Street Play – Schools, Children’s Centres and Youth Services have their part to play too

Cath Prisk
Thursday, April 9, 2015

David Lammy has called for 1,000 streets in London to be closed (periodically at least) for children to play out as part of his mayoral vision for the capital. Councillors and MPs of every party have expressed support for street play, and every local authority recognises physical activity as a cross-party and cross-departmental issue. Could children’s centres, youth hubs and schools help make this vision a reality? Maybe even UK wide?

Streets make up around 80 per cent of the accessible open space in our towns and cities and offer huge potential as a community resource: as a place to meet our neighbours, a place to socialise and to play. In other countries around the world, people feel comfortable using their streets in the same way we use the local park or playground, as indeed we did a generation ago.

This is what some children thought about organised street play sessions:

“It makes me happy because I get to ride my bike where I go all the way from up there to all the way down there.”

“I made six new friends today!”

Street play quite simply offers children opportunities to get to know their neighbourhood, make friends and be active. They connect with the urban nature on their doorstep and the people that live nearby. For parents it can be a necessary stepping-stone to allowing their children a bit more independence – and a way to get to know neighbours. And in that play they can learn lessons that are simply too hard to teach within the walls of a classroom, nursery or youth club but are so essential for life.

There are now 34 authorities in England with some sort of explicit support for street play, including closing streets at least for street parties if not for regular “playing out” sessions. A national project, led by Play England in partnership with Playing Out, London Play and Bristol University, is making use of a modest Department of Health grant to build interest and support for more children playing out on streets and estates where they live, working with a range of local organisations and councils.

Three local authorities – Bristol, Hackney and Worthing & Adur – are each paving slightly different ways to bring back a significant level of street play across their boroughs and are happy to share their legal processes and methodologies for the road closure elements.

Hackney recently published an evaluation, written by Tim Gill, covering the benefits (and challenges) of reintroducing street play, and here schools, youth services and children’s centres are playing a key part in the borough’s vision.

Mapledean Children’s Centre, three primary schools and one of the Youth MyPlace Hubs in the borough have all closed the streets outside their centres, drawing in hundreds of children including older brothers and sisters. Hackney’s promotional film shows the joy – and physical activity – going on. These sessions are typically now being held once or twice a term and are mostly led by a parent organisation attached to the centre. They also provide fertile ground for the local voluntary sector lead for the movement, based in the local play association, to recruit parents and residents from all parts of the communities to lead their own “street play” sessions. The heads of the respective services are fully supportive, noting the positive feedback from parents and local residents, the increased reach for them into their communities and the increased opportunities for boisterous play that this extra space allows.

No doubt there are schools and centres elsewhere taking advantage of this relatively easy way to massively increase the space available to them – if so I’d love to hear about them!

Schools, youth hubs and children’s centres are perfectly placed to inspire their local communities to get out more. Closing the road outside your centre for kids to have fun and be active, whether with you as lead to start with or in partnership with a parents group, can be far easier to do than you may think, and the rewards could be amazing.

For links to guidance on how to develop street play and to approach your local authority to close streets for play click here.

Cath Prisk runs her own social enterprise Outdoor People, and is a trustee for The Wild Network. She was formerly director of Play England?

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