Places to Play, Places for Children

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.

North Tyneside’s Play Streets

As a researcher and activist with an interest in play streets, and in the midst of a pandemic that prevented planned fieldwork, I have spent some time in recent months piecing together some of the histories of play streets in North Tyneside, with a view to developing some academic and activist work around this theme.

As a starting point, this blog post sets out some of the developments, in time and space, of this history, from 1938 to more or less the present day. It’s very much a factual account, rather than an academic analysis, or even really an attempt to make any kind of argument.

There are lots of gaps and questions: if you have any answers, from your own experiences and memories, please do let me know in the comments below.


In 1938, parliament passed the Street Playgrounds Act, responding to concerns that many children, in poorer neighbourhoods in large urban areas in particular, were at risk playing on the streets, in the absence of any other safe and accessible spaces to play. The Hansard record of the House of Lords debate noted that “In the ten years from 1924 to 1933 inclusive, over 12,000 boys and girls under fifteen years of age were killed in the streets in England and Wales alone, and over 300,000 mutilated or injured.” In addition, this period also saw more than 2000 children prosecuted for playing on the street. In short, children’s lives were at risk as they played and they were also deemed to be ‘out of place’ whilst they played.

The 1938 act built on the experience of New York, where the Police Commissioner introduced street closures for play in 1914, and pilots in two London boroughs and in Salford and Manchester, where local schemes were introduced before the national legislation. In Salford, the local experiment reduced child road deaths to almost zero.

Local authorities around the country responded with varying enthusiasm to the new act, though by 1963, there were146 play street orders designating 750 play streets nationally.

Locally, in January 1939, Tynemouth Borough Council swiftly made their refusal to engage in this new movement clear: “No action is to be taken to close any streets to enable them to be used as playgrounds for children” whilst noting that “The council has power to do this under the Street Playgrounds Act 1938” (Evening News, 23.1.39, p.7).

When the matter was discussed at a council meeting on 25th January 1939, a Councillor Hails, referring to this recommendation, “said he was not happy about the arrangements in the borough on this question”. He argued that, in the face of the council’s refusal to designate play streets, “in certain areas of the town the school playgrounds be opened”. The mayor (Mr Harry Gee) retorted “We have nothing to do with that.” (Evening News, 25.1.39, p.1).

The first organisation in the north east to positively engage with the idea of play streets was the North East Women’s Parliament which, in February 1944, “urg[ed] upon all local authorities in the region the necessity of establishing play streets for children” (Evening News, 21.1.44, p.5), in the context of their wider work to secure space for play for children.

When this call was under review by Tynemouth Borough’s Parks and Sands Committee, the leader writer of the Evening News, “Collingwood”, expressed considerable disdain: “Surely it is not now seriously proposed that certain streets in a town should be marked off as ‘play streets’?”, he wrote, “Residents of any street specially marked off for such a purpose would, I fancy, have something to say about it.” (1.3.44, p.2). And Tynemouth Borough Council seemed to be of a similar view, stating, in April 1944, that “no action is be taken with regard to a resolution of the North East Women’s Parliament that consideration should be given to the necessity of establishing play streets for children” (Evening News, 24.4.44, p.3).

Yet, by October 1946, the Tynemouth Road Safety Committee was recommending the creation of play streets on 16 of the borough’s streets, fifteen in North Shields and one in Cullercoats (Evening News, 15.10.46, p.8):

Owing to the lack of playing fields, it is proposed that the following streets be closed to vehicular traffic until such time as proper playing facilities are available for children in the near vicinity: Wilson Street, Shakespeare Street and Yeoman Street, and part of Cardonnel Street, Seymour Street, Victoria Street, Tennyson Terrace, Trinity Street, Laet Street, Thrift Street, Penman Street, Gardner Street, Coburg Street, North King Street, Linskill Street and Eleanor Street.

For reasons that were not reported, the road safety committee removed Coburg Street and North King Street from their list at their meeting on 16th October 1946. Although creating play streets on the remaining 14 streets was apparently approved, nothing seemed to happen in any hurry, prompting a concerned resident to write to the local paper asking what had happened to this “sensible proposal” (Evening News, 19.9.47, p.2). The first Tynemouth (Street Playground) Order was finally published on 29th May 1948, designating 13 streets as play streets. At some point, Gardner Street and Linskill Street were removed from this final list and never actually became play streets; this may have been because bomb damage in their immediate vicinities had radically changed the prospects for these streets. In any case, 11 streets were finally designated by this first order, 10 in North Shields and one in Cullercoats.

This first order was very specific about the days and times that the streets were to function as play streets – Mondays to Fridays from 5pm to 9pm, Saturdays from 1pm to 9pm, and Sundays all day, from 9am to 9pm. This is quite different to the orders seen on later play street signs (see below) – at some point these times were clearly revised. And it is also interesting to note that on school days, children would not have been able to safely play out immediately after school, nor in daylight in the winter months.

Exceptions included the “conveyancing of persons, goods and merchandise”, road maintenance, and military training. The first exception in particular was significant since, in the 1950s, many of the vehicles on urban roads, especially in poorer neighbourhoods, would have been goods vehicles (milk vans, coal lorries, post vans etc.) and, as we will see, this became an issue on the designated streets. This may also explain why the streets didn’t function as play streets until after business hours on weekdays and after the likely busy period for deliveries on Saturday mornings. Even with this significant move to create safe space for children on their streets, we can still see motor vehicles and deliveries taking precedence over children, in an echo of what was to return some 60 or 70 years later when online deliveries are seen in part to account for an increasing proportion of traffic on residential streets.

Without access (in the context of the pandemic) to the borough development plan, the minutes of the Tynemouth Watch Committee, and other documents explaining the decision-making process, we can’t know for sure why these streets were chosen, but the primary aim of the 1938 Street Playgrounds Act was to create space for children to play on streets where there were high numbers of resident children and few other very local spaces for play, such that creating safer streets for play was seen as a way of bringing “relief to many mothers whose youngsters have no playground” (Evening News, 5.6.50, p.2). This seems to explain the designation of the 10 streets in North Shields, all of which were located in one of four neighbourhoods in the west of the town. The Town Clerk, Fred Egner, explained some of the rationale for the creation of play streets: “You have children playing in the streets in cases where there were no accessible playgrounds. It is the policy these days to have one or two streets where traffic is restricted, so that children can play in safety” (Evening News, 2.6.50, p.5). In this explanation, two things seem worth highlighting: the plan was indeed to have clusters of streets to create safe space in neighbourhoods, and “street playgrounds” were very much seen as a poorer alternative to playgrounds. In a theme which recurs today in debates around children’s play, it seemed the preference was that children should play in dedicated and separate spaces, rather than in the places they choose on their doorsteps. This echoes the position in Salford, where play streets had been trialled but seen as a poor substitute for “gardens and open spaces” (Manchester Evening News, 7.10.2017).

The TriangleCardonnel Street, Seymour Street, Upper Penman Street; Upper Elsdon Street was also designated at a later date
Milbourne PlaceVictoria Street and Wilson Street
West Ropery BanksShakespeare Street, Tennyson Terrace, and initially Trinity Street, swiftly replaced by Addison Street
East Ropery Banks Laet Street and Yeoman Street

These sets of streets were all terraces of early twentieth century housing, with many Tyneside flats, doors opening directly on to the streets. In the Triangle and East Ropery Banks, these streets remain today much as they were when they were built and in the early 1950s when they were designated as play streets. In Milbourne Place, all the homes have been demolished and whilst Victoria Street still exists, there is no trace of Wilson Street; it is visible only on historic maps. In West Ropery Banks, all but a few houses have been demolished and rebuilt, and the layout of the roads changed, though all are still traceable.

Victoria Street today; Wilson Street ran parallel, to the left (west) of this photo

There had been considerable bomb damage in these neighbourhoods during the Second World War, with exploded bombs recorded on Addison Street and Victoria Street, and on many other adjacent streets. It’s likely that this will have been as a result of their proximity to the docks on the banks of the River Tyne and the coal mines and other industrial works to the south and west of North Shields. This would have left bombsites and vacant lots around these neighbourhoods, and it is likely, as happened elsewhere, that these sites became playgrounds for local children.

Addison Street today; a bomb fell on this street on 30th September 1941

Indeed “Collingwood” in the Evening News, who had earlier been so disdainful of play streets, suggested that, in these very neighbourhoods (Evening News, 5.6.50, p.2):

some of the open spaces created by bomb and slum clearance might also be turned into miniature playgrounds for toddlers. A little fence, sandpit and a little imagination – and Tynemouth Council could, at very little expense, convert eyesores into havens of happiness for youngsters.

The demolitions and redevelopments that took place through the 1960s and 70s signal that these were all areas of significant disadvantage. This is supported by the inclusion of all these areas in the North Tyneside Community Development Project (CDP) established by the government in 1972 (till 1977) to work with local communities to organise for change in labour and housing markets, and alleviate poverty. Uniquely within the 12 CDPs across the country, play was an important part of the work in North Shields, with action groups in all these neighbourhoods identifying safe space for children to play as a key aim of their collective work, though there is no specific mention of what was happening on the designated play streets in the reports of the CDP.

The designation of play streets in North Tyneside also seemed to respond to concerns that children should not be playing out, whether it was safe or not. In June 1950, “MP” of North Shields wrote to The Evening News (7.6.50, p.2), as follows:

The first play street order was the most significant. The Evening News reported (15.10.46, p.8) that “If the closing of the streets proves successful, the provision of further play streets will be considered”. In the following years, we see both new streets designated and calls from residents, usually mothers, on other streets for play streets to be established. It seems that the designation of some play streets in the borough allowed residents elsewhere to imagine the possibility that they too might have safe streets for their children.

In almost all instances, these calls appeared in the context of deaths and serious injuries of children playing out, or of a more general concern that there was nowhere safe for children to play, and that deaths or accidents would occur if nothing was done. In some instances, these calls fell on deaf ears and highlighted the continuing battle to prioritise children’s play – and their lives – over the needs of drivers.

in 1958, the death of a six year old killed on Waterville Road on The Ridges, just around the corner from Briarwood Avenue (see below), led residents to request a zebra crossing or a play street on adjoining Rowan Avenue (Evening News, 3.10.58, p.4); mothers testifed to their fears for their children:

Every time there is a screech of brakes you are frightened to look out of the window.

It is a terrible road. Every time my children go out into the garden I am terrified in case they get on to the road.

Yet, no play street was created here.

At a similar time, on Nater Street in Whitley Bay, a local mother “pointed out there were no playing fields in the vicinity and only older children were allowed on the beach by their parents”. This would have been Whitley Bay’s first play street, but this request was eventually rejected (Evening News, 4.11.58, p.8). Similarly, a few years later, an anonymous letter from a “young mother” from Woodbine Avenue, Wallsend begged Wallsend Accident Prevention Committee to create play street, as an oasis in a neighbourhood surrounded by streets with heavy traffic. The request was passed to the appropriate council department but no play street order was ever approved (The Journal, 8.4.64, p.7). In 1979, a petition from Waterloo Place, North Shields, was rejected, after an earlier claim in 1977, on the grounds that “a Government circular suggests that play streets should not be created where the streets adjoin a busy road” (Evening Chronicle, 3.7.79, p.9).

On Lilburn Street, North Shields, in March 1968, the council’s decision not to create play street “resulted in a protest by parents” (The Journal, 29.3.68, p.9). The parents argued that:

The street is an island surrounded by main roads, and there is nowhere for our children to play unless they cross a main road. The council will probably wait until there is an accident before they do anything.

Another resident, however, objected to the proposal on the grounds that “It would reduce the value of the property with kids playing around.” This echoes concerns raised in Newcastle, in Jesmond in particular. The opposition was upheld by Alderman Thomas Crawshaw:

This is a nice wide street, and there are a lot of cars in the street which would not be able to park. We don’t think there is any need to make it into a play street.

This prioritisation of parking reveals both a concerning set of values, but also a misconception – nothing in a street playground order prevented residents from parking on their streets.

Other objections on existing play streets echoed this Lilburn Street resident’s concerns about the nuisance of children playing out. A report from Charlotte Street, Wallsend in the the Evening Chronicle (24.1.64, p.5) expressed concerns that the “big boys” from neighbouring streets had taken over the play street, marking football goals on the street, breaking windows and climbing on drainpipes to retrieve balls. At the same time, residents noted that “drivers take no notice of the warning signs and even use their horns to clear the street when they drive through it.”

Despite these concerns, objections, rejections and misconceptions, there is some evidence that the creation of play streets in the borough was shifting the prevailing view on children’s right to play on their streets. Not only were residents emboldened to demand safe space for their own children, but local organisations, such as the Tynemouth Watch Commitee, were also making more general calls for more careful driving on ‘quiet streets’. Indeed, in a remarkable shift from his position in 1944, the Evening News’ leader writer “Collingwood” was making a bold argument in support of children’s safety on their streets by 1957 (Evening News, 24.7.57, p.2).

People may argue that children should not play on streets. But they are the sort of people who have never had children of their own – who don’t realise that it is nigh on impossible to keep children safely tucked away behind a garden gate. While children may stray to danger there is no need for motorists to add to that danger. Main roads are meant to carry the traffic – not the quiet streets leading from them. Leave the quiet streets to the butcher and the baker and their vans, calling on residents. It will lead to greater safety.

It’s important to note that “Collingwood” is only asking here for a recognition that children may “stray to danger” but he was, by doing so, recognising the real danger that the growing number of motor vehicles on ‘quiet streets’ posed.

This was not the only view, however. In 1954, a “warning to parents to keep their children from playing on roads on summer nights was issued by Wallsend Accident Prevention Committee”, apparently inspired by an electricity board maintenance engineer who complained that “it was a nightmare” driving his van “because of children on the road”. The committee acknowledged the shortage of local playing fields but also noted that children were not using the local play spaces provided, and seemed reluctant to blame a spate of recent child injuries on drivers (Evening News, 8.5.54, p.4). This perspective, prioritising drivers, relieving them of any responsibility for collisions, and recommending that children play elsewhere, is echoed in a letter to the Evening News from a North Shields resident who raised concerns for those with “business clientele” in and around the play streets (specifically, Redburn View on The Ridges) arguing that the necessary diversion increased inconvenience and running costs “when the children of that area have access to a splendid play field nearby” (Evening News, 30.6.54, p.2).

Redburn View was designated a play street in December 1953 (Evening News, 24.12.53, p.10), on account, according to the Tynemouth Watch Committee, of its narrowness (Evening News, 28.10.53, p.11). Redburn View was a long street which skirted the western edge of The Ridges, passing underneath the Newcastle-Tynemouth railway line (now the metro line) and offering one of only a few crossing points on the estate. As the letter quoted above suggested, some saw it as an essential route – and this seemed to be reflected in the fact that a number of drivers were prosecuted for driving down this street (see below).

As far as I can tell, the only successful resident petition for a play street designation came from an actual, rather than feared, incident. On Briarwood Avenue on The Ridges, the death of a two year old boy, killed by a lorry driver outside his home, led to a unanimous residents’ petition, led by a father of nine, to Tynemouth Watch Committee (The Journal, 5.10.60, p.3). Briarwood Avenue was designated a play street around late 1960.

In 1959, a successful request came not from residents but from an organisation, the Poor Children’s Home Association, a forerunner of Children North East. The PCHA opened a children’s home, Eustace Percy House, at 36 Beverley Terrace, Cullercoats, and campaigned for a zebra crossing from the moment they opened, so that their resident children might safely access the beach across the road for play. The request for a zebra crossing was rejected and “the children [were] told to use the back lane” for play (The Evening News, 7.1.59, p.6). In February 1959, a play street order was approved for Back Beverley Terrace, from sunrise to sunset.

The only other clearly documented designations came in May 1963, from Wallsend Council. At the time, the town council seemed to be investing in new play spaces, creating both new playgrounds and new playing fields, often around new housing developments. In this context, residents of Myrtle Grove, Wallsend – a street of early twentieth century terraces and Tyneside flats – requested a play street. The response was surprising: “the council is going one better. It is to seek approval to make not only Myrtle Grove, but its neighbours Ash Grove and Willow Grove, into play streets.” (Evening Chronicle, 9.5.63, p.13). This was the only other occasion when a set of neighbouring streets was designated, as they had been in the first order in North Shields.

The southern half of Collingwood View, North Shields, was designated in early 1960 at the request of the Tynemouth Watch Committee, reported in an article entitled “This street is for children” (Evening Chronicle, 4.2.60, p.18). Charlotte Street was designated in October 1962. Others streets designated included Rae Avenue, Douglas Street in Wallsend and The Nook in North Shields. I don’t yet know much about these streets’ designation – any information would be most welcome.

It seems Whitby Street in North Shields was also at some point designated as a play street. Its neighbouring streets, Coburg Street and North King Street, were both listed in the first set of streets identified by Tynemouth council, but not in fact designated. I can find no trace of Whitby Street becoming a play street and it is not currently covered by a play street order, as far as I can tell, yet past residents recall it being a play street, and indeed in 2014 (and earlier) the sign is clearly visible on Google Street View. There is, however, no sign today.

Some of the confusion around the timing and purpose of designation comes from the restructuring of the local authorities in the area in the 1970s. North Tyneside Council was formed in 1974, out of an amalgamation of Tynemouth Borough Council and Wallsend Council, together with parts of Whitley Bay, Longbenton and Seaton Valley, all previously in Northumberland. While some play street orders were formally published on the pages on the Shields Evening News, others were reported Newcastle’s Journal or Evening Chronicle.

As far as I can tell from reports in local papers, the reception of all these play streets was mixed. In September 1951, just a few months after the first order, “Collingwood”, now a vocal supporter of play streets, raised concerns about motorists ignoring the signs, such that some of these streets were “carrying as much traffic as ever” (Evening News, 28.9.51, p.2). “Collingwood” quoted a driver saying “it was about time some of them showed a bit more responsibility and recognised the children’s right to play in the streets”.

Some motorists’ reluctance to abide by the new orders resulted in prosecutions, documented in the pages of the Evening News. In July 1955, George Wells of Newcastle was fined £2 for driving down Redburn View (Evening News, 27.7.55, p.2). In June 1956, Stanley Rees Evans of Monkseaton was fined 10 shillings for driving down Addison Street “without stopping” which he described as “a genuine mistake on his part” (Evening News, 11.6.56, page unclear). In April 1958, Elsie Rollo was fined £1 for “driving in a street playground” [Penman Street], while on business for her employer; her defence was that “I did not notice the sign as that district was new to me” (Evening News, 16.4.58, p.5). In September 1958, a driver, Raymond Oliver, from one play street (Eleanor Street) was fined £1 for driving his van down another, Redburn View (Evening News, 15.9.58, p.7) and another driver, Robert Clark, was fined £2 for driving down the same street. For an offence in the same month and on the same street, a 16 year old was also prosecuted and fined 2 shillings for riding a motorcycle (Evening News, 18.9.58, p.8).

Cyclists too, perhaps surprisingly, were also prosecuted for contravening the play streets orders. In June 1953, four men and two juveniles (both boys aged 16) were discharged by Tynemouth Magistrates’ Court, with costs of 4 shillings each for riding bicycles down Addison Street on May 27th of that year. It seems the Chief Constable wanted to make an example of these cyclists as it was reported that “the prosecutions had been brought to publicise the fact that no vehicular traffic is allowed to pass through a play street during the day” (Evening News, 18.6.53, p.7; see also Evening News, 17.6.53, p.6; Evening News, 19.6.53, p.2).

There are certainly questions to be asked here about why it was cyclists, two of them aged just 16, who were held up as an example to drivers, but this seems to reflect real issues with motor vehicles continuing to use Addison Street regardless of the play street order. In March 1953, there were regular reports of heavy lorries cutting through Addison Street from the docks to the town centre – precisely the kind of traffic the play street orders were intended to prevent – and this left mothers fearful for their children, who often played on and around the street’s bombsite (Evening Chronicle, 13.3.53, p.22).

Many of these reports also seem to suggest that the times of the orders had been revised by this point, to reflect something like the current orders which are generally 8am, or sunrise, to sunset.

These contraventions – by drivers, perhaps, rather than cyclists – resulted not surprisingly in injuries and deaths on the designated play streets. It is clear that a play street order did not guarantee the safety of the children at play.

In September 1953, a 20-month old boy, David Marsh, who lived on Wilson Street, was found by a 6 year old neighbour with a crushed shoe and a broken leg: “it was thought that a heavy vehicle might have passed without the driver’s knowledge” (Evening News, 4.9.53, p.8).

Even after the earlier recorded child death led to the creation of a play street on Briarwood Avenue, three year old Ellen Teague was knocked down by the driver of a coal lorry in November 1961, less than a year later (The Journal, 3.11.61, 3).

Real concerns were raised on Rae Avenue in Wallsend, as this letter published in May 1970 (6.5.70) shows:

On Redburn View, five children were knocked over by drivers in eleven months in 1972; one incident resulted in a four year old being hospitalised with a broken leg and a fractured skull. These continuing dangers were the result, residents argued, of drivers driving straight through their street and a failure of the local police to enforce the play street order. The mothers on the street embarked on a campaign in August 1972 to demand better policing of the play street order. They established barricades of “dustbins, car tyres, bicycles and bedheads” (Evening Chronicle, 16.8.72, p.5) to stop drivers cutting through and successfully forced the police to set up a checkpoint on the street:

Police have promised special attention and checks … and prosecution for motorists who misuse the street … But the mothers warned that the barricades would be back if police checks were shortlived.

This attentive policing was indeed shortlived – by 1973, the mothers were protesting again and wanted a permanent solution. The play street wasn’t working:

In a play street, you should be able to let your children play out safely and not have to worry. But you can’t leave them alone for a minute, it’s just like a main road.

The mothers wanted bollards in the middle of the street to prevent through traffic (The Journal, 16.7.73, p.9). They didn’t get them and, in 1976, a six year old girl, Sharon Parkinson, was “flung into the air” and killed by a driver on the street, by this point renamed Banbury Way. The driver admitted driving under the influence of alcohol and was fined £30 and banned for driving for 12 months (The Journal, 7.10.76, p.3).

At some point after this, Banbury Way was turned into a no-through road, as part, I think, of the redevelopment of The Ridges (or Meadowell, as it was by then known), but it seems that by this point the play street was almost entirely non-functioning, despite its continuing designation. (If you know any more about this change, please do let me know).

I have not found any prosecutions for play street contraventions after 1958 and I think the last of the designations were in the 1960s. It is also clear that there were growing struggles to enforce the existing orders by the 1970s, as the Redburn View protests suggest.

The experience of Tyne Street in North Shields in the 1970s perhaps points to a change of policy with regard to play streets in the borough. In September 1972, a 3 year old child was knocked down and killed on the street. Residents were concerned that drivers were distracted by the river view – the street runs parallel to and overlooks the Tyne – and pulled together a 221-name petition for the street to be designated as a play street (The Journal, 9.9.72, 7). Their petition was unsuccessful: “The mothers … heard that the play street had been rejected because the signposting was too expensive”; “We will do our own sign boards … Give us the go-ahead and we will have them up in 24 hours”, a Mrs Darroll responded. In November 1972, the council, now North Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council, suggested “closing the street as a link road and making it into a series of cul de sacs, with amenity areas in between” (Evening Chronicle, 3.11.72, p.11). The plan was to introduce temporary bollards for an experimental period, closing the street to all but access, with a view to investigating the long-term feasibility of the proposal.

A similar story from Whitley Bay in 1971 reinforces the idea that there was a move away from designating play streets towards closing roads to through traffic more generally. In August of that year, a group of mothers in Ventnor Gardens, Whitley Bay, barricaded their street, with dustbins and placards, to create a safe space for their children to play. The mothers complained that day trippers parking on and driving up and down their street were making it dangerous for their children; a six year old boy had been knocked down recently. Unlike demands, for example, on Lilburn Street just three years earlier, there is no mention of a desire to establish a play street; instead the mothers wanted their road closed to through traffic altogether. Councillor Freda Rosner, who supported the mothers, was reported as saying “This is ridiculous. We have become slaves to cars.” (The Journal, 9.8.71, p.7).

The Chronicle, originally published 9.8.71 but reproduced on Chronicle Live.

It is not clear what happened to the plans on Tyne Street nor the demands on Ventnor Gardens. As far as I can tell no changes were made on either street, at least not permanently. But it also seems like these accounts reflected a popular and policy switch from play streets to the introduction of other kinds of road closures, including modal filters – bollards or other barriers that restrict motor vehicle access but allow those walking and cycling to pass – on residential streets. A number of the other designated play streets, such as Briarwood Avenue (now Kingsbridge Close and Amble Close), The Nook and Collingwood View, now have modal filters, of unclear origin and timing.

In North Shields, it seems that creating and managing safe space for play was increasingly tied up in its redevelopment, within and beyond the Community Development Project. The redesign and redevelopment of streets on The Ridges and in the town centre neighbourhoods seemed to open new questions about the place of play in residential areas. In 1974, adventure playgrounds were created in Meadowell (as The Ridges were renamed in 1968) and in East Howdon (the former intended to be a permanent site and the latter temporary) and, as I’ve suggested, campaigns for better play facilities, including playgrounds and play schemes, were a key part of the CDP work. In The Triangle, a later attempt at redevelopment through the creation of a so-called Home Zone in the early 2000s also forefronted the creation of safe street space, for play and for community life more generally; indeed, home zones were seen by some to “offer[..] a renewed commitment to the concept” of the play street.

In this preliminary review of North Tyneside’s play streets we can highlight a number of themes and questions.

  1. Tynemouth Borough Council embraced the idea of play streets when many other local authorities didn’t, including others in the north-east; there was clearly a policy decision in the late 1940s that enabled this.
  2. Play streets were seen as an alternative in the absence of accessible playgrounds, and playgrounds were seen as by far the better option.
  3. The designation of play streets did seem to open up a more public debate about the place of play on residential streets and dangers posed by rising vehicle ownership.
  4. Almost all the streets designated were in North Shields and seemed to be connected to alleviating housing and environmental disadvantage.
  5. Wallsend Town Council embraced the idea of play streets later, but seemed to see their value as part of their play provision.
  6. Enforcement and prosecution dropped off extremely fast such that by the 1960s, or perhaps 1970s, these streets barely functioned as play streets.
  7. Mothers played an important and visible role in demanding and sustaining play streets and ensuring that the real dangers posed to children by drivers on residential streets remained on the agenda.
  8. Play streets did not protect children from injury and death on North Tyneside’s streets.

Twenty-one North Tyneside streets, most identified here, remain designated as play streets to this day, with orders covering either 8am or sunrise to sunset; this includes streets which no longer exist and ones which have been renamed in successive redevelopments. On many of the streets, the signs are still up but there are few indications on any of these streets of children playing out today. (For more images from a tour I did of these play streets, check out this Twitter thread.)

Residents on Cullercoats’ Beverley Terrace have recently launched a campaign to revitalise and enforce their dormant back lane play street, raising the question of the potential for others to be reviewed. On Charlotte Street, Wallsend, the council has just begun work on the renovation of eleven neglected properties, with a view to “deliver an improved physical environment, clear community benefits and increased stability”; this perhaps offers an opportunity for the street’s play street order to be revived and for play once again to be part of the borough’s framework for community redevelopment.

There is much more to be gained from reflecting in depth and detail on the history of North Tyneside’s play streets, a bold and important experiment in the life of some of the borough’s streets. There are many resonances with contemporary debates about car dependence and the regulation of traffic, the everyday life of our streets and neighbourhoods, and the place of children and their play in public space.

For now, if you have stories, memories or reflections to add, please do let me know in the comments.


My thanks to Sally Watson for sharing some of these stories – and a fascination with play streets – with me.

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.

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.

Feeling the squeeze: Towards a psychosocial geography of austerity in low-to-middle income families

The first actually-published paper from the research in Cullercoats that initiated this blog is now available online in Geoforum. Some of the ideas were developed in my short Discover Society article, and more are forthcoming when this presentation gets properly written up, hopefully within the next few months.

If you can’t access it through the paywall, drop me an email and I can send a copy.

Potential Space? Play, Parents and Streets – A Blog of a Preliminary Paper

[Disclaimer: This is a very early take on my ongoing research.  I haven’t yet had a chance to work in detail with the interview transcripts or fully analyse the questionnaires – this post is based on my immediate reflections on the research as it progressed and as I began to identify themes and ideas. It is based on a paper presented at the RGS-IBG Annual Conference in Cardiff in August 2018.]

Introduction

The “playing out” movement started around 2009 in Bristol, created by two mothers, Alice and Amy, on their street, in the hope that their children might have some of the same opportunities to play out, on their doorsteps, as Alice and Amy did. By July 2018, over 800 streets had started playing out regularly, across 77 UK local authority areas, including Hackney, Brighton, Leeds, Hull, Edinburgh, and North Tyneside, and the movement had also spread to towns and cities in Australia, the US, Spain, Romania, Germany and more. The playing out model rests on short, regular, licensed and stewarded road closures, giving children the chance to play safely near home and giving neighbours the chance to meet right on their streets.

The rise of “playing out”, as a movement, reflects the documented decline in autonomous street play, as the risks (Gill 2007) of cars, strangers and pollution, in particular, and growing pressures on children’s and parents’ free time (Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson 2014, 2018) seem to have reduced parents’ inclination to allow or enable their children to play out on their streets. Within a generation or two, the possibility for children to play out freely and safely has all but disappeared in many parts of the country (though this appears to be a pattern refracted by class and by built environment, in different ways).

There has already been a considerable amount of research about the renewed playing out phenomenon, documenting the benefits for children’s levels of physical activity and health, for their friendships, for the very local environment, and for the sense of community and belonging on the streets involved. The project on which this blog post reports picks up on this final aspect in particular and shifts the focus slightly away from children and their geographies to think about adult participants too, to ask how regular playing out sessions change the nature of everyday relationships on the streets involved.

The Research Context

At the heart of this project is an idea of everyday relationships. Borrowing ideas from the British object relations school, I use a conceptualisation of relationships, with intimate and imagined others, as the environment within which we find ways of going on being. As Gomez (1997, 2) argues: “the need for relationship is primary”. In this conception, it is the relationships around us that contain and facilitate us, help us to go on being. This is an idea developed, within geography, by Steve Pile (1996, 12) who explores the building of ‘secure personal geographies’, such that a “sense of a solid, shared world and stable sense of ourselves within that world leads to psychic and physical survival”. These ideas are developed here alongside a considerable literature which highlights and explores the key connection between children, play and streets and their everyday relationships. The articulation between community and play has been the focus of series of reports by Play England in the context of their annual Play Day events, and this has been explored more and more through debates around the child- or family-friendly cities. Rather than review the literature as a whole, there are a number of ideas to draw out here:

Firstly, it is argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between play and our recognition of and participation in our everyday spaces and environments – our own streets are at the heart of our explorations of and relationships with the world and the ability to play in them is critical to our 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” (Lester and Russell, 2010, x) and Tim Gill, in a quote cited regularly in support of street play, insists that “the street is the starting point for all journeys.”

Secondly, as Bornat (2016, 115) argues, children’s presence in the street and other community spaces is seen as a generator of social space: children’s everyday play can animate streets as they occupy pavements, gardens and driveways, and move between each other’s homes. Children playing out can draw adults out, as they watch, talk to, and care for their children. Where children play, adults meet. As Sam Williams argues, in the context of child-friendly cities, there is “enormous potential for child-centred activities such as play streets to bring people and places together” (Williams, 2017). Krista Cowman’s historical work draws attention to the key role of streets as ”social and play spaces in urban environments” (2017, 234), such that “mothers … saw play street orders as the best means to preserve them as a safe social space for themselves and their children” (251, emphasis added)

Thirdly, play itself has been identified as a catalyst for community such that the space, freedom, intergenerationality and looseness of play have the potential to create the space for connection (Play England 2015); as Play Wales (2015) suggest in a review of mental health and play, play can be seen, amongst other things, as ‘connection’ and ‘taking notice’.

Lastly, there is a need to think about and tease out the importance of children and of play – are they independent catalysts of relationships – i.e. is the presence of children enough, or is play essential too? In the context of street play, is it the children or the play that has the potential to generate ‘community’?

The Research

This post is based on a small-scale, qualitative, (auto)ethnographic and participatory project, developed with the existing North Tyneside street play organisers. It integrates data from a preliminary questionnaires, with both local and national participants, interviews with seven street activators in North Tyneside, running my own street play sessions, engaging in participant observation in others, and being involved in PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside, a voluntary group promoting and developing street play in the borough. As I mentioned above, this is very much an early take on the material reflecting really preliminary analyses – I haven’t yet had a chance to work in detail with the interview transcripts or fully analyse the questionnaires – this post is based on my immediate reflections on the research as it progressed and as I began to identify themes and ideas

Donald Winnicott and Potential Space

In thinking about all of these questions, I’m working with the ideas of Donald Winnicott, a paediatrician and psychoanalyst who was profoundly engaged in ideas about space, play and everyday relationships. Potential space is 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).

It is a liminal space, between (or perhaps across) an individual and their environment, located between or across the internal and external such that, for example, whilst at the theatre, we find ourselves simultaneously in the physical space of the theatre, in the imaginative space of the play, and in the internal, emotional space of our minds. Potential space is, of course, a space full of potential, where new relationships with ourselves and with others can be created. It is an area of experiencing, living, culture, creating – and, importantly, of relating and playing. To reiterate the quote above, it is a space in which we are “spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to others”, and in this we can identify an innate connection between play and relationships in potential space. The importance of play is founded on the presence of others who can receive, respond to, facilitate, witness, join in, celebrate, remember and enjoy the play and creativity, and playfulness creates an openness to new object relationships. Winnicott saw an innate connection between play and relationships, through the idea of potential space, which he saw as a space between people – children and adults – that is playful, safe, trustful, and creative. He believed play to be vital for those of all ages, seeing adult play – in art, creativity, humour, conversation – as equally important as children’s play in creating a liveable life.

I’m now going to shift to explore some of the key themes I’m beginning to identify in my research, organised around the idea of ‘hanging out’, of ’knowing your neighbours’ and of ‘crossing boundaries’.

Hanging Out

The idea and experience of hanging out is something which has garnered considerable attention from geographers of young people (see, amongst others, Fotel 2009; Pyyry and Tani 2017; Tani 2015Tani 2016). In these literatures, hanging out is seen as a collective practice of appropriating streets, the creation of a liminal space for socialization with peers. The spaces of hanging out are theorised as “loose spaces” (Tani 2015) which enable those hanging out to deepen relationships with the city and “rework the atmosphere of the city” (Pyyry and Tani, 2017, 5) through deeply affectual “moments of joyous togetherness” (Pyyry and Tani, 2017, 5). Yet, these are also often spaces and practices which are theorised as the rejection of adult supervision and an escape from the adult world, which challenges the possibility of adult hanging out.

During a street play session, all that is expected of parents (or other adults) is that they are present on the street. The ‘playing out’ model assumes that parents are always present and responsible for their own children. Parents may play, with their children or own their own, but part of the ethos of street play is for autonomous child-led play, such that parents often stand back, at the side, letting the children get on with playing.

So adults hang out together, perching on walls, bringing out garden chairs, or sitting on curbs. Often they cluster around one house (often that of the organiser), where there may be drinks and snacks.

Parents are brought together, they’re present together, sharing a collective, familiar, public space, in a way that is legitimised by the presence of children, and in a space that is open, loose – and, of course, playful. As Cathy, who has been running sessions on her street for more than five years, explained when describing what a street play session feels like the sense of space is key:

“Oh, it feels lovely, it feels wide, I mean that’s the first thing we all noticed the first time we did it, was how wide the street was … it’s quite a big space, normally it feels quite cramped and restrictive and dangerous. So, yeah, I think the feeling of space was the first thing.”

But parents also experience a different sense of time, a change of rhythm, a slowing down, in contrast to the routines of their everyday lives. Annie, for example, celebrated the slowed time of playing out sessions, where people can sit and chat and hang out, in contrast to the more ordinary experience:

“people are so busy, people don’t really have time for conversations, when you’re dashing to work and to school and things”

These were also spaces of play for adults too – playing with children, but playing with each other as well – scooter races, water fights, skipping, football, chalking, all of which appeared to allow for a different, looser kind of sociability than ordinary, highlighting the relationship between play and potential, play and others, and play and relationships.

As I’ve suggested, the presence of children seemed also to be key – adults were out because children were out and hanging out seemed to become problematic without children. Jenny illustrated this dilemma as she discussed how, towards the end of a street play session, she realised that her kids were no longer playing out (they’d gone to a neighbour’s) and suddenly she felt uncomfortable, being on the street, hanging out, without good reason.

Much of this resonates with Krista Cowman’s account of mid-20th century street play in which “children’s outdoor play facilitated women’s sociability and encouraged their use of the street” (p.236), enacted by women sitting on low walls, watching children play, and taking a break. In Cowman’s work and in the evidence presented here there are three key ideas: adults’ use of space; their use of time; and the presence of children.

Knowing your Neighbours

Here we turn to the question of what happens in these loose spaces of hanging out: what do the practices of hanging out do and what do they enable in the context of street play? It appears, following Tani and Pyyry (2017), that they reshape the spaces and atmospheres of the street, producing a particular kind of relationship between neighbours. In many cases, what is produced and remarked upon in questionnaire responses (see below) is a low-level notion of ‘knowing’ and ‘being known’, which appears to describe a level of recognition and familiarity of other faces on the street, between adults, between children, and between children and adults.

All sort of events, practices, moments emerge out of this knowing, but I want to focus in particular on the sense of safety experienced in this recognition. Respondents felt that they could address each other for help, of all kinds, and that their kids too would know neighbouring adults who they could approach for help. In interview, this was especially strong for those whose partners worked long hours or away, through a sense that they were known, seen, recognised on the street, and in this sense looked after, or contained. Annie explained:

“I like to know that if anybody needed, you know, help, you can go and call on anybody, my husband works long hours, I like to know that, you know, if we had some sort of emergency, I might just run down or across the street, give them a call”

In the immediate reports of change, then, a very particular kind of relationship dominated, but there were also many instances “when good neighbours become good friends” to quote a 1980s TV series. Relationships deepened, became more multi-stranded, and there was considerable socialising – between adults and children – outwith street play sessions, in homes, at the pub etc.. This step – the development of friendships – depended on and reflected much more personal connections, and was both enriching and excluding.

Crossing Boundaries

In the step between ‘knowing’ and ‘befriending’ boundaries, physical, social and emotional, became clear and flagged questions of what happens to those who aren’t included or don’t want to be? We see boundaries emerging in the delineation of friends and neighbours, but we can also see boundaries blurring and being crossed in the spaces of street play.

In a sense, we can characterise the street in this context as a micro-public space, following Amin (2002) – the street is a public space, it is not necessarily an intimate space, but it is at the same time a familiar space, an in-between, third space – between the internal and external, as Winnicott might have put it. The particular context of street play seems to make these boundaries more fluid, as there is license to move between the street and neighbours’ homes. Street play seemed to extend the publicness of the street to neighbours’ homes, to remove the barriers of invitation, but also seemed to domesticate the street by extending the atmosphere of the living room out. Living Streets (2009) describes our streets as “our extended front rooms” – street play extends our front rooms to the street and the street to our homes and gardens.

Amongst other transformations, interviewees reported:

  • A noticeable opening up even in the act of doorknocking to arrange the first session – for many, this was the first time they’d walked up the paths, knocked on the doors, of all but their most proximate neighbours, the necessity to consult immediatey appeared to create the potential for new connections;
  • Going to see neighbours extensions, gardens, renovations during street play sessions, when they had never been into each other’s houses before, and explored the resonances, the familiarity of visiting homes that were just like theirs, on terraced streets or twentieth-century semis – as Annie noted, “we have the houses in common”;
  • Children moving between the street and homes or back gardens with thresholds being loosely policed – several adults reported popping in for something only to find half a dozen children playing inside, such that activities of street play for adults and children took place across and in between homes and the street;
  • All of this activity during street play sessions extended beyond the session itself and resulted in more socialising between adult neighbours in their homes and more playdates between neighbouring children;
  • And things and favours crossed thresholds too – there was more lending, borrowing, babysitting, and house/pet/plant-checking after streets had started playing out.

There are two important provisos to all this. Firstly, the fluidity reflected the physical layout of the street and the microgeography of the playing out session – certain houses and certain families, located around a key point on the street (often the middle of the street or the organiser’s home), were more likely to flow and be the sites of flow; those who lived further away could be both protected and excluded from these boundary crossings. Secondly, the boundaries were policed: respondents noted that there were limits to how many people (children or adults) they would want crossing their thresholds and to whom – less known neighbours, more unruly children, adults with whom you didn’t click might be excluded, deliberately or accidentally.

Imagined Futures

As the discussion of crossing boundaries suggests, the effects of street play extend beyond the three-hour sessions. These can be seen not only in the extended relationships, but also through tangible and intangible affective and material transformations in the street, and in the imagination of new futures for the street.

One of the most resonant aspects of this is chalk – almost every street chalks with abandon during the sessions – we give out chalk with our playing out kits – and this can last for days or weeks after the session, depending on the weather, a reminder of the street being transformed, different, something else. And, symbolically perhaps, this can persist even longer – this for example is the Google Street View image of my street – with post-street play chalk markings recorded with semi-permanence.

Other transformations are created in the street too, beyond the closure itself, including Facebook and WhatsApp groups bring neighbours together to share knowledge, concerns, favours, offers, recommendations, news, events, celebrations – and anticipations of the next session, and forms of everyday sociability – waving, saying hello, chatting, planning, banter and jokes – as neighbours walk to school, go in and out of houses, jostle for parking spaces, garden, and walk their dogs.

These develop and translate into imagined and potential futures as the possibilities of street play are felt. In interview, Annie deliberated on her family’s future housing needs, reflecting on their conversations about the value of the relationships they’ve built since they started playing out, and concluding that they envisage a future of staying and extending rather than moving:

“So we’ve been in this huge dilemma of, do we stay or do we move, do we extend, do we just buy a house and get a bigger bedroom, err bigger, more bedrooms and things but, errm, it’s the neighbours and it’s the area and you just think well actually it’s so important, erm, so we’ll look at some point we’ll probably end up doing an extension so we can stay and so we can be here…”

Others have started to discuss collective, street futures as playing out makes a space for new possibilities, for a more fundamental reclaiming of the street. On one street during a street play session, the adults turned the conversation to the possibility of closing the street permanently to cars, or implementing a partial or temporary narrowing of the street, shifting the balance further away from cars. Reflecting this, on another street a child – without adult prompting – chalked No Cars on the closed road.Playing Out itself proclaims “a vision of streets as vibrant, playable spaces” and plans for its own obsolescence: “ultimately, our aim is for playing out to be a normal everyday activity for all children, wherever they live, rather than an organised, supervised event”.

Potential Space? Play, Parents and Streets

This paper seeks to use Winnicott’s notion of potential space and its tying together of play and relationships to explore what happens – or what might happen – when streets play out. The decision and desire to create a space for children to play on the streets appears to legitimate the creation of a space on the street that differs from the everyday and permits the presence of adults as well as children on the street. In this context, the centrality of play creates an atmosphere of space, looseness, and informality, and a different kind of rhythm or pace, which enables both children and adults to have fun, and to have fun with others.

The looseness appears to facilitate a new kind of sociability, a new kind of contact and engagement which rests on a sharing, a being together, a recognition and familiarity and creates the potential for material, embodied and affective flows across thresholds, animating the space of the street and nature and density of everyday relationships on the street.

What is more, building on common understandings of play being the means through which children and young people get to know, to connect to and to deepen their relationships with their immediate environments, I also want to argue that street play enables adults to connect to their streets too, to become more attached to their streets, to know their streets better and, thus, to experience their streets as spaces which have the potential to hold and contain them.

In this sense, street play can be seen as a radical act, full of potential, which can reshape affective atmospheres and spaces of the street

But it not without its challenges and limitations – and I just want to touch here on an important issue – a great deal of what I have discussed here is classed and gendered, at the very least. Playing out might be seen as middle class phenomenon, reflecting the different modalities of autonomous street play in neighbourhoods with different class profiles – it is not quite as simple as this (see, for example, this report on playing out in disadvantaged areas and this from Playing Out on street play on estates), but thinking through questions of class is an important part of my ongoing analysis. And secondly, much of the energy and labour invested in playing out is women’s – of 22 streets in North Tyneside that have played out over the last three years, just two street organisers are men; and, of course, Playing Out was founded by two mothers, Alice and Amy. Men and women appear to take on different roles during sessions, and are differentially engaged in what extends from the sessions into the everyday life of the street, so this is not to say that men aren’t involved nor that street play is not transformative for them, but again, a gendered analysis will be critical.

Notwithstanding these caveats, I argue that planning and doing playing out sessions reshapes everyday relationships on streets, creating the potential for new forms of sociability, care, connection, and fun, which in turn transform the space of the street to one of potential and possibility.