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Play Streets 2020

We are hearing from residents, parents and local authorities around the UK, asking how play streets – or traffic-free streets – can play a positive role as we emerge from this time.

Why do play streets make sense as we emerge from lockdown?

Temporary Play Streets are short, resident-led road closures on quiet residential streets that open up extra outdoor public space for neighbours to use responsible and safely.
They make sense right now because:

  • Children desperately need to play outside with other children for their physical and mental health
  • Neighbours want to keep seeing and supporting each other
  • More safe, public outdoor space is needed – parks and green space are in high demand
  • Play streets support national and local government focus on creating safer, cleaner streets
  • Communities self-organise the closure together responsibly
  • Parents are responsible for their own children
  • Closures are safe for those shielding (to avoid or to participate from the doorstep)
  • No sharing of toys/equipment needs to be involved – everyone can use their own stuff
  • Very low cost for councils – most streets need minimal support
  • Local closures can be paused at any time where necessary

As many people are feeding back to us: “Play /community streets could be a wonderful way both to mark more freedom and to hang on to some of the good things that have been part of this so challenging time. And, in fact, to build on these.”

When is the right time for play streets?

We think the time is now, especially as bars, restaurants and shops are all re-opening – all of which mainly benefit adults. Residents are very capable of acting responsibly in the same way they would in a park or other public space. We hope to help inform these decisions by sharing our thoughts, and information and practice from around the UK. Here are some things to weigh up:

  • It’s crucial that play streets are organised in a safe and responsible way, in line with government guidelines. Councils can make this clear to residents.
  • In Scotland, physical distancing when outdoors for children under 12 has now been ended.
  • In England, there is now a 1m+ social distancing rule, with ‘being outside’ one of the mitigating factors
  • Residents who organise play streets are among the most responsible, self-organising and community minded citizens.
  • People everywhere are managing physical distancing in public space all the time.
  • Looking at the needs and benefits for children and communities is vital.
  • The wider context – what is being allowed elsewhere around us (now shops, bars, cafes, restaurants all being open) – also has to be considered, in order to make the right overall decision for communities.
  • Any decision to go ahead can also of course be paused at any time very easily, by a street or council.

Our friends at London Play, champions of children’s rights and play, have called for all councils in London to allow play streets as soon as possible, and published this great open letter that strongly makes the case. They’ve also long called for physical distancing to be dropped for children outside, on the basis of evidence.

Emphasis on “traffic-free” streets

One suggestion, in order to mark the difference of any street activity during this time of COVID, is that residents and councils might want to focus any description or promotion more on the mechanism – traffic-free streets / temporary road closures. These short, regular closures will take pressure off other public areas such as parks and green spaces, and open up safe space close to people’s homes.

What is already happening?

Some residents and councils are already making this possible, to great benefit:

  • Tameside has launched Quiet Streets based on the play street model
  • Croydon council have been allowing residents to organise Exercise Streets throughout lockdown
  • Several London boroughs are allowing play streets to take place, including Westminster, Camden, Southwark, Lambeth and probably more we haven’t heard about
  • We’ve heard from quite a few residents making use of their existing play street dates to do socially distanced activity – one said that it was the first time several families on her very ethnically-diverse street had interacted with other children during the whole of lockdown:

“We live on such a rat run, it was amazing the difference it made. Very, very heart-warming.”

How to start preparing for play streets

Many councils are now thinking about re-opening their applications, getting a policy in place or making it easier for residents to apply. Some are already adapting their policies to build-in physical distancing and make them more flexible (see Croydon’s Exercise streets, for example).

At Playing Out, we have over 10 years of experience in supporting residents to open up their street space, and supporting councils across the UK to get good policies in place that allow parents and residents to self-organise. We can help you!

If you work in a council:

If you are a parent/resident:

  • use our template letter to ask your council to re-activate existing orders, re-open applications, or get a policy in place now
  • come to our FREE online resident workshop “How to run a play street” – click to register here
  • check out our 4 simple steps to playing out – short films
  • join our Facebook group to connect with parents and play street activators from around the country
  • contact us with any questions

Top Tips for running a play street at this time

  1. Consultation and inclusion. You might have increased connection on your street since the lockdown – so use those WhatsApp or Facebook groups to get a discussion going! But don’t forget that not everyone will be online, so careful door knocking (stepping back to socially distance) or leafletting is still important. Older or vulnerable people who are shielding in particular must be considered carefully, because of the increased anxieties around social activity at this time. Luckily because it is an organised session at a specific time, they can avoid it if that’s the most comfortable option for them.
    But if they do want to be involved, how can you do this in a way that is positive for them? You could suggest that they sit in the doorway or front garden and offer to chalk out a protective area around them. You could think of ways for children / others in the street to interact safely with them and ensure they feel included e.g. chatting from a good distance or maybe even a performance from the children!
  2. Stewarding. This needs particular consideration in relation to Covid guidelines. Can volunteers be briefed online, or at a distance in the street? How can they deal with cars whilst keeping a safe distance from each other and from drivers? All this needs to be discussed and agreed in advance – masks may be a really good idea when stewards are needing to interact with others.
  3. Hygiene. Have hand sanitiser or soap and water available on the street so people can easily wash hands after touching cones, signs or any shared play equipment. Everyone uses their own toilet / house / toys / etc.
  4. Food and drink. It’s always nice to have cups of tea and snacks if you are outside on the street. We recommend everyone making their own and using their own mugs etc. Also, whilst in ‘normal times’ neighbours who aren’t stewarding might have occasionally shared a drink on a nice day, we recommend no alcohol during play streets at all, as it just doesn’t mix with physical distancing.
  5. Collective responsibility. We always encourage neighbours to take collective responsibility for the safety and smooth running of play street sessions and this is even more important now. Some councils are considering adding a section to their application forms asking people how they will manage distancing.
  6. Free play or organised games? It will depend on your street, the kind of space available to you, the number of people and age groups of the children. In some cases, it may be possible to allow for more free, child-led play with clear instructions about distancing. Free play is always the preferred option for children but something a bit more organised might be needed in the short term. See here for ideas for physically-distanced street play and games we’ve gathered so far from our network. Children will be good at coming up with games and ideas themselves – the main thing is that they are enjoying themselves!

Our friends at London Play have written an excellent in-depth risk-benefit guidance document for residents considering play streets, which you can download here. 

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