INGRID SKEELS, CO-DIRECTOR PLAYING OUT
Today is Playday, a nationally-celebrated day of free play and exploration aimed at promoting these activities as key parts of children’s development. This year’s theme is Play Builds Children, highlighting the importance that play has in the lives of all children, families, and communities. To build on this movement, our guest blog today comes from Playing Out, a Bristol-based grassroots organisation that gives children throughout the country the chance to play freely and safely on their streets.
Ten years ago, a group of South Bristol parents – me included – were fed up with our children being stuck inside. We all had such great memories of playing out when we were little! Being active, making friends, having adventures, solving problems, inventing games… We wanted these good things for our own children.
But times had changed. Roads were much busier; there was a greater sense of ‘streets are for cars’. Parents were understandably worried about letting children out, not least because so few others were out! It had become a bit of a vicious cycle. Children’s lives had become pretty restricted, with only organised clubs, activities, and trips to the park or to friends’ houses on offer, and some of these needing money or a car.
This lack of freedom to play out was not just a personal concern for us. It was part of a bigger national problem that is even worse now, 10 years on. Children today are the least active generation ever, with 80% not getting the government’s recommended minimum daily physical activity to be healthy and well. Obesity in childhood and future adults is a public health crisis. And children’s lack of independence – to get around, socialise, deal with problems, and find their way – is also feeding into mental health troubles later on in their lives.
We desperately wanted to find a way to give our children more freedom.
A Bristol Project
Then, neighbours Alice and Amy had an idea! After experiencing the joys of a street party, they applied to close their street to through traffic for a couple of hours after school one day and just open the space up for play.
The result was amazing: children of all ages and schools came out and played together! Balls, bikes, scooters, chalk and toys appeared. Children ran around and played games, including many of the same things we used to do when we were little.
In addition, adult neighbours of different ages and backgrounds came out to meet and chat, enjoying cups of tea and biscuits while keeping an eye on the children. Organising the session had already brought people together. So Playing Out built community on the doorstep as much as it enabled play.
Quite quickly, other parents in our area became interested in what we were doing, and the idea began to spread. Luckily, Bristol City Council saw the positive benefits of regular play streets and worked with Alice and Amy to trial a new policy, allowing residents to organise playing out sessions as often as every week instead of just once or twice a year. Thanks to the actions of lots of Bristol parents, and this radical paperwork from the Council, play streets led by residents officially became a thing!
A Growing National Movement
Since then, Playing Out sessions have spread all around the UK, because parents throughout the country feel the same way we did. In fact, they feel these concerns more so, because the pressures on children have only gotten greater both in terms of academic rigors and in terms of huge rises in ‘screen time’. Parents are often blamed for these changes (of course!). But if streets were safer, and other children were out, who wouldn’t want their children to be happy and healthy outside?
Organising a play street where you live is one way to cut into this cycle. And you won’t be alone! There are now nearly 1,000 street communities and 63 councils around the UK that have followed Bristol’s lead and regularly opened their streets up for play, with 30,000 children benefitting.
This one action can give your children a chance to play and cycle on their doorstep, meet other children, use their imagination, problem-solve, and start to be more independent. If we want our children to feel part of their communities and cities, then it is important that we make them feel at home in the public space outside their houses and give them the opportunity to get to know their neighbours.
Of course, we want children to be able to play out every day, for their health, happiness and sense of belonging, without organising anything special. This is going to take a huge shift in how the government sees children’s needs and rights in public space, and how they put policy changes regarding housing, traffic, public health, and planning in place. Playing Out sessions are a good first step towards this.
For more information and support or to sign up to the Playing Out blog and national Facebook group visit www.playingout.net.