Four-year-old Isobel is sitting on the sidewalk with her friend Amelie. The girls eat their Popsicles and chat, dollies and kick scooters lying in the street beside them. Isabel’s baby brother Hugo is napping nearby in his stroller. A gang of boys comes whizzing down the road in a mass of kick scooters, skateboards and bikes. They deftly dodge another cluster of children, ranging in age from toddlers to pre-teens, who are busy chalking up hopscotch on the road.
It may sound like a rose-tinted scene from a bygone era, but this is a weekday afternoon in a city center street in Bristol, England. The young residents of Birch Road are enjoying their monthly Playing Out session and for a couple of hours the street belongs to them. Dumpsters and road closure signs, policed by chatting mothers, keep the traffic out and the children in.
The idea of temporarily closing the road to traffic originated a few streets away when two Bristol mothers, keen to give their children a taste of the simple freedom they themselves had enjoyed growing up, decided to ask the council for a one-off closure — a kind of street party, but without the party.
Alice Ferguson and Amy Rose, both mothers of two, hoped to make a point and get to know their neighbors better. Three years later, with more than 30 streets in Bristol and beyond now replicating their Playing Out sessions, and a busy Web site and Facebook page, they also seem to have created a movement.
“Amy and I used to chat in each other’s front gardens and soon realized that we shared an interest, not only in play, but also in the idea of children having more autonomy in their neighborhoods,” said Alice, 40, an environmental consultant who is working full-time on the Playing Out Project.
“In the short-term, I wanted for Eva and Amos [now 11 and six] to be outside letting off steam, playing with who they wanted. I worried about their lives being so indoors and sedentary. In the longer term I wanted them to grow up with a sense of citizenship and belonging, able to interact with people of different ages and be part of a community,” she said.
Alice and Amy felt sure that these ideals, at once humble and lofty, depended on each other in some way, and that the answer lay in children’s right to use the space immediately around them. The wider issues were theoretical and complicated, but part of the solution, they believed, was practical and simple.
Early conversations focused on physically changing the streets to somehow make them safer and more child friendly, but the pair soon realized that cost and logistics made such plans unrealistic. They had to work with what was there.
Amy, 45, a theater director and former street performer, was used to seeing the street as more than just a traffic thoroughfare.
Her suggestion was brilliantly simple, Alice said: “We’d had a street party and Amy had the idea that we could just close the road to traffic in the same way and do nothing else. It was a light-bulb moment.”
The plan, Amy hoped, might also help with the after-school problem she faced: What to do in those post-school and pre-dinner hours with bouncy children and next to no garden.
“There was that block of time. My daughters, Kaya [now 11], and Jessie [seven] were mentally tired, but physically buzzing. Meanwhile, I was drooping. We might all troop to the park, but then there would be the panic about it being supper time. I just wondered how it had worked for my mother. I didn’t think she was this stressed. I wanted some way to make it all easier,” Amy said.