Finding My Way

I think I know quite a lot of North Tyneside, where I live, very well, especially the parts east of Wallsend. The geographer in me (which, to be fair, is most of me) insists on learning, getting to know and mapping the places I visit, let alone the places I live. Mostly I know these streets and roads for driving and, closer to my North Shields home, for walking. I got to know many of local streets and roads pretty quickly when I first moved here (in 2011) as I had a newborn daughter who I walked and drove endlessly, to get her to sleep and to give me some time out of the house.

I drove west and north and round in circles, through Seaton Delaval, Seaton Sluice, Blyth, north to Northumberland (Cramlington, Morpeth) and south again through Killingworth and Forest Hall. Tha A19 and A1058 were my axes (the green lines on the map above) but I found other signed routes and used my instincts to always return a different way to my outward journey, making connections between places I was getting to know.

More often, I walked – up streets, through back alleys, finding snickets, new landmarks, with friends, on my way somewhere, or just to fill time. On these walks, I found the street we later moved to and the ‘secret garden’ where I now have an allotment. These walks created so many the ties I now have with my neighbourhood, brought me closer – step by step – to feeling at home here, marking my territory by beating the bounds.

From 2015, when we started to play out on my street, I started to make connections with other streets doing the same, with whom we had to share signs, passing them on from doorstep to doorstep on the morning of our street play sessions. And in 2017, I started to develop and coordinate playing out across the borough and got to know another layer of North Tyneside’s geography – working out whether streets could be closed, looking on Google Maps at terraces and semis, cross-streets, back alleys, and cul de sacs to see how easy and safe it would be to stop through traffic for a few hours a week, then delivering letters, notices and Road Closed signs to the growing number of streets that got involved, and finally beginning to see the patchwork of play streets connect across the borough.

So, I like to think I’m pretty well connected to North Tyneside, that I know its geography at a number of scales, that I think about where I’m going and make connections to the places I pass and travel to.

Yet, during successive lockdowns and the pandemic months, my connection to North Tyneside has grown, extending to new places and new perspectives, and deepened, as I’ve seen more in the places I know. I wrote here about how walking and scooting with my daughter in our closest streets fed an increasingly granular feeling of recognition and attachment, but as lockdown lifted, we filled the summer months with cycling and, for the first time, kayaking in and around the North Tyneside coast.

With and without my daughter, I’ve been cycling more and more – for fun and to visit friends along the Sunrise Cycleway, a 3-mile pop-up cycle lane created by North Tyneside Council in July (and ripped up in November), but also all around the coast, on all sorts of roads and paths, to shop and just to get around. My old bike died, I bought a new one, and now I’ve hired an ebike, to try it for a month. I’ve filled my ageing car up with petrol just 3 times in 9 months.

I was inspired to write this blog after my recent 23-mile bike ride, a carefully-planned round trip from North Shields to Battle Hill, Forest Hall, Killingworth, Backworth, Shiremoor, Wellfield, Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, Tynemouth and home to Shields. I spent a lot of time working out the route, asking advice, poring over Google Maps and Street View, weighing up the benefits of traffic-free routes against a fear of feeling scared. I was already developing a granular geography – seeing where there were alleyways to cut off a corner (or a few more metres on a busy road), spotting landmarks that would reassure me I was on track (primary schools, street names, the metro line, a pub or pizza takeway), and identifying places – roads, bridges, parks, paths – that I wasn’t sure I’d feel safe in. And, of course, I was connecting it to the places I already knew, from car and foot.

Heading out on Saturday morning marked the translation of this cartography of the mind and screen to a geography of body and bike, moving through these places I’d marked and memorised. At times, this meant realising that the short-cuts I’d planned on a screen took me up steep hills with sharp bends, or on narrow paths filled with families walking, or along rutted tracks and coarse gravel, or through an underpass in the earshot of the revving engines of micro bikes, that the physical, tangible geography of the real route was felt through my body – in exertion, in vibration, in anticipation and in fear. But it also meant that those bright, two-dimensional routes on screen translated into a short wooded path with a glorious soundtrack of birds and rustling leaves, a lakeside stretch fringed with reeds and new town houses, and a surprise level crossing with a warning to Stop Look Listen.

I was alert to the route, the traffic, and those with whom I shared my journey, for moments more or less brief. I observed and felt the surfaces, the potholes, the loose paving, the kerbs of different heights, the mud and the debris. I was grateful for smooth tarmac, alert to unavoidable ruts, looking ahead to see how I could navigate a turn or a crossing with the gentlest path for me and my bike. I noticed the speeds of cars, and roundels to warn me; I kept a constant eye on car doors and bends in the road, to expect the unexpected; and I looked for ways to avoid traffic if it came too fast and too close. I looked down and over my shoulder to be sure I could pull out, around a parked car or a pothole, if I needed to. I scanned ahead – and to the sides – for pedestrians, for children playing, and for dogs, tuning in for moments to witness their play, overhear their conversations, predict their next moves, at times ringing my bell, shouting a “thanks” or sharing an acknowledgement. And, at times, I listened to the voice on Google Maps telling me turn left, go straight ahead, make a u-turn.

I kept an eye out for those landmarks I’d recorded, to mark my progress and feel confident in my navigation, breathing a sigh of relief when the right path appeared or as I passed the school or shop I’d expected, and I tagged all these places on the maps in my head, to populate and animate my personal geography, and for the next time I travelled these routes. I also responded to the sites and sights that caught my attention, taking detours onto a path closer to the lake, or a road adjacent to the East Coast mainline and a speeding Pendolino, to check a noticeable street name, or take in a new housing development, to follow a path I suspected would lead me in the right direction. And I added all of these to those maps in my head.

And, of course, there were the wrong turns too, the bad choices, the moments of fear, a retracing of my steps, wasted time, a quick decision to get off and walk, or to move onto the pavement, to cross the road for more space or a better path. And each of these was accompanied by a calculation, a moment of self-criticism, of doubt and anxiety, of hesitation, felt in my body on a bike. And each was added to the maps in my head.

Some of this was bad infrastructure, a common theme in cycling narratives. There’s of course a sense of disappointment and frustration when a cycle lane appears and disappears within metres, or a painted bike directs you along a useless or impossible path, but bad infrastructure is also felt in the stops and starts, the dismounts, the endless decisions, and the continuous attention to the kerbs, the surfaces, the camber, the bends, the micro-topography of the streets and roads.

And, of course, there were the places I wanted to see – the Ryder and Yates 1967 British Gas Engineering Research Station, now North Tyneside Council’s Killingworth Site, the new town estates of Killingworth – its East and West Bailey and ‘garths’, the new-build estates of Backworth and Northumberland Park, the 1930s cycleway on Whitley Bay’s Links, and St Mary’s Lighthouse – a fairly eclectic mix of sights but ones which help me map and get to know North Tyneside’s many faces.

This is how you learn a route and a landscape. On a bike, you can’t progress without paying real attention to the details of the route, from the road names, to the landmarks, to the potholes and kerbs; this attention is essential, but it is also valuable. You have to see, listen, feel, and because you have to, you connect more. In contrast to travel by car, or even on foot, the route becomes richer, denser – more granular – every sense is invoked by the nature of your contact with the road and the route, a body on two wheels, propelling itself, in an in-between place between car and foot, between road and pavement, moving from one to the other.

These were mostly new places and new routes, but through their inscription in my head they’re mapped for the next time, not just these actual places – where to go, where to find something, how to get from A to B – but also a more general sense of what feels right when I’m riding my bike, and what I need to pay attention to.

These uneven surfaces, on one of my most common routes, demand my attention

The attention to place, at every scale, which I reflected on and recorded in this one trip plays out in more mundane ways in my everyday geographies. On those routes I travel regularly – to the shops, to friends, to the beach – I have mapped the breadth of the roads, the choice of paths, the pinch points, the steepness and camber, the changing surfaces, the worst potholes, the joyous stretches, the viewpoints, and I have felt them, in mind and body. As a ride, I map and re-map the spaces of my everyday life, making connections, feeling the places I move through, adding layers to my mental maps. I see what is possible and what is restricted. These inscribed geographies embed me in my everyday worlds and they ready me for my next trip, allowing me to see where to go and how to move as each day I find my way in North Tyneside.

“Home grown alligator, see you later, gotta hit the road, gotta hit the road”

George Ezra grew up in Bengeo, Hertfordshire. And so did I.

In recent weeks, I’ve seen a few articles remembering and celebrating the glory of riding bikes as a child. The children’s author Steven Herrick wrote

“There’s nothing quite like the relationship of a child to their bicycle, the endless adventures two wheels and a pair of strong legs offers”

and just a few days later Jools Walker, co-founder of the Women of Colour Cycling Group, echoed this:

“Some of my happiest childhood memories are on my BMX Burner, the bike I inherited as a seven-year-old from my big sister. It wasn’t new or flashy like other kids’ bikes at school, nor was it the bike that I secretly desired, but that didn’t matter. That red and yellow beauty sparked friendships – and an obsession with life on two wheels.

After school and on weekends, I’d meet up with my friends, a mix of kids from my class and new friends I’d made cycling around my housing estate. Our favourite time for bike adventures was the summer holidays: six glorious weeks of long, bright days, with no school to interrupt our time. Parks, other housing estates and even building sites (definitely a place where you need reliable tyres) became our adventure playgrounds to explore.”

Which brings us back to George Ezra and Bengeo. I didn’t know George (he’s a tiny bit younger than me), but I like to think he was inspired by his Bengeo childhood and that we shared some of the same adventures and pleasures around Bengeo’s streets.

I moved to Bengeo when I was 7 and a half. My parents had just divorced, so I was living with my mum and my brother, then 9 and a half. I was already at school in Bengeo, but we’d been driving to school by car 9 miles along the A10 from Wormley. We had a big house and a big garden in Wormley but the only, vague, memories I have of cycling there are of my brother and I trundling up and down this back lane (the van was probably there then too). The road we lived on had been the A10, and even though a new dual carriageway had been built, traffic was still heavy.

That all seemed to change when we moved to Bengeo. We were now living on a quiet residential street in what was basically a suburb of Hertford. We were about a mile from Hertford town centre, surrounded only by other residential streets, in an interwining and connected pattern. Beyond this built up area, there were vast expanses of country lanes and green fields, many of which turned yellow in the rapeseed season. This all became my roaming zone. Our bikes weren’t cool – we each had a folding bike, mine red, my brother’s light blue; they were new and I guess we got them as it was easy to move them between my mum’s house and my dad’s. It had three Sturmey Archer gears, I think my first bike with gears.

My bike looked a bit like this

We kind of had two modes of riding, and I mean, mostly, my brother and I. We rode from our back gate around the neighbouring streets, through alleyways, to local shops, making the most of the endless loops you could ride through crescents, closes, and pedestrian cut-throughs.

We loved riding to these shops, on The Avenue, where we’d buy sweets, fizzy drinks, or comics, post letters for our mum, and make prank phone calls form the phone boxes that used to sit behind these parked cars (on the right). We could cut through a little path that you can just make out beyond the cars, where, now I think about it, I remember a cherry tree and a small patch of grass, where we’d often stop, maybe to eat those sweets.

It was about half a mile from our house to the shops, but we could cycle miles on these streets, just going round in circles. We were on the top of a hill (Upper Bengeo, apparently) which meant that much of this riding was level, but we could easily find some good hills for thrills if we wanted.

Bengeo is divided by one main-ish road, the B158, so much of our riding was on “our” side, to the west of this road. The other side didn’t feel as familiar, but we did still seek out corner shops there – I had the vaguest memory of this one, and took a trip down Google Streeview memory lane to find it. And it was this side that led down to Hartham Common, a big green space on the edge of Hertford town centre, that gave us space to play and a safe route into the town centre, via the Norman church of St Leonards.

We’d also head further west, down a steep unpaved track or along unassuming alleyways, to Mole Wood (Great and Little) where we could paddle, catch tadpoles, and head through the woods to loop back into Bengeo.

These trips to Mole Wood led us into our second mode, which was to take the lanes out of Bengeo to the countryside and small villages to the north. I don’t know if we stayed mainly on the local streets for a bit after we moved to Bengeo and then progressed to these longer journeys. My mum’s recollection is that we cycled pretty freely from the moment we moved there. My mum remembers that she used to give us instructions:

“First left, second right, third right and so on until it brought you back home.”

I don’t remember this, but I do remember her packing us picnics and my brother and me riding off down Sacombe Road to Waterford or Bulls Mill. These roads were single-track lanes, with passing places. They were steep in places, which meant you could get a good speed up and surf round gentle bends. We would meet cars but I don’t have any recollection of feeling at risk.

I had a friend at Bulls Mill, so sometimes we’d cycle there. Sometimes we’d ride to Waterford Marsh, a place I’d all but forgotten but memories of picnics, wading, cow-pat dodging, and sitting in the sun came flooding back when I saw these photos. We’d stop and play pooh sticks as Vicarage Road crossed the River Beane in Waterford. The River Beane, after which Bengeo was named, featured quite heavily in our journeys. Our roaming-riding distances increased and we’d get as far as Stapleford (3 miles) and Watton-at-Stone (5 miles). These longer distances would mean we’d be back on bigger roads, including the A119 from Hertford to Stevenage. I’m guessing we didn’t cycle these till we were a bit older and maybe stuck to the pavements. We’d be out cycling for a good few hours, often the best part of the day.

These were increasingly holiday bike rides, because within a year both my brother and I were at boarding schools, so the ordinary, everyday cycling wasn’t possible. But these adventures, longer and shorter, were a major feature of our school holidays through our early teens.

I moved back to a school in Hertford for sixth form, and suddenly all those streets I’d been riding round became animated by local friends. I cycled to school most days, down a big hill and up another, with two new friends whose houses I would have passed hundreds of times on my earlier bike rides. We cycled to each other’s houses at evenings and weekends, as teenagers do, and then started cycling to pubs, before we could drive. I skived school one day (I don’t recall why!) and skidded on wet leaves under a horse chestnut tree as I rounded the corner onto my street. I fell off my bike and smashed my front tooth – a crown in my mouth, 30 years later, tells this tale. I always imagined somehow the accident was punishment for skiving school. I don’t even remember the bike I had then. We all learnt to drive, but our bikes were still important to us. One of my friends had an old postman’s bike that he was inordinately proud of, superseded only by his red VW Beetle a few years later.

Where I skidded off; there are still wet leaves

I kept cycling. I’ve always had a bike, through university and beyond. It’s always been one of my modes of transport and sources of pleasure. When I was 19, I inherited a car from a family friend. Determined not to become dependent on the car, I set out to cycle to Hertford Library during the holidays to do some university work. God knows why, but I took my work in a plastic bag on my handlebars. You remember I mentioned the steep hill?

I cycled down this with a plastic bag on my handlebars. I crashed into one of these houses (the cars clearly weren’t there!). Almost 30 years later, I remember losing control, I remember being about to crash, and I remember lying on the pavement waiting for someone to help me. They did, I went in an ambulance for the first and only time in my life, and I was fine. No major injuries, but I ripped my favourite shirt (a white collarless one from Carnaby Street).

But none of this put me off. I kept cycling. A few years later, living in Birmingham, I had friends who cycled more seriously and I rode with them. For the first time since childhood, I’d spend whole days cycling, getting to know the places around me, building relationships, having fun.

Why am I telling you all this? Partly, because those memories of freely cycling for hours on end, through my neighbourhood and beyond, have come back to me in recent weeks and months, as my nine year old daughter has been able to cycle round her neighbourhood and as I’ve been cycling more and more too, most recently on my brand new bike. I wanted to remember and record the details, material, sensual and emotional, of those times.

But mostly because all these experiences of childhood cycling gave me something, or a few things.

They enabled me to explore, learn about, map, imagine, inhabit and connect to my home, street and neighbourhood, to feel attached to it. When we started, we’d just moved to Bengeo and my parents had just divorced so maybe this was especially important to me, and doing it all with my brother all the more so. That I went away to school probably sharpened this need for connection, both that when I came home it felt important to reconnect, to re-map and to feel like I belonged again, but also that I could hold on to these stories, images and attachments when I wasn’t at home. I loved knowing my neighbourhood, where all the streets and alleys led, what the lanes felt like (and have loved recalling all these places here). That I then got a chance to ride these streets and lanes with friends, on the way to school, as I grew older, reinforced and extended my connections to this place. Only a couple of months ago, driving through some Hertfordshire lanes (not the same ones I cycled, but not far away), I felt that thrill of recognition, memories of freedom and of joy. And I still take pleasure in knowing the ins-and-outs of my neighbourhood, now in North Shields, of mapping the streets and animating them with friendships, landmarks, senses.

These bike rides also gave me a growing sense of ‘independent’ mobility. My mum trusted us – and the environment – and we carried that trust with us. We had no doubt that we could ride these streets and be safe. There were certainly fewer cars, and we were often on quiet streets, but we went further and onto busier roads as our confidence, skills, and knowledge grew, such that by our teenage years we happily cycled all around Hertford and well beyond, for fun, for school, for errands, to meet friends.

But our mobility wasn’t really independent – for years, my brother and I were together on these trips, and later we were with friends; as I got older I cycled more by myself, but a lot of my childhood cycling was accompanied, just not by an adult.

All of these experiences gave me a sense that I have a right to the road, on my bike, but also the skills and the confidence to ride on the roads that I carry with me now. I hate close passes, busy junctions and impatient drivers as much as any cyclist, but I can cope with them. Growing up as a cyclist has also made me, I think, a better driver.

And, of course, all these bike rides gave me a delight in the immense joys of cycling, despite the smashed tooth and the ripped shirt. I loved those bike rides with my brother, to the shops and to lanes beyond; I loved the speed, the lightness, the curves, the wind in my hair. I loved the friendships formed on bike rides to school and more slowly home, stopping at shops and friends’ houses. I loved cycling home from campus as a student – I remember cycling back one night, after seeing Keanu Reeves’ Point Break, and feeling like I was surfing on my bike. I felt like that again yesterday on my new bike, riding along our seafront. And just as cycling supported my teenage friendships, I still love bumping into friends and stopping to chat whilst cycling, in a way that just doesn’t happen in a car. Everyone should be able to enjoy the many exquisite pleasures of cycling.

I’ve had a good few years when I’ve barely cycled and even now, I don’t go out for long bike rides. I increasingly cycle to the shops, to friends, and will cycle to work, when I’m not working at home, and I cycle for fun, with my daughter and with friends, when I can. So I do cycle, quite a lot.

I’m now a geographer and an activist with a profound commitment to creating spaces for children, their families and communities to explore, play in, and connect with. I have no doubt that what I do now comes from these childhood experiences (and others). I loved all these bike rides because I’m a geographer (I think I always have been) and I’m a geographer because of all these bike rides (and much more).

Not everyone needs to be a geographer, but everyone should have the chance to enjoy cycling, from a young age, so that they too might explore and connect to their neighbourhoods, develop the confidence to move where they want to with others and by themselves, and experience the joy of spinning along, of getting tired, of being outside, and taking notice.

That all these personal pleasures also translate into social goods makes enabling children to cycle from an early age all the more powerful. Enjoying cycling and being given the chance, and the confidence, to explore and connect to the people and places in our communities through cycling will help us to build a healthier, safer, livelier, and happier world.

On Streets: Children, Play and Community

Following my presentation at Playing Out’s webinar on safe streets, here, all together, are the documents which explore the issues I discussed in more detail:

With Wendy Russell, an article on The Developer which makes the case for securing greater, safer access to streets for children during the covid-19 crisis.

Also with Wendy, and in conversation with Playing Out, Adrian Voce, Tim Gill, and Ludicology, a shorter briefing document for central government, local authorities, and other partner organisations – please feel free to share this one widely.

Via a Playing Out blog, a report on my research into play streets and communities (pre-coronavirus, of course.

And, finally, a piece by Carlton Reid in Forbes, which draws in all sorts of other contexts around our call for safe streets for children’s play.

A recording of the webinar can now be found here.

Getting Granular: Covid-19, Streets and Our Everyday ‘Exercise’

“I’ve noticed both kids getting more granular. Thea is taking close-up photos of flowers, rocks, etc. on our walks. Jack wants to explore the alleys.”

Your Maps of Life Under Lockdown

I like to think we know our street pretty well, the people and places on it, the camber of the road, the front gardens and street trees (since she was little my daughter always called one end of the street ‘the tree way’).

We play out on it most months, closing our street to through traffic for a few hours on a Sunday afternoon or after school. For those few, safe hours, we scoot and cycle on it, we run around on it, we chalk on it, and we sit on it. Often right in the middle of the road.

We already have a pretty granular take on it.

Yet, in recent days and weeks, we’ve had more time to spend on our street and its neighbours, and we’ve been able to explore on foot, on scooter and on bike. We’ve not been limited to just three hours a month without the incessant flow of cars (though we still encounter cars, paying little attention to those they now share the roads with and speeding in 20mph zones).

Today, we scooted. We noticed which streets are smoother and which make our hands wobble and our voices tremble when we chat. We try it out and warble to each other. We spotted the places where can move onto and off the pavements easily and without incident. We misjudged this more than once and our scooters whacked our shins, hard. We bumped over or zoomed round the potholes.

We scooted over, over and over again, the drain covers and looked at and felt the different iron patterns, the noises they made, the sensations on our feet.

We scooted down the white lines, to the white lines, noticing the smoothness of the line and we thought about what the white lines do.

We trundled over cobbles, peaking through the tarmac, and talked about what our streets would have been like when they were first built.

We heard the bird in the neighbour’s flowering cherry and we tried to work out what it was.

We spotted six ladybirds on three bollards, and wondered why they liked them so much (the sun, the texture, the warmth? – there weren’t any on the matching bollards at the other end of the street).

And we met some neighbourhood rabbits. And a lot of neighbourhood cats.

And, of course, we talked and waved to neighbours, who we passed on our streets and pavements, with scooters, buggies, Peppa Pig hats, dogs, and bags of shopping, and in their front yards or on their doorsteps, some we knew, some we didn’t.

Who’s that? asked my daughter, everytime I said hello to anyone. Where do they live?

Here, I said. They’re our neighbours, these are our streets.

(And then I tried to explain why I wanted so many pictures of drain covers and white lines.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

This blog was inspired not only by my time in my neighbourhood, but by regular and wide-ranging conversations, in all sorts of forms, with Wendy Russell, Alice Ferguson and Ingrid Skeels, and by Penny Wilson’s beautiful post on her London street.

It also connects to my ongoing research: as I’ve already explained on here, I’m supposed to be researching play on streets at the moment, a task now both trickier and more fascinating. One of the questions I’m supposed to be exploring is: how regular playing out intensifies children’s and adults’ connection to the objects and materialities of the street itself, through hanging out on and exploration of its kerbs, roads, pavements, trees, walls, and other affordances. Our lockdown experiences of our streets, for me, intensify this very question.

Improving safe access to street space for children’s play and physical activity

This short briefing paper by Professor Alison Stenning and Dr Wendy Russell explores the evidence for families with children to be allowed greater access to very local neighbourhood space, to allow children to play safely within physical distancing rules – through changes to residential streets that might include, for example, speed limits, road-pavement ratios, and user priority. 

Thinking about Play, Neighbours and Streets in a Pandemic

Unlike so many of my hardworking colleagues who are rapidly having to ‘pivot’ to online teaching and support their students online through challenging personal and academic times, I’m currently on a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. This brief blog is my attempt to get my head round this and start to work out, in these new circumstances, what on earth I can do for the next six months (until I’m due back teaching).

With a focus on organised playing out sessions on residential streets, I’m supposed to thinking about the following questions:

  • how play creates a potential space for new and creative relationships between neighbours of all ages
  • how regular playing out intensifies children’s and adults’ connection to the objects and materialities of the street itself, through hanging out on and exploration of its kerbs, roads, pavements, trees, walls, and other affordances
  • how the radical potential of play might open up debates around the place and value of relationships in our everyday lives;
  • how these explorations around play and relationships map on to developing policy debates around community, loneliness, intergenerationality, and belonging.

In short, my work at the moment is focused on thinking about the relationships between play, neighbours and streets.

I received ethical approval for my fieldwork, to be based on observational and participatory research on streets across the UK, just as the coronavirus crisis hit, as universities withdrew support for all travel, and, then as the national lockdown was introduced. I can’t travel around the UK and streets will most likely not be playing out anyway, if they adhere to current guidance. So, I won’t be spending time on streets as they play out this spring and summer.

Yet, the relationships between play, neighbours and streets seem to be both all the more important and all the more complicated. As the coronavirus crisis and the lockdown have enforced new conditions for social contact, for the use of public space, and for the everyday lives of children and adults, my research questions seem both critical and almost impossible.

Of the many emergences in recent weeks, we have seen thousands of examples of neighbours connecting to support each other through notes distributed to letterboxes, through Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and through more formally organised mutual aid groups. This has happened on streets across the country (and of course elsewhere) but it certainly happened rapidly and fairly straightforwardly on streets that were already connected through play, where the intimate social infrastructures of neighbourhood connections already had names and faces attached. Our recent research on streets that play out found that 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. We concluded that 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, and we have seen these relationships develop and transform in recent weeks. But we also know, of course, that these connections are uneven and that they can be unwelcome and exclusionary, so there are many critical questions to be asked about this blossoming of neighbourhood support, its value, and its impacts.

At the same time, our streets have been transformed by the restrictions of non-essential movement – car traffic has dropped enormously. The car has been parked, literally and metaphorically, and streets have quietened. In some places, there have been reports of speeding as the awkward few seek to take advantage of the situation, but in many instances, streets have been reclaimed by cyclists, families walking, to the shops or for exercise, runners, old and young, dog walkers, and children on scooters. The empty spaces of the street invite us to facilitate social distancing by using the whole of the street, not just its margins. In some ways, children and their families become paradoxically more visible on our streets, even in a time of lockdown, as they take their approved breaks from home-schooling to get daily fresh air and exercise. As I watch my street from my desk, most of the passers-by are parents with children, walking, running, scooting, cycling and in buggies. It is not like this in more normal times. Yet, the roads do still belong to cars and this remaking is both partial and precarious. Cycling and walking campaigners are increasingly asking that these changes be recognised and valued, as life eventually returns to normal, so that we can secure more permanently safer passage on our streets for pedestrians and cyclists. For those who dwell on streets – and especially children, families and the more vulnerable – we might also push harder the more challenging questions about how we could use street spaces better for all those who live and play on them and those who move through them, questions about who has the possibility and the right to spend time on and occupy our residential streets.

Credit: Karl Jilg/Swedish Road Administration

We also see a proliferation of playful acts between neighbours – from Italian and Spanish apartment residents singing in impromptu balcony choirs, to children’s painted rainbows appearing as signs of hope and developing into #rainbowtrails, to window bear hunts inspired by Michael Rosen, to hopscotch grids and other chalk art on pavements. The desire to connect through play – even at a distance – reflects the critical importance of play, for children and adults. As many play theorists have argued, we often make connections through play that we don’t make as easily otherwise. These acts then can be seen as evidence of our recognition that play facilitates connections and opens up new spaces for contact and for relationships. These acts would seem to be an attempt to remain social, to reach out, in a context where physically that is now extremely difficult. These playful signs, trails, sounds offer ways to hold a connection that is joyful and enlivening and that connects us as humans, even if we can rarely connect physically across the short distances that separate us. Those additional pedestrians, those families making the most of their time outside – who have space and time to linger and dawdle – stop to spot the rainbows or the teddy bears and make a brief, remote connection to their neighbours, perhaps also waving through the windows too. But we can also identify critiques of these acts – they’re superficial, gestural – like the #clapforNHS – and they perhaps do too little to really transform the spaces and relationships of our everyday lives. Their appeal is immediate but their value is as yet unclear.

All these acts are all the more important as the spaces where we might otherwise connect and play are closed to us – schools, libraries, workplaces, each other’s homes, and, of course, playgrounds. Across the UK and beyond, playgrounds were one of the first casualties, as the social distancing guidance tightened, for fear of contact being too close and of contaminated swings and slides, as researchers evidenced the half-life of the coronavirus on different surfaces. The spaces and practices of outdoor play have been the subject of considerable debate amongst play activists since the crisis started, with a recognition that things could not continue as normal. Yet, there is also a recognition that space for outdoor play must somehow be protected, especially for those who do not have gardens, yards, or even balconies. As some municipal parks close for fear that social distancing isn’t being or can’t be maintained in such open, public spaces, others are calling for priority access to parks for children and their families. But what of our streets as spaces for play, especially in the context of falling traffic and their reclaiming by pedestrians and cyclists? Are there safe ways to advocate for outdoor play on our doorsteps that might alleviate some of the very real difficulties that a lockdown creates for families with children? And how might this rethinking challenge us again to reimagine where play takes place?

In all these myriad ways, my research questions are being brought into very sharp – but very different – focus. They are being refracted, reshaped, and challenged everyday, with new developments, new ideas and new practices. I am extraordinarily wary of attempting to capitalise on the covid crisis – but these questions of play, streets and neighbours are my job for the next six months. It would be utterly inappropriate too to ignore the changing circumstances and new challenges. How I refigure these questions in this context is a politically and personally difficult problem, complicated daily by the now more intense work of parenting and by the distractions and obstacles of life in a pandemic.

Teaching and Learning Emotional Geographies

Following a successful and engaging session at the RGS-IBG conference earlier this year on Teaching and Learning Emotional Geographies (http://conference.rgs.org/AC2019/303), we are putting together a proposal for a special issue of Journal of Geography in Higher Education (https://www.tandfonline.com/toc/cjgh20/current).

We are looking for a few more papers for the proposal, focused on similar themes to those explored during the conference session, including:

  • Emotional geographies as a specialised module/course
  • Embedding emotions in the wider geographical curriculum
  • Ways to engage with emotions in teaching and learning and innovative teaching practices
  • Teaching emotional geographies through relationships and (self-)reflexivity
  • Ethics of teaching emotional geographies
  • Supervision of student projects on emotional geographies

We already have proposed papers exploring these issues in a range of undergraduate/postgraduate and UK/international contexts, and would welcome contributions that would add to this diversity of experience.

If our proposal is successful, the papers should be 5,000-6,000 words in length and we will be looking for contributions to be submitted around the middle of 2020, although this can be negotiated.

For now, if you are interested in contributing to the proposed special issue, please send your title, abstract (max 250 words), name, affiliation and email contact to Matej Blazek (matej.blazek@ncl.ac.uk) and Alison Stenning (alison.stenning@ncl.ac.uk) by Wednesday December 11th 2019.

Play’s the Thing, or why is play getting so much attention at the moment?

I know you always spot more of something when it’s on your mind (and I spend way too much time on “play” Twitter; indeed this post started with an idea for a tweet), but I have been struck in recent months and weeks by quite how much attention play is getting at the moment. From education, to government, the arts, health, and the environment, amongst many others, play and its potentials are being increasingly written about, promoted, and celebrated. Almost every day – and certainly every week – I see events and publications and interventions that explore or engage with play.

In no particular order (as Strictly might say), later this week the Wellcome Foundation launches a major exhibition on play and why its important for us, and Michael Rosen has published his Book of Play to sit alongside the exhibition, urging us all, children and adults, to make more time for play, of all sorts, in our lives, not least because “play seems to develop the qualities that we desperately need now”. Just last week, Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition movement, released his new book, From What Is to What If and dedicated the first chapter to play, asking “What if we took play seriously?” and exploring play’s potential to open up creative futures for us and our planet. For Hopkins, “Whatever work we do to engage people in making change can be deepened and expanded if it has play at its heart. We need to play at living in the kind of world we want to create.” Play’s apparent potential to inject new ideas and energy into so many contemporary debates feeds into the promotion of play in all sorts of public debates. Speakers all over the country from diverse backgrounds – education and early years, therapy, the arts – appear at events to, amongst other things, encourage “play and games in adulthood” or to reclaim “play and creativity to enhance resilience“.

Alongside these more popular perspectives, a new academic journal has been launched dedicated to play in adulthood, and a forthcoming special issue focuses on the idea of the playful academic, exploring “playful attitudes, approaches and activities in learning, teaching and research”. This echoes increasingly common calls for the university to become more playful, indeed for universities to become playgrounds. As just one example of institutions promoting the academic study of play – often using playful methodologies – Cambridge University and the LEGO Foundation are advertising PhD studentships on the role of play in children’s education, development and learning, working with the much-feted LEGO Professor of Play, Paul Ramchandani, and his colleagues. This partnership is part of the LEGO Foundation’s wider commitment “to re-defining play and re-imagining learning to ensure children develop the skills needed to navigate an uncertain and complex world“. LEGO’s work in this sphere is part of the Real Play Coalition, an unlikely alliance, launched in 2018, of LEGO, Ikea, National Geographic and Unilever, “to create a movement that prioritises the importance of play as not something that only lets children be children, but as something that sparks the fire for a child’s development and learning”. Elsewhere, the ever-growing popularity of Lego Serious Play in both the corporate and academic worlds means that rarely a day goes by without a conference call with a LEGO session or social media images of children and adults using LEGO to explore and answer many of the tricky questions of the day.

In more concrete forms, the right to play where we live – whether that’s on segregated housing estates or on busy and polluted residential streets – has been the focus of campaigns of growing intensity in recent months, with support increasingly coming from government offices. The Department for Transport recently encouraged all local authorities to put in place policies for street play, while the Greater London Authority banned segregated play in future housing developments. In schools, campaigns to halt the reduction of break times have highlighted the loss of opportunities to play, and therefore, amongst other things, to exercise and build friendships. Playful interventions in public space, for children and adults, also seem to have blossomed in the last year or so – though I know many have been working tirelessly on these kinds of events for years and years – injecting a very visible and challenging playfulness into our cities and towns. And architects and urban planners are finding ways to create space for play in more permanent ways too, for example in the Stirling Prize-winning Goldsmith Street in Norwich which included in its design alleyways and green spaces for children’s play.

What many of these projects and events have in common – and there are many more examples I could have drawn on – is the idea that play has been driven out of our lives and out of the everyday spaces of our lives – homes, streets, schools, workplaces, and so on. They are not always clear – or in agreement about – what has caused play to be so undermined, but many highlight the role of technology, the metricisation of education, and the speed up and increasing precarity of worklife. And all are clear – and vocal – about what this loss means. The erosion of play in our everyday lives diminishes our potential for health and happiness, for creativity, for relationships, for imagining possible futures.

For some of these initiatives, personalities and perspectives, play promotes a radical reclaiming of space and time in the our increasingly corporatised, privatised, regulated, divided everyday lives. It suggests an alternative motivation to profit and power. Play can subvert the narrow logics of 21st century life, and it needs to be reclaimed for these reasons.

I agree with this view – the radical potential of play is enormous. But – and it’s a big but – there is also the potential for play to tamed and instrumentalised, for the rhetoric of play to become the new ‘creativity‘, legitimating austerity and colonising the spaces of our lives that need to be free, open – playful – and not drawn in to a logic of learning, development and ‘ideas’. We must remember that this same period has seen a rapid and dramatic destruction of spaces for play, as a direct result of austerity, and that this has happened against a background of decades of loss in the play and playwork sector.

There is much to be celebrated in all the attention play is attracting, but we need to be careful, and sceptical, too. The radical potential of play must be protected not tamed (and there are some, such as Gordon Sturrock and Matthias Poulsen, amongst many others, who have made this case much more consistently and convincingly than me).

Potential space and playing out: Exploring play, neighbours and streets

As I suggested in my previous post, I was waiting on a decision from a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship application; this was successful and I am now working on this project.

Updates will be posted from time to time, reflecting on reading, thinking and planning over the next few months and on fieldwork through 2020.

Playing Out, Relationships and Loneliness: Making Connections?

The recent debates about loneliness and, in particular, the launch of the government’s strategy to tackle loneliness have really animated me in recent weeks and months. More and more reports which explore the experience of loneliness for groups across society, including children and young people, are heartbreaking and angry-making in equal measure. With Sarah Hall, I have argued strongly for a much more political perspective on loneliness, which takes account of austerity and the uneven impacts and burdens of loneliness, but more substantively, I’m also trying to reflect on, understand and explore alternatives to some of the social shifts that have brought us to this place.

Others are better placed and have much more expertise to theorise loneliness. My focus is on thinking about how playing out – an international movement promoting temporary residential road closures to enable children to play and neighbours to meet, involving over 800 streets in nearly 80 UK local authorities – might create the space and atmosphere for connection and present a radical challenge to the erosion of social infrastructures and community spaces, broadly defined.

Academic literatures demonstrate that play itself and spending time outdoors are critical for the formation of a sense of belonging and for relationships to wider communities (Lester and Russell 2010, Gill 2007; Prisk and Cusworth 2018); and streets have long been identified as potential spaces of encounter (Hubbard and Lyon 2018). Recent research by Playing Out (2017) suggested that these benefits are evident on streets that play out. 91% of participants knew more people on their street as a result of playing out, and 84% felt they belonged more in their neighbourhood. In pilot research carried out with streets that play out in North Tyneside, particular forms of sociability that enabled emotional, social, and material flows between neighbours and facilitated a positive reinvigoration of relationships on streets were regularly identified (Stenning 2018).

Although the government’s strategy argues that “loneliness doesn’t discriminate”, there is considerable evidence (DDCMS 2018; What Works 2018) that particular populations are more at risk, such as those with disabilities, special needs, or poor physical or mental health (and their families), new parents, carers, and those who have recently moved home (especially if in the context of bereavement or separation). There is also considerable evidence of loneliness amongst children and young people (Action for Children 2017). These are also groups that have been particularly hard-hit by cuts to benefits and to statutory services, for whom access to spaces to meet and find support are likely to have diminished in the context of austerity (Stenning and Hall 2018). Yet, these are also groups which are likely to be well-represented on streets where neighbours play out.

My research around these themes is focused on two deeply interconnected projects.

The first, developed collaboratively with Playing Out, is centred on the desire to build an evidence base around playing out and loneliness and identify strategies to develop playing out in particular ways that might alleviate loneliness. This is funded by Newcastle University’s Social Justice Fund and will be based on pilot research in Bristol in the first half of 2019.

The second is a broader – as yet unfunded – project which asks how playing out shapes residents’ attachments, material and emotional, to their streets and the people on them and how play has the potential to challenge the erosion of relationships in everyday places. It is rooted in an idea of potential space, developed from the work of Donald Winnicott and defined as “an inviting and safe interpersonal field in which one can be spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to others” (Casement, 1985, 162). This part of the research seeks to think about how playing out might connect not only to the reported rise in loneliness, but also to longer-standing debates about austerity and neoliberalism and their impacts on communities and relationships. Through this, it connects to ideas about the loss of shared spaces of intergenerational encounter and community and of social infrastructures (Klinenberg 2018) and about a continuing decline in the quality of relationships in our everyday lives (Rustin 2013), including with our neighbours (The Young Foundation 2010).

Play on streets is about making connections, in all sorts of material and emotional ways, but it also offers me an opportunity to think about and make connections between lots of different literatures and ideas that excite me.