This blog post is written by Professor Alison Stenning of Newcastle University to accompany her report, “Tackling Loneliness with Resident-led Play Streets” published today (16th March 2020).
Note on coronavirus: In some ways, it feels an odd time to be publishing this report, and we considered postponing it. But in another way, it feels very relevant as we all become increasingly aware of the importance of neighbourliness and micro-local support networks in times like this. Together with Eden Communities and others, we are calling for a Community Action Response, with a focus on caring for and connecting with those around us (at a safe physical distance). Read more here about how ‘playing out’ streets are responding to the situation.
Over to Alison….
How it all started
I started playing out on my North Tyneside street, with my then 4-year-old daughter, in 2015. I’d heard vaguely about Playing Out and their movement for children’s right to play on their doorsteps and searched the idea. It turned out that there was a play streets trial in my borough.
After organising playing out sessions on my street for a couple of years, the opportunity arose to develop play streets across the borough and, with two new friends (who I wouldn’t have met without getting involved in Playing Out), we set up PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside. We were clear when we set ourselves up that we wanted ‘meeting’ as well as ‘playing’ in our name – we all felt that meeting our neighbours had been absolutely central to our own experiences of playing out on our streets.
I also teach geography at Newcastle University and have always been interested in questions like “how we do make connections with the people we share our everyday spaces with?” and “are these kinds of everyday relationships important?”. There was a clear connection between these questions and wanting to play out on my street.
Playing out transforms what it feels like to live on your street
So, in 2017, I started doing some pilot research into how relationships between neighbours change when they start to play out on their streets. I found evidence of all sorts of new connections being made that reinforced Playing Out’s own 2017 research, showing that those involved in organising play streets saw real benefits for their communities and their connections to them. More and more neighbours – of all ages – got to know each other, started to build friendships, and developed networks of support. Most felt that playing out had radically transformed what it felt like to live on their street.
The loneliness “epidemic”
As I was deciding where to take my research, increasing attention was being drawn to the growing experience of loneliness in UK communities. Loneliness was identified as a growing social injustice with public health impacts equivalent to smoking and obesity and in 2018 the government launched a strategy for tacking loneliness. A key part of the response to loneliness was that neighbours and neighbourhoods should be an important part of any action on loneliness. Playing Out were also increasingly interested in gathering evidence of how resident-led play streets might offer a real opportunity to draw more isolated neighbours into their communities. Together, we decided to explore this further and put together a small project, based on questionnaires and interviews with those who organise and participate in play streets across the UK, funded by my university’s Social Justice Research Fund.
Playing out sessions create new and important connections
The research we carried out provides strong evidence that playing out sessions create new and important connections between neighbours of all ages. These connections support everyday contact and conviviality, friendships between adults and children, the exchange of help of all kinds, and a range of other neighbourhood activities. An amazing 95% of respondents felt that they knew more people because of playing out sessions and 86.7% felt that their street felt friendlier and safer (86.7%). 71.7% felt that their children had made new friends and an extraordinary 91.7% felt that they belonged more on their street as a result of playing out.
The positive impacts of playing out spill over not just into other neighbourly activities but also into times and spaces between playing out sessions, through informal connections, play dates, social events and so on, and also through online spaces such as Facebook and WhatsApp that function in a variety of ways and draw in neighbours who are not consistently involved in playing out sessions.
These new relationships connect neighbours in vulnerable situations, whether with ill-health, or elderly, or recently separated. The connections made are intergenerational and develop between children of different ages. And, above and beyond the individual connections made, neighbours say that they feel increasingly at home on their streets and increasingly secure, since they have started playing out.
Play is important in shaping these new connections
Even though new connections often spill over into other activities, the potential of play itself to enable new connections seems to be critical, not just for children but also for adults. The looseness of play, the playful atmosphere created, the unexpected pleasure of skipping again or joining in a water fight, and the remaking of the street itself for people having fun, rather than cars, all feed an environment that enables connections to be made and to grow.
The resident-led Playing Out model particularly facilitates adult connections. Firstly, organisers are usually required to door-knock to make contact with their neighbours as they start to plan to play out. Parents are expected to be present and responsible for their children and other adults are needed to secure the Road Closed barriers. In this way, connections are made and friendships created between adults of all ages too. Moreover, the frequency of playing out sessions (monthly or fortnightly) allows neighbours to meet regularly and consolidate new relationships.
Play streets are a powerful way to build connections
Playing out sessions very effectively build connections on streets. Play streets transform the streets where neighbours play out; not a single respondent suggested in any answer that playing out had changed nothing on their street. It is a powerful initiative.
Of course, loneliness and isolation are deep-rooted societal problems and play streets can’t be seen as a cure-all. But, with the right support from government and local authorities, they are a way people can start to address these issues on their own street or estate.
Read and download Alison’s report here.