You know that ordinary looking building you pass with a dirt track running beside it? Have you ever wondered what happens down there? I live down there, along with my husband, my daughter (8), son (5) and toddler (19 months) and 20 other households, including 6 dogs, 3 cats and 17 other children! We are fortunate. Playing out is not a luxury, it’s a daily occurrence; a taste of a childhood with perhaps even more freedom than I had growing up in the 1980’s.
Anyone who has visited North Devon will appreciate the wonderful cragginess of the coastline, which has lent itself to our use of the outdoors – including our street. Our row of terraced houses neatly snuggles into the rolling hillside; meaning back gardens are on a very dramatic slope. They also start some 30 feet up; parallel to loft height, with access granted by precarious concrete steps to a nearly vertical drop. This makes this back garden space not at all practical for pre-schoolers finding their feet. In front of our houses is a single-track dead end road, mostly rough, with the odd bit of tarmac laid down by previous owners.
This front street space makes a much safer environment for our children to play out. Opposite our houses is a steep embankment. Some bits lead to concealed decking gardens built up on stilts, other parts lead down to an overgrown woodland walk which is perfect for den-building games for the older kids.
We’ve lived down this wonderful, almost secret street in Ilfracombe for six years now. Two of my children were born here and played here from the start, and the toddler is fast following in the footsteps of his older brother. “Car-car” and “keep in” (as he runs to the safety of the flower borders) are amongst his first words. The elderly neighbours on the street embrace the laughter from children, happy to see their play and remember their own from many years ago. Smuggling sweeties into small hands whilst the parents aren’t looking, and engaging them in conversation about school and their friends and families is all part of our street life.
When we first moved in, there were just five other children and several neglected empty properties. Over the years they’ve changed hands as young families have bought these cheaper properties to slowly do up. There is a definite love/hate reaction by potential new buyers to our street. Mostly it is the thought of seven-point turns and the suspension on cars that put viewers off, not the free-range children.
Playing out every day gives the children such great independence. My daughter at the age of three years and five months was riding her bike without stabilisers, and the average for all children on our street is an incredible four years for bike riding. Our porch and pathways are permanently strewn with abandoned bikes, scooters, skateboards, roller skates, footballs, hula-hoops, dolls prams and generally every other toy they can smuggle outside when we’re not looking. Potion-making, den building, even ‘quiet time’ activities like sticking and glueing, painting and reading secret dairies together under the patio table are regular outdoor happenings.
Over the years we’ve had street parties, Easter egg hunts, bbq’s, sparkler and firework evenings, and at Christmas the flasks of mulled wine and mince pies come out for the mums and dads to keep us warm whilst supervising the youngest children.
This spontaneous freedom of play presents different challenges, like trying to keep the kids in till at least 9am to show the few childless households a bit of respect on their days off. And when arguments break out, they cascade very quickly and blow over just as fast, as it’s impossible to avoid your neighbours. Occasionally we get the odd courier bouncing down the road in a van, leaving a dust cloud in their trail. But on the whole, our road is well known amongst delivery drivers for the awkwardness of having to reverse one way, either in or out! One regular driver from Iceland counts the children as he delivers to a house at the furthest end of the road, and again as his reverses all the way back out! Thank you Mr Iceland, your thoughtfulness is appreciated.
As the children are getting older, we are all slowly giving them more independence, nipping in to make a cuppa for each other, or putting the oven on whilst the eldest briefly keep an eye out for the smaller ones.
To live here and to be part of such a community is a privilege; one the kids will not appreciate until they have grown up and left home. What is normal play for them is a rare and priceless freedom. This is what we have created and given to their childhoods – helped by the street we live in.
Do you live in a place where children can play out spontaneously without the need for a temporary road closure, signs and stewards? It would be great to hear about it. You can comment below, email us or join our Facebook group to share your story.