In the last few weeks, with my PlayMeetStreet hat on, I’ve had to deal with more than the usual number of questions, raised by residents on streets that we’re planning to set up a play street on, asking why children can’t play in adjacent parks, green spaces or beaches, or even private gardens.
This might be because we happen to be working at the moment with a number of streets near local green and blue spaces, or I might just be noticing it more. Either way it’s an interesting phenomenon to think through.
Of course, this has been a recurring concern or objection when we’ve been setting up play streets, and in our FAQs circulated as residents consult their neighbours, we clearly state this:
Why can’t children play in local parks or their gardens? Even though there are sometimes other local spaces to play, the idea of street play is for children to be able to play on their own streets, outside their homes, and to meet other local children, like many adults used to do when they were young. Street play is also about community building and neighbours getting to know each other. Children playing together on their street helps to build a sense of community and belonging, which in turn makes your street a safer and friendlier place.
The objections vary – some suggest that the desire for play streets results from parents’ laziness and their reluctance to bother taking them to the park or the beach. Others suggest, as we might imagine, that streets are for cars not for children, and that children’s place is in designated, segregated spaces, a position Tim Gill and others have critiqued. Indeed, doyen of children’s play, Colin Ward argued in his The Child in the City (1978): “One should be able to play everywhere, easily, loosely, and not forced into a ‘playground’ or ‘park’.”
What has been particularly interesting for me in these questions, however, has been the sense from those writing that they see themselves as champions of children’s play and sincerely believe that their suggestion is better for children, particularly the children on their street.
Play on streets is seen very much as a sub-optimal choice.
There are two parts to this.
The first is the idea that parks and beaches are the spaces where children would choose to play, that our abundant local natural spaces, green and blue, offer children a richer environment for play. These natural spaces are contrasted with the apparently hostile landscapes of roads and pavements and the presence of cars. Streets are described as dirty, hard, and risky. Whilst there is no doubt that play in natural spaces can be rich and rewarding, offering opportunities that indeed don’t exist on residential streets, the idea that these are better places to play is much more contested.
The second is that play streets are OK, but not for these pleasant, green neighbourhoods where the children and their families are ‘lucky’ to have access to private gardens and well-tended and attractive public open spaces. Play streets are fine for more urban neighbourhoods, where flats or homes without gardens dominate, and where playable, outdoor space is limited, but not for those ‘lucky’ neighbourhoods. There are clearly class inferences in all of this.
This is an interesting provocation. In one sense, play streets are especially valuable in those places that have limited access to safe, communal spaces for play. The birth of play streets in early twentieth century New York and in mid-twentieth century Britain was very much driven by the idea that poorer children in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods needed space to play, in the absence of private gardens, public parks, or playgrounds.
All of this underlines however the idea that play streets are only for those children who have no other options. Even for the apparently progressive proponents of play streets during the twentieth century, play on streets was very much seen as a poor substitute for “gardens and open spaces”.
From this perspective – echoed in the messages we received – play on streets is fine as a last resort for poor children, but streets are not where children should be playing, unless there is no alternative, and they are not where children would choose to play.
By contrast, decades of play research and playwork – and hundreds of years of experience – suggest that the street is in fact often children’s chosen space for play. As Mike Barclay and Ben Tawil note “the places children value most outside of the home are not formally recognised as spaces for play, but instead are the streets where they live”.
For children, the streets where they live offer other playmates, kerbs, walls, patches of green space, smooth or bumpy pavements to play on, proximity to home, the easy possibility of adult-free play, and much more. Indeed, streets have been the primary space for play for generations, not least for those generations who tend to be the primary complainants.
Of course, other research underlines some of the other particular benefits of play on streets. Children’s streets are at the heart of their explorations of and relationships with the world and the ability to play in them is critical to their sense of belonging to and learning within them. Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell state clearly that “play is the principal way in which children participate within their own communities” and Tim Gill, in a quote cited regularly in support of street play, insists that “the street is the starting point for all journeys.”
Making these arguments to those who complain seems to have little impact. They often just reiterate that other places to play are more pleasant.
All of this leads me to think that what we are confronting here is a longstanding view, one which is undoubtedly overlaid with inferences of class as I have suggested, that children only belong in certain, designated spaces, that, for my correspondents, children simply don’t belong in the public spaces on their streets, and certainly not in nice neighbourhoods. This is still more interesting because play streets, in their current incarnation, are sometimes seen as very middle class interventions, in places where residents have enough social and cultural capital to navigate the necessary bureaucracy and make a claim to their street as a space for play.
All this resonates for me as I’m increasingly drawn to centring class in my ongoing research and practice around play streets, something that I hope to be able to think and write about more.
It is, of course, worth recognising that these objections are still rare – in the vast majority of resident consultations on new play streets, no objections are raised. Many people, in North Tyneside and beyond, do recognise the value of play on streets and of play streets. But it is nevertheless interesting to dwell for a moment on these particular imaginations of places for play and places for children.