Coming out to play
02 October 2019 | South West England
Brilliant idea has spread from Bristol around the world
When a group of parents got together ten years ago to pioneer safe places for their children to play, they had no idea that their project would go on to impact whole communities, not just in their home city of Bristol, but all around the world.
By closing their street to cars for just a few hours they found that children gained the freedom to play together and neighbours could get to know each other.
They got Bristol City Council behind their idea, which then brought about a change in policy to allow streets to regularly open for play. And as other towns and cities saw the impact in Bristol, the idea started to spread.
Alice Ferguson and Amy Rose originally came up with the Playing Out idea and the first session happened on their street in June 2009.
From there it steadily grew from a few streets in Bristol into a parent-led movement across the UK. There are now more than 950 street or estate communities that have had regular Playing Out sessions with more than 29,000 children taking part. Across the UK, 63 local authorities have now put in a street play policy to support parents interested in following suit.
Today, with kids glued to screens and the threat of an obesity epidemic, the initiative is more important than ever. Ingrid Skeels, co-director of Playing Out, and another of the original parents who formed the group, explains: “Roads have become dominated by traffic as never before, and kids’ lives increasingly limited from this. Parents don’t feel the roads are safe enough to let their children play out, and in most places they are right. It’s also a culture thing: not many children are visible out there now, so parents don’t think it’s acceptable to let theirs out. Also, people generally think children should just ‘go to the park’. But how do you get to the park if the roads aren’t safe? Not being able to play out is actually a public health problem, with everything from potential future mental health problems to a basic lack of exercise and fresh air factors too. But parents do want better for their children and communities. And of course, less traffic dominated streets is also better for air quality.”
Under the scheme, the streets are not totally closed, and anyone who wants to get in or out to homes can, but the road is closed to through traffic. Street-appointed stewards (usually residents) will escort any cars needing to move during the session. Meanwhile, the kids play with balls, skipping ropes, scooters and bikes, chalk - anything they want to bring out from their homes. They can play or just and sit and chat with friends and neighbours.
The initiative has seen relations between communities transformed, with both young and old and people from different backgrounds and schools mixing, and new friendships made. “The older residents often love hearing the sound of children playing and laughing outside their homes,” says Ingrid. “And I hear all the time of the wider impact, like neighbours offering to do things like babysit, put out bins when people go on holiday or collect shopping for the infirm.
“One lady told me they discovered a 93-year-old living on their street that they had no idea was even living there, so they started looking out for her. Another street discovered another elderly resident was poorly so they took her food until she was better.
“This is people helping people, and the real value is that it has come from the people on the streets themselves. The Playing Out idea has empowered people, and made them proud of where they live.”
No closure happens without discussion between all the street’s residents and it is meant to be an event for everyone, not just people with children. “We encourage parents to explain to the older residents that when they were young, playing out wasn’t even an issue. Children today don’t always get that chance to play freely in the space in front of their own home. Most concerns are addressed in that talking bit. But once there has been a single session, most people with doubts are converted to the benefits a temporary road closure can bring, especially as it is just a couple of hours a week at most.”
Ellie Freeman is one mum who helped launch a Playing Out session in her street in Bristol for her two boys aged nine and three. She says: “The kids came out on trikes, scooters, roller skates. We always had chalk and that became a big feature of our sessions, appealing to the quieter and younger children.
“We have lots of families on our street and some older people too and we gradually got to know each other. A small group of us formed who regularly stewarded and whose children played out nearly every session.”
Interest in the scheme has gone world-wide with similar projects launched in countries as far afield as Canada, Romania, Taiwan and Australia.
“We have so many parents - and councils - coming to our website now who want to replicate the project. To think this started with one road, in Bristol, with one group of us parents, that is amazing. It does make us feel very proud. We hope it will lead to other changes around safer streets so children can play out once again more day to day.”