Since play streets started in North Tyneside in 2015, with a Play England-funded pilot run by House of Object, and since we established PlayMeetStreet North Tyneside in 2017, a total of 96 streets across the borough have played out. Some of these have played out just once or twice, but most have organised a series of play streets, and around 40 play out monthly; two have been running monthly play streets since 2015.
Before two new streets started, we estimated that 94 play streets equates to approximately 1410 children and 940 adults having access to this opportunity to play and meet, and that 40 regular play streets equates to approximately 600 children participating in a total of 120 hours of free, outdoor play in North Tyneside each month. In total, we estimate we’ve enabled about 180,000 child-play-hours since 2017.
These numbers suggest that North Tyneside’s play streets scheme is one of the largest in the country, with only Bristol (where the scheme started) and London supporting a larger number of play streets. North Tyneside’s scheme is approximately the same size as that of Leeds, a city with a population considerably bigger than North Tyneside (and where the play streets scheme is managed and developed by the local authority). We’ve attracted considerable local and regional media attention, including, for example, this short piece by ITV Tyne Tees.
Many of PlayMeetStreet’s streets are concentrated around the coast, in Monkseaton, Whitley Bay, Cullercoats, Tynemouth and North Shields, but we have also supported streets in Wallsend, Howdon, Forest Hall, Longbenton, and Shiremoor (see here for a live map of all our play streets).
PlayMeetStreet is run by unpaid volunteers, who form the committee, promote the scheme, process applications, liaise with the council, support residents, and apply for funding. In addition, those organising play streets on their own street do so as volunteers and commit a considerable amount of time and energy to animating play and community on their street.
In this context, it is important to note that all of this organisational work adds up as thousands of volunteer hours, dedicated to making parts of North Tyneside a nicer place to live.
In November 2022, we circulated an online survey to every person who had been involved in setting up a play street in North Tyneside, from those who organised just one session to those who have been running play streets regularly for up to 5 years, and everyone in between.
We asked for key facts and figures about the play streets and their organisation, for information about the identifiable impacts, and for issues, concerns and obstacles. We also asked about the relationship between play streets and the streets’ experiences of the pandemic.
We received 40 responses, out of a total of 94 streets that have been involved in PlayMeetStreet in some way since 2017. These include streets all along the coast (from St Mary’s to North Shields), but also Wallsend, Howdon and Longbenton, for example.
Some of the key, recurring reasons for getting involved in play streets include:
To create safe space for children to meet each other and play on their doorsteps
To enable children to learn to cycle safely
To get to know neighbours better
To create a sense of community
To build connections between young families
Adults fondly remembering playing out as a child
To build on occasional street get togethers (e.g. street parties, VE day, jubilee)
To try to calm traffic
To enable greater independence for growing children
The number of children who join in play streets sessions varies from session to session, and from street to street, but the survey shows that on most streets, between 10 and 20 children normally take part. It is unlikely to always be exactly the same children who participate from month to month, so the total number of individual children involved will be higher than these figures.
Roughly how many children normally take part during play street sessions?
Most children involved are of primary and pre-school age. This has important implications for school readiness, for social and physical skills, and for community-building amongst parents of young children.
Roughly what ages are the children who normally take part in your play street sessions? Please tick all boxes that apply.
PlayMeetStreet play streets are not just for children. They also create a space for community and connection amongst adults. Significant numbers of adults take part (supervising their own children, stewarding, making cups of tea, playing etc.) and these include adult neighbours without young children on the majority of play streets
Approximately how many adults normally take part in your play street sessions?
Do adult neighbours without young children join in your play street sessions?
When the barriers are up and the space of the street is safe to play, children engage in hundreds of different play activities, representing most of the so-called ‘play types’.
As well as fun, though, we know that play – across the range of types identified – supports all sorts of physical and social developments for children.
One of the most visible impacts of a play street is on children’s physical activity and skills. Children make the most of the safe space offered to move in all sorts of ways, usually for the full three hours.
In what ways have the children on your street been physically active during your play streets? Please tick all that apply and add ‘others’ as appropriate.
In response to the question “During play streets, do you think children on your street have learnt or improved any physical skills?”, the following percentages of respondents said yes to:
The impacts on children are not limited to physical skills, however. Play streets create opportunities for children to develop and practice a range of social skills.
During play streets, do you think children on your street have learnt or improved any social skills?
Percentage stating ‘yes’
Interacting with children of a similar age
Interacting with older or younger children
Interacting with adults on the street
Learning about road safety
Other specific social skills that respondents suggested children had developed included:
Helping to set up the street for play
Doorknocking neighbours to let them know about the play street
Asking neighbours to move cars
Getting to know the street and adjacent streets
Taking turns and sharing toys and treats
Taking responsibility for younger children
Extending friendship groups
Speaking to people (of all ages) who they don’t know well
Teaching other children games and skills
Learning to deal with conflict and arguments
Working as a team
Listening to adult organisers
Being polite with neighbours
The impact of play streets on connection, friendliness, safety and belonging on residents is overwhelmingly positive. The vast majority of respondents in North Tyneside noted that, in a variety of ways, their relationships to their streets and neighbourhoods and to their neighbours dramatically improved. The increases in feelings of connection, safety and belonging are incredibly important to families in terms, for example, of their capacity to support each other, to negotiate challenges and crises (such as the pandemic and the cost of living crisis), and to feel at home. Play streets undoubtedly contribute to the council’s stated goal of making North Tyneside an even greater place to live.
Percentage stating ‘yes’
I know more people on my street since we started to organise play streets
My street feels a friendlier, safer place to live since we started to organise play streets
Children on my street have made new friends since we started to organise play streets
I feel I belong more in my neighbourhood since we started to organise play streets
I have become friends with neighbours since my play street started
As well as the more intangible feelings of connection, belonging and safety, we can identify a range of specific activities that demonstrate a clear growth in trust and support on the borough’s play streets. Respondents reported that five key acts which demand considerable levels of trust (holding spare keys, borrowing equipment, feeding pets, borrowing money, and look after children) all grew in scale since their play street started.
More generally, the responses regarding increases in neighbourliness and connection are overwhelmingly positive. Some of these reaffirm the positive changes outlined above, but it is clear that play streets support neighbours to get to know each other and to support each other in a number of ways. According to respondents, every one of these activities had seen an improvement since streets had started to play out together.
In all these ways, it is clear that the benefits of play streets extend well beyond children and their opportunities for play.
Have any of the following increased in frequency since your play street started? Please select all that apply and add your own examples.
Whilst one might imagine that it is families with children who reap the most benefits from play streets, on 70% of streets surveyed, adult neighbours without young children participate occasionally or regularly. This suggests that these neighbours too, who might not have a particular interest in creating space for play, potentially also benefit from impacts of play streets.
The resident-organisers who responded outlined some of the ways these adults have engaged in, and benefitted from their play streets, and underlined the efforts they go to ensure that all neighbours are invited and included in the play street. One noted, for example, that “We made sure our play streets are for everyone, including adults and teenagers. We want that sense of community.”
Those who reflected on the participation of adults without young children noted that
elderly neighbours would come out to chat, to share a hot chocolate or some cake
adult neighbours would express real pleasure in seeing children play on their streets
at key events (street quizzes or bingo, summer street parties, Christmas, for example) more adults would participate
many adults without children pop in to the play street or stop to chat as they’re coming and going, even if they don’t stay out
some adults without young children volunteer to ‘steward’ the road closure, enabling the play street to happen and giving them a chance to chat to other neighbours
adults without young children will sometimes come along with grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or other young relatives and friends
others often out gardening, washing cars, fixing bikes while the children and their families play and chat and engage as they do so.
One of the ways in which the community benefits of play streets are reinforced is through the street Facebook and WhatsApp groups that have developed, often as a result of the play street, but sometimes as a first step towards the street establishing a play street.
90% of the streets surveyed have either a Facebook group (10%) or WhatsApp group (77.5%) or both (2.5%). These groups complement the in-person socialising on the street and enable connections to continue between play street sessions. It’s clear that these groups, developed alongside play streets, support residents in all sorts of ordinary but important ways that simply make life easier.
One of the particular ways in which play streets enabled support was during the pandemic. 72% of resident-respondents on streets that had started playing out before the pandemic stated that their play street positively impacted their street’s experience of the pandemic. Some of our play streets also emerged out of the pandemic, as a way of consolidating and developing the connections and informal support networks established during the pandemic and as a reflection of how the streets felt during and after lockdowns.
Play streets also enable other forms of very local engagement and activism. A significant minority of streets have also got involved in activities such as litter picking and tending their nearby green spaces. A number have also participated regularly in the Tin on a Wall collections for local charities and other collections for food banks etc. Almost half of the streets involved have started conversations more generally about their streets. These include speaking to their councillors about speeding, parking and pavement repairs, training as speed awareness volunteers, and speaking to other road users (e.g. neighbouring schools and clubs) about driver behaviour.
Asked to reflect on the sorts of changes organisers have seen on their streets since they started running play streets, a number of themes recurred:
Much closer relationships with many neighbours
Improves sense of security/safety
Children of all ages know each other
Neighbours just chatting and saying hello to each other more and more.
For organisers, some of the best things to happen on their play streets included:
“elderly neighbour now brought a hot meal every evening”
“Street Play has increased the ‘neighbourhoodness’ of the street. Many of us (adults) are now close friends and organise social activities together”
“There was a real community feel again after the long Covid months”
“The 100th Birthday party for our neighbour D___ which included the Backworth Colliery Band playing for us; the sense of community and knowing everyone better”
“Regular playing now in front gardens as well as in the back alley”
“Feels like a little community & more united. Look out for each other a lot more”
 Figures for each street vary, we estimate 15 children and 10 adults per street. This is a more conservative estimate than that from a national survey (2017, 2019 and rechecked 2021) which suggests the following participation averages for play streets: 30 children attending and benefitting, and 15 adults actively involved in the play street.
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.
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).
Cardonnel Street, Seymour Street, Upper Penman Street; Upper Elsdon Street was also designated at a later date
Victoria Street and Wilson Street
West Ropery Banks
Shakespeare 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Play streets were seen as an alternative in the absence of accessible playgrounds, and playgrounds were seen as by far the better option.
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.
Almost all the streets designated were in North Shields and seemed to be connected to alleviating housing and environmental disadvantage.
Wallsend Town Council embraced the idea of play streets later, but seemed to see their value as part of their play provision.
Enforcement and prosecution dropped off extremely fast such that by the 1960s, or perhaps 1970s, these streets barely functioned as play streets.
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.
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.
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.
I like to think we know our street pretty well, the people and places on it, the camber of the road, the front gardens and street trees (since she was little my daughter always called one end of the street ‘the tree way’).
Yet, in recent days and weeks, we’ve had more time to spend on our street and its neighbours, and we’ve been able to explore on foot, on scooter and on bike. We’ve not been limited to just three hours a month without the incessant flow of cars (though we still encounter cars, paying little attention to those they now share the roads with and speeding in 20mph zones).
Today, we scooted. We noticed which streets are smoother and which make our hands wobble and our voices tremble when we chat. We try it out and warble to each other. We spotted the places where can move onto and off the pavements easily and without incident. We misjudged this more than once and our scooters whacked our shins, hard. We bumped over or zoomed round the potholes.
We scooted over, over and over again, the drain covers and looked at and felt the different iron patterns, the noises they made, the sensations on our feet.
We scooted down the white lines, to the white lines, noticing the smoothness of the line and we thought about what the white lines do.
We trundled over cobbles, peaking through the tarmac, and talked about what our streets would have been like when they were first built.
We heard the bird in the neighbour’s flowering cherry and we tried to work out what it was.
We spotted six ladybirds on three bollards, and wondered why they liked them so much (the sun, the texture, the warmth? – there weren’t any on the matching bollards at the other end of the street).
And we met some neighbourhood rabbits. And a lot of neighbourhood cats.
And, of course, we talked and waved to neighbours, who we passed on our streets and pavements, with scooters, buggies, Peppa Pig hats, dogs, and bags of shopping, and in their front yards or on their doorsteps, some we knew, some we didn’t.
Who’s that? asked my daughter, everytime I said hello to anyone. Where do they live?
Here, I said. They’re our neighbours, these are our streets.
(And then I tried to explain why I wanted so many pictures of drain covers and white lines.)
This blog was inspired not only by my time in my neighbourhood, but by regular and wide-ranging conversations, in all sorts of forms, with Wendy Russell, Alice Ferguson and Ingrid Skeels, and by Penny Wilson’s beautiful post on her London street.
It also connects to my ongoing research: as I’ve already explained on here, I’m supposed to be researching play on streets at the moment, a task now both trickier and more fascinating. One of the questions I’m supposed to be exploring is: how regular playing out intensifies children’s and adults’ connection to the objects and materialities of the street itself, through hanging out on and exploration of its kerbs, roads, pavements, trees, walls, and other affordances. Our lockdown experiences of our streets, for me, intensify this very question.
This short briefing paper by Professor Alison Stenning and Dr Wendy Russell explores the evidence for families with children to be allowed greater access to very local neighbourhood space, to allow children to play safely within physical distancing rules – through changes to residential streets that might include, for example, speed limits, road-pavement ratios, and user priority.
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
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.
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.
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).