4 Street play
It was in 1908 that the Ford Model T went into mass production and greatly increased the number of cars on roads. During 1922 to 1933, over 12,000 children in England and Wales died as a result of being involved in motor vehicle accidents and over 300,000 were seriously injured (Hansard, 1938). This resulted in Nancy Astor, the first female Member of Parliament, expressing concern in 1926 about the increasing dangers for children who sought to play, as children had long done, close to their homes and in neighbourhood streets. During the twentieth century (and in recent times with the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011), royal events unwittingly served to reclaim streets for community parties and children’s play, albeit for short periods.
In an attempt to respond to these issues, the Department of Health in England is promoting street play, not least because there is growing concern about children’s physical inactivity and the rising levels of child obesity. Funds have been made available to enable local authorities across the country to work with communities in order to develop ‘play streets’, especially in areas of high deprivation. From a young child’s perspective, walking and running with some freedom is impulsive and playing outside must be seen as a natural thing to do. One only has to think about a two-year-old’s reluctance to hold a parent’s hand on leaving the safety of home. A child may not welcome such adult constraints, but the dangers presented by moving cars need to be learnt.
In Brooke Road, Waltham Forest, London, a group of parents have worked with the local authority to set up a play street for two hours on the first Sunday of each month (see London Play, 2015). The appointed street stewards display traffic cones and temporary signs to alert any unwitting driver. This means the road is closed to through traffic for a given period, allowing children to play outside safely. A Brooke Road reminiscence event was attended by a number of adults who wished to share their childhood memories of playing in streets. One resident, Keith, remembered how, when the road became very wet due to periodic flooding, he and others would have fun in the water together. Delia recalled playing skipping games in the street using two ropes which were swung faster and faster. The skipper would run in and out of the swinging ropes, while children chanted: ‘Salt, pepper, mustard, vinegar’.
Reminiscences of this kind contribute to an oral history of children’s past play, helps adults to understand a child’s perspective on playing and reminds us about the places where spontaneous play and imagining was once much more possible. The loss of streets as safe spaces to play is regrettable, but adults and children, of course, also benefit from cars. The family car might be used to support play interests when children are transported to a swimming pool or an adventure playground, for instance. Herein lies a dilemma as progress can often bring both advantages and disadvantages for people.
Evaluations of play streets have highlighted the potential benefits of providing children with increased opportunities for outside play, including:
- more social interaction with children of all ages
- making new friends (who may not just be attending the same early years or school setting)
- increasing the likelihood of children playing with others from a range of cultural backgrounds.
Wider benefits include:
- promoting children’s health (Ferguson and Page, 2015)
- improved neighbourliness
- increased community contact for people of all ages and improved inter-generational contact (Gill, 2015).
- From a child’s point of view, a local street can be seen as an attractive rather than a dangerous place to play.
- Play street projects are an important way of reclaiming and making streets safe for children and communities, if only for limited periods.
- It is important to be aware of how environmental change and technological developments, albeit embraced as progress by adults, might have unintended consequences for children’s freedom to play and the available spaces in which to play.