Play streets

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Improving children’s health and wellbeing

Play streets give children space and freedom to get much-needed exercise, play freely, gain independence and skills, and make friends close to home.

Play streets Children's Health Impact Infographic

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Feel free to download and share this infographic full of data which demonstrates the positive impact of play streets on children's health


Children’s low physical activity and a mental health tipping point

In 2016 the World Health Organisation published a report on Ending Childhood Obesity. It stressed how childhood experience “can have an important influence on life-long physical activity habits“. In short, what we experience as a child will impact – positively or negatively – on how active we are for the rest of our lives. So, it is a crucial time to act.

Government and health professional guidelines state that children aged 5-18 need an hour each day of what they call ‘moderate to vigorous physical activity’ to be healthy and well. Evidence shows a staggering 80% of UK children are not getting this, and it’s feeding into all kinds of growing health problems in children including clinical obesity and contributing to declining mental wellbeing, as well as storing up future health problems for them as adults.

Children were deeply affected by a year of lockdowns, suffering long periods of isolation with 48% of adults stating that during lockdown their child had absolutely no access to outside play and studies predicting that children who experienced loneliness due to isolation during the pandemic may be up to 3x as likely to develop depression in the future. Research from Sport England found that not only did overall activity levels drop during the pandemic but that the impact of this was far greater for children from lower income households. Active play was one of the activity types that fell the most.

Playing out – a simple solution

It is clear that current interventions are not working. There is widespread inequality in access to green spaces, and families on lower incomes cannot always afford to take children to leisure centres or pay for them to take part in sporting activities. If children everywhere were able to safely and actively play out near home every day, it would go a long way towards addressing these inequalities and enabling all children to be happy and healthy.

Read more here about why outdoor play is so fundamental for children’s physical activity.

Research shows that play is not an optional extra, it’s fundamental to children’s physical, social, mental and emotional development, as well as to their immediate happiness and wellbeing. A child’s right to play is enshrined in Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, but for many children safe outdoor play is beyond their reach.

Play streets are not the long-term solution but are a simple, low-cost and do-able step in the right direction, starting to change things for children.

Play streets give children the time, space and opportunity to play freely outdoors when their ability to do so independently has been declining for decades. If you give children space and freedom outdoors, evidence, experience and common sense all show that they will quite naturally play, be more active and emotionally resilient. One mum has described it as children “getting exercise without noticing” with another noting that “[play streets] have reaffirmed importance of outdoor play for children”.
 Free play is vital for a child’s development as it allows them to independently explore both the world and themselves.

Free play is child-led and by nature involves diverse activities and ways of moving and exploring, it naturally builds children’s physical literacy , skills and confidence, perhaps more than some other forms of exercise.”
Dame Margaret Whitehead, Head of Public Health, University of Liverpool

What the research says about play streets and physical activity

Research by the University of Bristol, using accelerometers and GPS, has shown that at play street sessions, children are three to five times more active than they would be on a ‘normal’ day after school. This report concludes that our low-cost, grassroots model is a scaleable intervention that could make “a meaningful contribution to children’s physical activity levels”.

A more interview-based evaluation of streets in Hackney also highlighted the significant amount of physical activity at street play sessions, finding it equivalent to 14 additional weekly PE lessons each school term.

In 2021 over half of play streets residents reported play streets resulting in children being more physically active in general, with roughly half reporting play streets led to children playing out at other times.

Building physical and practical skills

Research has shown that through playing out, children can strengthen their physical literacy, defined by Sport England as ‘the development of fundamental movement and sports skills, including confidence, competence and motivation in physical movement.’ Many children reported a decrease in confidence and enjoyment in sporting activities following the pandemic, leading to a decline in interest in organised sport.

However, play streets offer a low pressure environment in which children can be active, developing skills like learning to ride a bike, increasing enjoyment and confidence levels resulting in children pursuing physical activities later in life. Play streets also reduce many other barriers children may face in participating in organised sport, such as monetary cost, travel to activity sites and access to local sports grounds, as play streets are low cost and on the doorstep of the community.

In our 2017 Survey  of streets that have held playing out sessions, the majority of people reported that children had learned or improved physical skills including riding a bike (80%), scooting (85%), roller skating (63%) and skipping (66%), as well as other activities like skate boarding, balancing and learning various street games like Hopscotch and Hide and Seek.

A parent in North Tyneside says: “My son is more keen to scoot to school, having seen other kids doing this. Also gained confidence to try bike with gears, having seen one at Playing Out.

This excellent research report from our global partners Play Australia pulls together all learning around how play streets help to develop physical literacy in children.

Increasing emotional resilience and mental wellbeing

The British Medical Journal has reported that there was a mental health crisis in young people before COVID19, with the pandemic simply making all issues worse and widening inequalities.

Playing out can allow children and young people to build emotional resilience through creating strong ties to their local community and developing both social skills and a sense of belonging. 82% of parents and carers have reported that playing out post lockdown has improved their child’s social confidence and mental wellbeing.

Growing confidence and independence

Playing out freely with others helps to grow important life skills including the ability to assess risks, develop good judgement and how to react to new and challenging situations. During playing out sessions children can practise these skills in a safe space with parents and carers nearby, with one parent from Leeds stating “It’s great to see the kids play and have the street free of cars so we know it’s a safe place for them to play. Makes them feel like it is THEIR street”.

Making friends and developing social skills

Playing out in the street can mean children make new friends of different ages and backgrounds and often from different schools. They also get to know some of the adults in their street. These things increase their sense of belonging and trust and help to strengthen the whole street community. In our survey of streets that have played out, the majority of people reported that children had learned or improved social skills, including interacting with children of different ages (91%) and making new friends (74%).

“Play streets have helped with my child’s confidence with starting school”
Parent, Northumberland


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