Mon, Jun 25, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Reclaiming the streets for children

Two British mothers decided it was time to reclaim the streets for children to play in, as they used to, and even the local council agreed

By Giulia Rhodes  /  The Guardian

Like many of the parents who support the project, Jessica said that what she wants for her children is influenced by the degree of unsupervised outdoor play she enjoyed as a child. This, said Alice, has been a powerful force in motivating parents to engage with Playing Out.

“I grew up in Bristol, not that far from where I am now. Even in the city it was quite normal to call for friends and be out playing without being watched all the time. So many of us want to bring some of that back because otherwise we just don’t see how children can have the same opportunities and learn the same things,” Alice said.

In just one generation that free-range experience has become, in cities at least, the exception rather than the norm. So unusual is the idea of urban children playing unchaperoned in places not specifically designed for them, that exceptions are sometimes considered worthy of public attention. For example, in 2008, when Lenore Skenazy, a New York mother, admitted that she let her nine-year-old son navigate parts of the city alone, there was an international furore.

“Why has this happened?” Amy asked. “We have somehow retreated from the streets and largely given that space up to cars. We need to make streets liveable again. Town planning, out-of-town facilities and traffic have all played a part. Attitudes have changed, too, though. Parenting has been professionalized and too readily judged and that kills play. Parents are either blamed for being irresponsible or over-protective.”

Alice, an optimist, believes things could change.

“It will take time, but I think we can return to seeing children as belonging in their neighborhoods. We can’t expect them to feel respect for — and pride in — their communities if we don’t,” she said.

“All we want is for children to be able to play safely outside their homes. Children love their streets. With Playing Out we haven’t got the solution, but we are doing something and it isn’t even difficult,” she added.

On Birch Road the children are gradually drifting back into their houses — a rest in front of the television, supper, homework all beckon. It all seems very natural and everyday. There is no sense of special occasion climax, and that, say the organizers, is exactly how it should be.

They did not realize it when they started, but Alice and Amy have unwittingly created a child development expert’s dream.

“We had a play professional from the council come to one of the early sessions,” Amy said. “She asked how we had got the children to cover so many of the different types of play. Of course we hadn’t done anything at all, just followed a hunch that this kind of child-led play is what fires imagination.”

It was enough to convince Bristol City Council not only to give Playing Out a grant to expand the scheme and run workshops for the many interested parents, but also to change its rules, creating Temporary Play Street Orders to close roads up to once a week if residents agree.

In fact, there have been very few objections, even from non-parents. Residents are able to drive in and out of the street during sessions (very slowly and guided by the wardens), but most do not feel the need.

“We were surprised how supportive people were. A lot of older residents actually come out to help us steward and have a cup of tea, which is lovely,” Alice said.

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