Sophie Bolt is the Communications Officer at Play England, a charity which campaigns for all children and young people to have freedom and space to play throughout childhood.
Play is an essential part of every child’s life and is vital for social, emotional, intellectual and physical development. When children are asked what they think is important in their lives, playing and friends are usually at the top of the list! Having time and space to play gives children the opportunity to meet and socialise with their friends, keeps them physically active, and gives the freedom to choose what they want to do.
‘Street Play’ is an easy and free way for children and families to play out in the streets where they live. Play England has been working with Playing Out, London Play and the University of Bristol to support communities and local authorities to reactivate a culture of children playing out in the streets near where they live. Residents request a temporary street closure from their local council - maybe weekly or monthly, usually for three hours at a time. Parents and other residents act as marshals, so neighbours can drive to and from their homes at walking pace. All other traffic is re-directed, transforming the street into a car-free space for children to play. See the benefits of Street Play in action in Hackney in this short video:
Why is Street Play needed?
Nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese and the problem is worse amongst children from the most deprived areas. New research from Play England’s Street Play project gives more evidence to prove that children are much more physically active when they play out. And the after-school time slot is the critical window: this is when differences between low and high active children and non-obese and obese children are greatest.
But there has actually been a big decline in children playing out, especially amongst girls, and this is damaging children’s mental and physical health.
So, why is there a decline? It’s largely due to very real concerns about traffic dangers, but also - despite crime figures remaining relatively unchanged over decades – fears of ‘stranger danger’. Parks and playgrounds should provide safe and traffic-free play spaces, but often traffic prevents children from accessing them. Whilst there are lots of absolutely terrific adventure playgrounds which children can access free, due to funding cuts others are being neglected or closed down.
This is where Play England’s Street Play project really comes in. It addresses the twin problems of traffic danger and parents’ confidence. Evidence from the project’s evaluation shows not only do parents feel more confident about their children playing out, children make new friends, and the whole street develops a stronger sense of community.
Street Play is also forming part of urban planning schemes in London and Scotland for instance, to reduce traffic and make streets safer and less polluted for everyone.
How can I set up a street play?
Playing Out has a great step-by-step guide and lots of support to create your own Street Play. Why not start by organising a one-off street closure? Then, if it goes well, you can get together with other residents to try and make it a regular activity.