Potential Space? Play, Parents and Streets

At this week’s Child in the City international seminar, I was paying particular attention to thinking about the links between play, space and community in the city, in the context of my developing research on street play and everyday relationships (see also an earlier blog post here). At various points, ideas that connected to the street as a place for play and for relationships emerged and I want to try to pull some of those together here.

Firstly, for children, as Adrian Voce made clear in his introduction, building on the work of Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell, play is seen to be a critical space through which they get to know, engage with and become attached to the spaces and relationships of their everyday lives, as they play with the environmental affordances (such as playgrounds and open spaces, but also kerbs, car parks, walls, and so on), and move between their homes and those of their friends. In these ways, play can be seen as a key catalyst for the relationships that develop between children and their homes and communities.

Secondly, and relatedly, as Ben Tawil and Mike Barclay of Ludicology argued, children primarily want to play in the public spaces near their homes, the streets, pavements, walls, car parks; this is their clear preference over other, perhaps even better-equipped, spaces, even just a few dozen metres from their front doors. It seems that children’s is to be in and play in their most proximate spaces, where they can see and meet other local children. We might ask if this preference reflects convenience – it’s simply easier to play out close to their homes – or something more profound about familiarity and security, and about making play an embedded part of their everyday lives.

What these two claims also make me question is, what about adults? How might we think about adults, play and streets? So, we might ask if we can think about how adults play on their streets, or at the very least how they engage in playful activities on their streets, such as chatting, socialising, joking, laughing, and drinking. And if so, do they also have a preference, acknowledged or unacknowledged, for proximity? And if they do, is their preference about convenience or about something else, perhaps echoing their children’s – and even their own childhood memories of – hope for engagement, attachment and belonging through play on and around their streets?

A further theme, raised by architect Dinah Bornat, is that children are the generators of community. 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 and communities are potentially created and strengthened. In this sense, we might think about how children’s play creates spaces and relationships in which adults can also be playful. Sukanya Krishnamurthy talked about how parents in Eindhoven in the Netherlands wanted services for adults around play spaces – such as benches, cafes, shelters – that might enable turning watching children play into a more collective, sociable, even playful experience for adults too.

Finally, as Ellen Weaver, lawyer and legal researcher, suggested, adults seem to have more confidence in their children playing out when they know that their children know, recognise and relate to other adults as their parents’ friends – or play-mates – and therefore might themselves feel confident asking someone else’s parent, or another neighbour, for help if they fall over or lose a ball under a car, for example.

In all these ways, play seems to work as interaction and integration, for children and adults. Moreover, adults’ and children’s playful relationships appear to be symbiotic, reinforcing each other and reinforcing the potential for residents of all ages to build relationships in their streets. Interestingly, however, during the seminar two playing out activists explicitly stated that they were surprised by the animation and transformation of their communities through street play, that they did not plan for or anticipate these changes. By contrast, I both hoped for and expected this – it was, for me, an equal goal to that of creating a playful space for my daughter and her friends on the street, in the hope that a playful atmosphere would transform our relationships with each other as neighbours and with the street, that play would be a catalyst for adults to develop greater familiarity with and stronger attachments to their everyday environments and relationships too, and it is this that lies at the heart of my research and of my part in the launch of Play.Meet.Street North Tyneside (which is explicitly about playing and meeting).

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. Winnicott 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. He also 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, and, critically, founded on an idea of a relationship to real and imagined others, who can witness, join in, celebrate, remember and enjoy the play and creativity.

Together these debates raise the following questions for my research:

  • What do parents hope for, for themselves, consciously or otherwise, as they plan to create playful spaces on their streets for their children?
  • What, if anything, is important about play? Why are parents choosing to create spaces of play, rather than any other forms of community interaction (such as The Big Lunch, or litter picking, though these are clearly not mutually exclusive)? Does play create a potential space, following Donald Winnicott, for the creation of meaningful everyday relationships?
  • Does street play generate community for children and adults? How is this felt and valued by adults and children?


Playing Out and Everyday Relationships: Mapping the Psychosocial Geographies of Street Play in North Tyneside

This new project, funded by the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, will enable me to assess the feasibility, value and relevance of a developing project of participatory, psychosocial research around the idea of ‘playing out’ (organised sessions of street play for children and families) and everyday relationships (with friends, family, and neighbours), which builds on my recent work on everyday relationships and the psychosocial geographies of austerity and extends existing work on ‘playing out’.

From around 2009, Playing Out CIC has promoted and supported the development of temporary residential street closures for play across the UK, starting in Bristol and expanding to over 400 streets in around 50 different towns and cities. Since 2015, House of Objects, an educational community interest company (CIC), has worked with Play England and Playing Out CIC to support neighbours to close their streets for play on a regular basis in North Tyneside. Ten North Tyneside streets have run one-off or regular ‘playing out’ sessions in the last two years, each attended by 15-25 children of varying ages, and their parents, grandparents and other carers. There have already been some studies of this phenomenon, in geography and beyond, but these have, not surprisingly, focused on play and on changing children’s geographies (e.g. Ferguson and Page 2015; Tranter 2016; Murray and Devecchi 2016). Attention to the wider psychosocial (social and emotional) geographies of street play have received important but incidental attention. It is commonly argued that street play supports increasing social cohesion and stronger communities, and these have become core ideas in the promotion of playing out. This project aims to interrogate this further, paying attention to ideas around security, belonging, trust, identity, attachment, togetherness, and neighbouring through a focus on street play and ‘everyday relationships’ in North Tyneside to ask if and how playing out transforms the psychosocial geographies of the streets involved. This pilot project asks the following key questions:

  • How do participants imagine, understand and experience ideas of community and neighbouring in the context of their street play sessions?
  • What changes have participants witnessed in the geographies of their streets’ everyday relationships?
  • How, if at all, have the effects of street play sessions ‘spilled over’ into the wider everyday life of the streets involved?

This will be a small-scale, qualitative, (auto)ethnographic and participatory project, developed with the existing North Tyneside street play organisers (of which I am one, through PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside), with the following key stages:

  1. Planning and preliminary meetings with key organisers.
  2. Focus group with street organisers to develop the notion of everyday relationships and street play. This will enable me to hone the focus to guide interviews and participant observation.
  3. Visit Playing Out CIC (Bristol) to interview national organisers to set research in wider context.
  4. I will join at least one street play session in each currently active street (likely to be between 5 and 8), observing and participating in the activities of both children and adults. During these sessions, I will also arrange follow-up, in-depth, qualitative interviews with participants (2 or 3 from each street) to develop responses to the key research questions.
  5. Write and present report to local and national playing out activists; present preliminary paper to internal seminar.

A reading list on the social and economic geographies of austerity in Ireland

Sander van Lanen, currently at Groningen but formerly based in Cork, sent me this list of readings on the geographies of austerity in Ireland. I spend a fair amount of time in Ireland (mostly the west, around Galway) so I’m very aware of and interested in the Irish experiences of recession and austerity, but more from a lay perspective than an academic one.*

There are a few Irish references on my previous lists, but it’s great to have this more comprehensive list. Ireland’s experiences resonate with the British experience, but there are also some particular aspects which reflect Ireland’s very different social and economic geographies, especially around housing and property (including ghost estates), and around family and generation (an area I’m increasingly interested in), and which encourage to see Britain’s particularities too.

So, thank you, Sander!

Sander has himself worked on the impacts of Irish austerity on disadvantaged urban youth in Dublin and Cork and his recent Urban Geography paper is well worth a read.

*As an aside, one of the best novels I’ve read recently was Conor O’Callaghan’s Nothing on Earth, about Ireland’s ghost estates. It’s amazing. Read it.



Carney G.M., T. Scharf, V. Timonen & C. Conlon (2014) ‘Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt’: Solidarity between generations in the Irish crisis, Critical Social Policy, 34(3): 312-332.

Crowley, N. (2012) Lost in austerity: Rethinking the community sector, Community Development Journal, 48(1): 151-157.

Drudy, P.J. & M.L. Collins (2011) Ireland: From boom to austerity, Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy and Society, 4(3): 339-354.

Forde, C., D. O’Byrne, & F, Ó’hAdhmaill (2015) Community development in Ireland under austerity and local government change: Policy and practice, The changing landscape of local and community development in Ireland: Policy and Practice, Cork: Institute for Social Sciences in the 21st Century.

Fraser, A., E. Murphy & S. Kelly (2013) Deepening neoliberalism via austerity and ‘reform’: The case of Ireland, Human Geography, 6(2): 38-53.

Free, M. & C. Scully (2016) The run of ourselves: Shame, guilt and confession in post-Celtic Tiger Irish media, International Journal of Cultural Studies.

Kitchin, R., C. O’Callaghan & J. Gleeson (2014) The new ruins of Ireland? Unfinished estates in the post-Celtic Tiger Era, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 38(3): 1069-1080.

Kitchin, R., C. O’Callaghan, M. Boyle, J. Gleeson & K. Keaveny (2012) Placing neoliberalism: The rise and fall of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger, Environment and Planning A, 44(6): 1302-1326.

Mercille, J. & E. Murphy (2015) Conceptualising European privatisation processes after the great recession, Antipode, 48(3): 685-704.

Mercille, J. (2013) The role of the media in fiscal consolidation programmes: the case of Ireland, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 38(2): 281-300.

Murphy, E. & M. Scott (2014) ‘After the Crash’: Life satisfaction, everyday financial practices and rural households in post Celtic Tiger Ireland, Journal of Rural Studies, 34: 37-49.

Murphy, E. & M. Scott (2014) Household vulnerability in rural areas: Results of an index applied during a housing crash, economic crisis and under austerity conditions, Geoforum 51: 75-86.

O’Callaghan, C., M. Boyle & R. Kitchin (2014) Post-politics, crisis, and Ireland’s ‘ghost estates’, Political Geography, 42: 121-133.

O’Callaghan, C., S. Kelly, M. Boyle & R. Kitchin (2015) Topologies and topographies of Ireland’s neoliberal crisis, Space and Polity, 19(1): 31-46.

Waldron, R. & D. Redmond (2017) “We’re just existing, not living!” Mortgage stress and the concealed costs of coping with crisis, Housing Studies, 32(5): 584-612.

Waldron, R. (2016) The “unrevealed casualties” of the Irish mortgage crisis: Analysing the broader impacts of mortgage market financialisation, Geoforum, 69: 53-66.

Whelan, C.T., B. Nolan & B. Maítre (2016) The great recession and the changing distribution of economic stress across income classes and the life course in Ireland: A comparative perspective, Journal of European Social Policy, 24(5): 470-485.


Yet another updated reading list on austerity and social geography

Once again, I’m updating my reading list for the Newcastle University Stage 2 module on Social Geographies (GEO2110) and am uploading the references and links here for ease of access, and so that others can use it too.

The usual disclaimer that I can’t cover everything here and I’m sure I’ve missed some great stuff. Please do let me know of things I can add. 

Previous versions of this list are accessible here: 2014, more 20142015 and 2016. I have repeated some of the references (for example, when a journal article has actually been published after being pre-publication previously, or when I’ve just forgotten I’ve already listed it 😉 ) but I have tended just to add newly-published material, so do look back over past versions to access publications that are just a couple of years old.

Note that some of the links for the policy reports in the previous posts are broken but all of the reports are still available – you can Google the report titles and find the updated links.

I have very much focused on publications which relate directly to the themes we cover in GEO2110 Social Geographies. There is much more excellent work which relates more closely to economic or political geography themes.

New (or updated) academic publications

Ballas, D., Dorling, D. and Hennig, B. (2017) Analysing the regional geography of poverty, austerity and inequality in Europe: a human cartographic perspective, Regional Studies, 51(1), 174-185.

Bragg, J., Burman, E., Greenstein, A., Hanley, T., Kalambouka, A., Lupton, R., McCoy, L., Sapin, K. and Winter, L. (2015) The Impacts of the Bedroom Tax on Children and Their Education: A Study in the City of Manchester.

Cooper, V. and Whyte, D. (2017) Government austerity demands that we die within our means, Open Democracy, 23.5.17.

Cooper, V. and Whyte, D. (eds.) (2017) The Violence of Austerity, Pluto – there’s a video here in which the authors talk about the book’s central argument.

Corcoran, M., Kettle, P.  and O’Callaghan, C. (2017) Green shoots in vacant plots? Urban agriculture and austerity in post-crash IrelandACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, 16(2), 305-331.

Edmiston, D., Patrick, R. and Garthwaite, K. (2017) Introduction: Austerity, Welfare and Social CitizenshipSocial Policy and Society, 16(2), 253-259. This is an introduction to a special section, and the editors have also produced a guide to “Some Useful Sources

Garthwaite, K. (2017) ‘I feel I’m Giving Something Back to Society’: Constructing the ‘Active Citizen’ and Responsibilising Foodbank UseSocial Policy and Society, 16(2), 283-292.

Garthwaite, K. and Bambra, C. (2017) “How the other half live”: Lay perspectives on health inequalities in an age of austeritySocial Science & Medicine, 187, 268-275.

Greenstein, A., Burman, E., Kalambouka, A. and Sapin, K. (2016). Construction and deconstruction of ‘family’ by the ‘bedroom tax’British Politics, 11(4), 508-525.

Greer Murphy, A. (2017) Austerity, women and health inequalities in the UK, Women Are Boring, 12.3.17.

Gill, R. and De Benedictis, S. (2016) Austerity Neoliberalism, Open Democracy. http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/15648/1/Austerity%2520Neoliberalism-1.pdf

Green, M., Dorling, D. and Minton, J. (2017) The geography of a rapid rise in elderly mortality in England and Wales, 2014-15Health & Place, 44, 77-85.

Hall, S. M. (2017) Personal, relational and intimate geographies of austerity: ethical and empirical considerationsArea, 49(3), 303-310.

Hitchen, E. (2016) Living and feeling the austereNew Formations, 87, 102-118.

Mattheys, K., Bambra, C., Warren, J., Kasim, A. and Akhter, N. (2016) Inequalities in mental health and well-being in a time of austerity: Baseline findings from the Stockton-On-Tees cohort studySSM-Population Health, 2, 350-359.

McDowell, L. (2017) Youth, children and families in austere times: change, politics and a new gender contractArea, 49(3), 311-316.

Moffatt, S., Lawson, S., Patterson, R., Holding, E., Dennison, A., Sowden, S. and Brown, J. (2016) A qualitative study of the impact of the UK ‘bedroom tax’, Journal of Public Health 38(2) 197-205

O’Brien, M. and Kyprianou, P. (2017) Just Managing? What it Means for the Families of Austerity Britain Open Book Publishers. https://www.openbookpublishers.com/reader/591#page/1/mode/2up

Patrick, R. (2016) Living with and responding to the ‘scrounger’ narrative in the UK: exploring everyday strategies of acceptance, resistance and deflection, Journal of Poverty and Social Justice, 24(3) 245-259

Pimlott‐Wilson, H. and Hall, S. M. (2017) Everyday experiences of economic change: repositioning geographies of children, youth and familiesArea. This is the introduction to a special issue with a number of related pieces.

Power, A. and Hall, E. (2017) Placing care in times of austeritySocial & Cultural Geography, 1-11 (from a forthcoming special issue on Placing Care in Times of Austerity).

Raynor, R. (2017) Dramatising austerity: holding a story together (and why it falls apart…)cultural geographies, 24(2), 193-212.

van Lanen, S. (2017) Living austerity urbanism: space–time expansion and deepening socio-spatial inequalities for disadvantaged urban youth in Ireland, Urban Geography.

Wilkinson, E. and Ortega-Alcázar, I. (2017) A home of one’s own? Housing welfare for ‘young adults’ in times of austerity, Critical Social Policy.

A special issue of Discover Society on families and relationships in crisis, with short articles by geographers including Sarah Hall and Helen Holmes, Iliana Ortega-Alcázar, Eleanor Wilkinson, and me (Alison Stenning)


Reports from thinktanks and charities

The School of Law at Warwick University collates and regularly updates a list of Reports on the Impact of Public Spending Cuts Across the UK. This includes reports on different parts of the UK and on different sectors.

Women’s Budget Group Gender Impact Assessment of Spring 2017 Budget

House of Commons Library Estimating the gender impact of tax and benefits changes, 13.12.2016


And a reminder to look at certain organisations, such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Poverty and Social Exclusion, and key newspapers, such as The Guardian and The Financial Times, to explore their coverage of austerity and its impacts.



Austerity and Everyday Relationships in Low-to- Middle Income Families in the UK

This is a PDF of my recent presentation at the Nordic Geographers’ Meeting in Stockholm. I’m hoping to get this written up in the next few months, but in the meantime…

NGM Presentation

The paper’s abstract was as follows:

In the context of a research project which explores the experiences of austerity in a small number of ‘squeezed middle’, ‘just about managing’ (low-to-middle income) families in north east England, this paper focuses on the place of everyday relationships within and beyond the family in mediating austerity. It uses a psychosocial framing to foreground the importance, complexity and diversity of relationships in making sense of and negotiating changing socio-economic circumstances, attempting to think about and connect the psychic dynamics of families’ relationships and the social dynamics of austerity and recession, and to develop a psychosocial geography of everyday austerity. After setting out some ideas about the nature and value of relationships, the paper asks how and why relationships with family, friends, neighbours, acquaintances and wider communities have been invoked, used, challenged, remade, and imagined as families have navigated the transformations of austerity. As part of the ‘squeezed middle’, these are not families living in poverty, but they have all experienced real threats and losses in the context of austerity, redundancies, falling incomes, tightened budgets, and growing insecurities, for example. The paper explores the ways in which these shifts are connected, in families’ reflections and narrations, to the place of children and their futures in family dreams, the diverse support and demands of friends in crises, large and small, memories of earlier family lives, and everyday negotiations with partners, husbands and wives, and wider families. It seeks to map these shifting relationships, identifying the varying sites and spaces, within and beyond the family home, in which they are made and remade. In these ways, the paper connects to ongoing debates, political, popular and academic, about relationships, austerity, and neoliberalism more widely, to reflect on their diverse and complex articulations.

Thanks to Sarah Hall, John Horton and Helena Pimlott-Wilson for organising the session.

Street Play and Everyday Relationships

I spent yesterday at the play and playwork conference at Leeds Beckett University, my first play conference. I’ve been thinking more and more about play in the last year or so. Since December 2015, I’ve regularly coordinated with my neighbours to close my street for play about once a month, following the playing out model. In the last few months, I’ve started working with two other local street organisers to develop and promote opportunities for street play across North Tyneside. And in the last few weeks, I’ve realised that street play offers a fantastic opportunity to research the geographies of our everyday relationships, an idea that’s been central to my research and teaching for the last few years.

I love seeing kids play out in our street, I love the slightly subversive temporary displacement of cars, I love the chalk left on the street, often for days after we’ve been playing. But what I’m hoping to explore in my research is why adults plan street play, what they hope will happen, and what does happen, to them and their streets, as street play progresses.

From the very start of yesterday’s conference, the synergy between children playing and adult sociability was clear. Leeds’ Lord Mayor noted in her welcoming address that playing out is important not just for kids but for whole communities, as play builds relationships across diversity and difference, and as children’s presence in public space encourages – or even forces – adults to hang out outside too, watching their children, chatting with neighbours, and sometimes starting to play in their own ways too.

In the first workshop I attended, John McKendrick explored how we might make our cities and neighbourhoods play-friendly, and asked what it means for a place to be play-friendly, child-friendly or even family-friendly. What kinds of spaces do these different, if related, initiatives imagine?

The possibility of play is certainly at the heart of these visions, but so too is a broader idea of building relationships within communities, to draw people out into public spaces within their neighbourhoods, and to enable communities to develop shared identities and senses of belonging. The ‘play rhetorics‘ developed by Brian Sutton-Smith and cited by John might be augmented by an idea of play as relationships, as a catalyst for connection, friendship, recognition and community.

This is an idea at the heart of street play, and of my experiences of and hopes for playing out in my street and elsewhere. It is also one recognised by Helen Forman in her contribution to the conference’s street play workshop. Reflecting on the kinds of residential spaces that encourage and enable play, Helen reported that most research on the topic documents an improvement in adult ‘hanging out’ and sociability in places where children play outside.

Play is clearly at the heart of street play. This is a movement that is about kids playing out, but it is also about an idea of our streets and neighbourhoods as spaces that enable and reflect lively, hopeful, ordinary, everyday relationships. We can perhaps re-imagine play-friendly, child-friendly and family-friendly streets as relationship-friendly, streets that help us make and sustain connections which enable us to feel recognised, known, at home. It is these ideas that I’m hoping to explore, using ideas not only from literatures on play, children’s geographies, and communities, but also from theorisations of relationships, especially those which are part of and inspired by Donald Winnicott (for whom play itself was extraordinarily important) and the British object relations school. These thinkers imagine, in different ways, that our relationships, with intimate and imagined others, create the environment within which we find ways of going on being. This is the start of the idea that I hope to work with to explore and understand street play and everyday relationships.