On Streets: Children, Play and Community

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

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

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

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

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

A recording of the webinar can now be found here.

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

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

Thinking about Play, Neighbours and Streets in a Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of the many emergences in recent weeks, we have seen thousands of examples of neighbours connecting to support each other through notes distributed to letterboxes, through Facebook and WhatsApp groups, and through more formally organised mutual aid groups. This has happened on streets across the country (and of course elsewhere) but it certainly happened rapidly and fairly straightforwardly on streets that were already connected through play, where the intimate social infrastructures of neighbourhood connections already had names and faces attached. Our recent research on streets that play out found that an amazing 95% of respondents felt that they knew more people because of playing out sessions and 86.7% felt that their street felt friendlier and safer. We concluded that these connections support everyday contact and conviviality, friendships between adults and children, the exchange of help of all kinds, and a range of other neighbourhood activities, and we have seen these relationships develop and transform in recent weeks. But we also know, of course, that these connections are uneven and that they can be unwelcome and exclusionary, so there are many critical questions to be asked about this blossoming of neighbourhood support, its value, and its impacts.

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

Credit: Karl Jilg/Swedish Road Administration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Playing Out, Relationships and Loneliness: Making Connections?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introduction

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

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

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

The Research Context

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

Firstly, it is argued that there is a symbiotic relationship between play and our recognition of and participation in our everyday spaces and environments – our own streets are at the heart of our explorations of and relationships with the world and the ability to play in them is critical to our sense of belonging to and learning within them. Stuart Lester and Wendy Russell state clearly that “play is the principal way in which children participate within their own communities” (Lester and Russell, 2010, x) and Tim Gill, in a quote cited regularly in support of street play, insists that “the street is the starting point for all journeys.”

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

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

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

The Research

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

Donald Winnicott and Potential Space

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

“an inviting and safe interpersonal field in which one can be spontaneously playful while at the same time connected to others” (Casement, 1985, 162).

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

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

Hanging Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Knowing your Neighbours

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

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

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

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

Crossing Boundaries

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

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

Amongst other transformations, interviewees reported:

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

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

Imagined Futures

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

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

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

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

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

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

Potential Space? Play, Parents and Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.