Children and the climate crisis
Over the past few weeks and months, thanks largely to Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and David Attenborough, we have all become starkly aware of the seriousness and speed of climate change and the urgency of taking action. The science is irrefutable. Many parents are feeling extremely anxious about their children’s futures. Children themselves have been forced to lead the way in calling for system change. It is clear that a major global political and economic shift will be needed, but – alongside campaigning for change – what can we do as individuals? Unfortunately, just switching to a bamboo toothbrush is not going to cut the mustard. But neither is giving up hope or turning a blind eye and there are bigger things we can all do to start moving towards a low-carbon future.
What can we do as individuals?
One immediate step is to use our cars less, or even to go car-free. We can also call on the government to invest in walking, cycling and green public transport. A less traffic-dominated future, where we can all breathe clean air and active travel is a safe, pleasant option for everyone – including children – is hard to argue with, simply on the grounds that it would be a lot nicer, let alone healthier and more planet-friendly. Creating more “liveable” streets and neighbourhoods would also be the best way to enable children to play out freely in their communities, with all the benefit that brings.
Street play: A simple, radical community action
We can also think about taking collective, community action towards making this vision a reality. One really practical, positive way is to start organising regular ‘playing out’ sessions on your street. It might not seem like you’re changing the world by closing your street to cars for just 2hrs a week or month, but this simple action has deep impact and creates many ripples. Not only is it a way of temporarily transforming car-dominated roads into a safe and pleasant environment and giving children a taste of freedom, it also creates a positive vision for how our streets could permanently look and feel very different. As a grassroots movement, the fact that hundreds of communities are doing this all over the UK also sends a strong signal to government that parents want safer neighbourhoods and greater freedom for their children. The ‘playing out’ model is legally approved by councils and, whilst you may get to block the road with bins, does not involve getting arrested. However, like the temporary reclaiming of Waterloo Bridge as a community garden last week, opening your own street for play is nonetheless a radical action that makes people stop and think about the space we have around us, who it is for and how we want to use it.
A kinder society
By increasing neighbourliness and breaking down barriers between people, street play helps to create the foundations for a kinder, more tolerant, connected, localised, greener society. By enabling children to play outside their own front door, it also challenges the idea that good parenting involves driving your kids to exciting activities or spending money on yet more “stuff”. Given the chance to play out on their own street, most children are very happy indeed with a bit of chalk, some cardboard and – the key ingredient – other children!
Children are seen and heard
Finally, and very importantly, reclaiming your street for play gives children the chance to witness the adults around them taking positive, collective action for change – encouraging them to become active citizens in turn. Children are ‘seen and heard’ and establish their rights to public space. Now more than ever, active citizenship and children’s voices are essential as part of changing the way we do things and tackling the climate crisis. I very much hope that Theodore Zeldin was right when he said, “The great originality of our century may be that we learn to listen to children”.