Playing out isn’t about rules

Street play 12I’ve been helping one of our neighbours take part in a scheme run by the local council called Playing Out.

The idea is a good one – to encourage more people to play outside with their children. It’s pro-community, pro-family, pro-child. It brings animation back to streets. What’s not to like?

Hi-visibility jackets and whistles, that’s what.

Where we live, children play in the street. They scooter, and they cycle. They sit on the path and play with Lego. They chalk on the walls and the pavements. They chase each other with Nerf guns. They pop into each other’s houses to collect toys or a glass of water. Parents sit or stand outside and gossip, or sometimes stay upstairs and watch from a window, or often get on with jobs like gardening or polishing the car. Car drivers slow down when they see children around. This street isn’t a miracle; it’s simply down to us, the parents in our street, doing it. Investing time and effort. Our children have been taught to ride bikes early, encouraged to knock for friends, and shown the boundaries, invisible lines at each end of the road. We’re like Jane Jacobs‘ best dream, a mixed-use street right in a town centre, with the eyes of watchful parents on the street, and an increase in social capital as a result of scooters, bikes and chalk.

Street Play 5With Playing Out, though, the rules are different. The road is officially closed to traffic. Neighbours form a steering group and meet to discuss the idea. Leaflets (there’s a template, set wording) are stuffed through letterboxes. There are official signs up, and stewards have to wear high visibility jackets and carry whistles. Car drivers aren’t allowed in, unless they’re residents and they’re walked in behind a steward. You must discourage children from neighbouring streets from joining in – it’s just for your children. It’s closing down the street, rather than opening it up.

It’s great that with a Playing Out scheme, children get a few hours to really run free. And of course, in some streets this is the only way to make it happen.

Used creatively, it’s a great opportunity. Our first event went much further than the official guidelines allow, with our neighbourhood coffee shop rolling up on their Vespa mule to give us a decent drink, one neighbour setting up a cake stall for charity, and my sound system in the front garden to give us a ska and calypso soundtrack. None of this took any extra organising. There were no committee meetings or minutes. A few of us had hi-vis jackets to hand, and put them on when they were needed. We ended up with a street festival, a sunny afternoon with all the neighbours and their friends outside. People passing through our street, a busy route for schools and shops, stopped and joined in. Our children met other children in the street, and made new friends. It worked.

But that’s because we bent the council’s rules, went a bit further, opened up the box of Playing Out possibilities. We’d previously held a very similar street party with no official road closure order, just asking people to not drive down our road for a couple of hours. It’s possible. It’s easy. So we took Playing Out and made it fit our street.

Street playIt’s not to say that Playing Out is a duff idea. Far from it – anything that challenges the car-is-king orthodoxy is good. But if you want people to look after their streets, create their own community, really come together – then you have to accept that they will do that in their own way. That might mean they don’t have meetings, or that they design their own leaflets, or that they find a different model of managing events that works for where they live. If you give people freedom, you have to trust them. If you want local, it will be distinct. If you want people to reclaim the streets, you can’t complain when they do.

Replacing one set model of street use with another, as equally rigid and defined, isn’t the answer. We should be creating streets where play spills out and is spontaneous, streets that are a little chaotic and full of life, streets where people regularly bump up against each other in unexpected ways, streets where people find their own ways to make it work.

Streets, to paraphrase Jane Jacobs, which can provide something for everybody because they are created by everybody.

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3 thoughts on “Playing out isn’t about rules

  1. This seems unnecessarily critical of the Playing Out scheme. It’s a template not a set of rules & regs. It encourages consideration for neighbours and the fact is that if you want to close a street you need to consult with neighbours & inform the council. My understanding is that once a closure or two has taken place a far more informal situation arises, where a couple of bins are placed in the road and the kids crack on with playing.

    1. Here in Worthing, it’s far more formal – this post simply suggests it doesn’t need to be, and that we need to recognise that people will want to do things differently to meet local circumstances. One street, for example, apparently hired a bouncy castle which is banned under the rules. Ours has had a cake stall, raising money for local charities, which is also banned.

  2. Hi Dan. I wrote a long response to this yesterday but somehow managed to delete it and can’t face doing it all again! In a nutshell, I was just saying that I think there is some confusion here between ‘Playing Out’ (the grassroots movement) and what Worthing Council is doing. We initially came up with the basic idea of closing our busy street to through traffic as a catalyst towards what it sounds like you already have on your street – a culture where informal play is accepted and normal. We set up Playing Out to spread this idea and to promote street play generally. We do provide guidelines and template letters etc. for people to use if they want to do the formal road closure model, all of which is based on our experience and feedback from people who have done this. There is no obligation or prescription – we are just communicating what we know to work and be safe. We have found that some people really like to have a template they can follow to the letter – especially in places where there is less social capital – others are more confident and will take which bits they find useful and adapt/invent other bits – most people do make their own leaflets! It may be that where councils pick up the idea they communicate it slightly differently and make it sound more ‘schemey’ and that is where you have the impression that the whole process is rigid and obligatory. We also don’t by any means see this model as the only way to enable/promote street play – of course every street is different and people come up with all sorts of creative ways to do this, many of which are shared in our Facebook group. All we are saying is that if you want to actually formally, legally close your road to cars for a short length of time, this is the procedure we would recommend. We are all up for new ideas/models/thoughts – let us know if you have any. I look forward to a lively discussion in Bedford! Cheers, Alice.

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