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Housing and playing out

Housing providers are in a unique position to ensure children can play out together on their doorstep, for their health, wellbeing and sense of belonging.

Children playing outside a tower block

The importance of doorstep play

All the evidence shows that children desperately need more time outside, more physical activity, more social contact, more sense of belonging in their communities, more freedom – and more play! Playing out or “doorstep play” – having access to the space right outside your home, whether a street or housing estate – can give them all these things, for free.

Play streets and playing out sessions on estates provide clear evidence that children want to play out together and readily do so when given access to safe space on their doorstep. But many children are unable to play out on an everyday basis due to a combination of physical and social barriers. The good news is that housing providers (councils, housing associations, private landlords or management companies) are in the perfect position to address many of these barriers and restore children’s freedom to play out.

The (big) problem

We are already working with several housing organisations, encouraging them to think about the particular opportunity and responsibility they have around this due to their relationship with tenants and with the communal space outside people’s homes. Councils and housing associations also have a clear social purpose to improve the health and wellbeing of tenants, increase community cohesion and empower residents. Enabling children to safely play out together in shared space and building community support for this would hugely help to achieve these aims.An image from a newspaper story with a headline about tenants being threatened with eviction because of complaints about their children making noise while playing

However, based on our direct experience of supporting social housing tenants over the years, we know that there is a lot that needs to change. Unfortunately, all too often, housing providers are inadvertently preventing children from playing out rather than supporting them to do so.

Over the years, we have regularly been contacted by parents living in council, social or managed housing, asking for help and advice. Often, this is because they have been sent a formal letter from their housing provider telling them that children are not allowed to play out in the space immediately outside their homes. Sometimes, they have even been threatened with eviction if they continue to let their children play out. Usually, these letters are sent in response to complaints from residents – or even a single complaint – about the sound of children playing or other concerns.

Sign outside a small playground reading 'No ball games'

No Ball Games signs – or even the more extreme “no playing” – are still ubiquitous on housing estates, sending a clear message to children that they are unwelcome in the space outside their own homes.

Happily, a number of councils and housing associations have committed to removing these – or even replacing them with more positive “please play here” signage. Things are moving in the right direction – they just need to move faster!

In 2021, our board member Ellen Weaver undertook some informal research with housing providers, aimed at understanding why organisations implement policies and practice which restrict or discourage children’s play on their doorstep – and what would enable them to implement more play-friendly policies. She found that the main reason was simply a lack of understanding or consideration of the importance of outdoor play for children. It is our aim to change this! Contact us for a copy of the research summary.

Things are starting to shift

Based on Ellen’s research and our direct experience of supporting parents all over the UK to push back against ‘play bans’ since 2013, we are now developing a guide for housing providers on how they can support children to play out, alongside some forward-thinking housing organisations who are already implementing their own pro-play policies.

We will be launching this in autumn 2022 but in the meantime, below is a summary of what we think a pro-play housing policy should include. Ultimately, we want all housing providers to sign up to prioritising children’s need for outdoor communal play near home and to make any changes necessary towards enabling this.

A pro-play housing policy

  • Adopt a corporate position clearly and publicly stating support for children’s right to play out near home, for their health, wellbeing and sense of community.
  • Ensure all staff are aware of this position, the reasons behind it and what it means in practice.
  • Ensure tenants are aware of this position from the outset.
  • Clearly distinguish between play and antisocial behaviour and communicate this to residents and staff. See this great example from Peabody Housing.
  • Respond to complaints about play in a way that protects children’s right to play whilst seeking to resolve tensions and build consensus.
  • Clearly state children’s right to play outside and use shared space in any advertising and tenancy agreements, to ensure there is no ambiguity. Sell it to everyone on basis that child-friendly means better/safer for everyone, including those without children.
  • Remove ‘no ball games’ and other signage that deters children from using open space for play, unless there is a very good safety or other reason to keep it. See this great example from Barnet Homes.
  • Look beyond playgrounds to define a wider ‘playable realm’ on estates. Give children access to as much safe outdoor space as possible. Research shows that children like to play out as close to home as possible – literally on their doorstep.
  • Make existing spaces – streets, greenspace, other – as safe and child-friendly as possible. Prioritise children over cars.
  • Design and build new developments with child-friendly principles following best practice, ensuring children can freely and safely play out together semi-supervised. Our close ally, architect Dinah Bornat, is the expert on this.
  • Support resident-led play streets / playing out sessions or other interventions where needed to kick-start a culture of play.
  • Lobby councils to put supportive play street policies (and wider pro-play policies) in place.
  • Share best practice and positive outcomes, encouraging other housing providers to adopt similar policies.

Some more positive examples

Wrexham Council is looking into supporting play streets and removing ‘no ball games’ signs as part of an overall approach to supporting children to play out.

Major housebuilder Redrow has launched a “please play here” campaign.

What now?

If you work for a housing organisation and are interested in any of this, get in touch. We would love to hear from you and help you to make your communities more child-friendly. We are also developing a pro-play housing network and would love you to join!

Want to find out more about supporting others to play out?

Watch our webinar!