one recent incident for me to revise my thinking. I had swapped with another neighbour for the final half hour of the session and she had donned the high-viz and whistle. I’d gone for a chat with some neighbours and the children were in the last phase of play before we packed up. A car approached the closure signs at the quiet end and drove past them and the steward, mounted the kerb and swung into the street to park. It all happened quickly and the steward wasn’t able to stop the car in time. Luckily the children were at the other end and oblivious of the danger but the adults who saw it were shaken.
It made us all review our view of the street as ‘quiet’. In terms of traffic volume it may be quiet but it doesn’t mean the people who drive in and out – even some residents – expect to see children playing or accept that because they are playing they need to drive differently, slowly or not at all. The truth is that even in a street like ours, which has played out every month in all weathers for three years, we are only gradually chipping away at entrenched attitudes, which ordain that the space beyond the pavement is for vehicles.
After that session we made more efforts to recruit a few more stewards so that people had shorter shifts and more company. And we really made sure everyone understood the risks and felt confident to stop drivers before they got right to the closure points – standing squarely in front of them as they approached if necessary.
Oh and we started buying posher chocolate biscuits to reward people for doing their stewarding stint. A high-viz jacket on a rainy day is never going to be a glamorous look but in my experience it’s easier to stand happy and vigilant if you have a Belgian chocolate-covered ginger biscuit in your pocket!
Do you have any tips or experiences to share about stewarding or keeping going with playing out sessions over time? Do leave a comment below, on our Facebook group or email us your ideas and thoughts.