Yes to Ball Games? A London Borough shoots to score first!

Cath Prisk
Monday, July 6, 2015

Haringey Council and Homes for Haringey have recently agreed to review “No Ball Games” signs and remove them “where they are impeding children’s play”.

This is a monumental turnaround. This is cause for major celebration by any parent or friend of small children. Anyone that wants kids to be more active. Anyone wanting children to grow up feeling welcome in their own communities.

“No Ball Games” signs have blighted housing estates and public open spaces for decades. Brought in originally to reduce the (understandable) nuisance factor of having a ball kicked repetitively against a wall behind which someone might be sleeping, they have come to stand for “No Play”. They were never meant to stop play entirely. As far as I can find out, no one thought back in the fifties and sixties that just saying “No Ball Games” would stop hopscotch, scooting, skipping games and den building.

The Playday research from 2013 found that concerns about “what the neighbours might say” is one the primary barriers to outdoor, active play, and a “No Ball Games” culture hugely contributes to that, legitimising complaints not just about endless kicking of balls, but about ANY noise made by playing children.

“No Ball Games” has come to mean “This is adult space, keep out!”

And children left.

June also saw the publication of a Canadian Position Statement on Outdoor Active Play by a group of respected academics and leading children’s organisations. Aimed at educators, policymakers and community developers, it says:

Access to active play in nature and outdoors – with? its risks – is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings – at home, at school, in childcare, the community and nature.

To back this up they commissioned two comprehensive literature reviews, using a robust meta-analysis methodology. These show multiple findings – in case you need convincing – including that opportunities to play outdoors increases activity rates and active children become active adults; that outdoor play promotes friendships and emotional wellbeing. Outdoor play, and exposure to manageable hazards and dangers, is critical for increasing “resilience” and better management of stress.

They point out that Canadian children are eight times more likely to die as a passenger in a motor vehicle than from being hit by a vehicle when outside on foot or on a bike, a stat that’s about the same in the UK. And here, with type 2 diabetes taking up 10 per cent of the NHS’s budgets, as well as obesity and mental health issues increasingly affecting young people, should we not be prioritising independent outdoor play too?

This small step by Haringey Council could be a small tipping point of its own. If every council made the same decision, and at the same time invested just a tiny amount in encouraging playing out in the street for all their citizens, maybe we could really take back our communities for kids. Then we might start seriously addressing the many health challenges facing children – and let them have far happier childhoods.

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

If communities are looking for replacement signage, London Play produce "Play Priority Area" signs which are excellent value. There is one in the car park in front of my block of flats.

Playing Out has great advice on its website to help communities work through any issues that do arise where they may be differences of opinion as to what children can and can’t do in public spaces.

More info:

Evening Standard: Return of the park kickabout in London as 'No Ball Games' signs face axe to help combat obesity Council reviews ‘no ball games’ signs in childhood obesity push

The Times: Review puts street games back in play (paywall)

Rethinking Childhood: Is North America on the brink of a play renaissance?

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