Ten years of Playing Out: a personal reflection by Alice Ferguson

| Azad Sharma

One of the first talks I went to when I started working in health and social care projects was by Steven Johnson at the Royal Society of Arts. Johnson gave a summary of his book ‘Wonderland’ which is a snapshot history of how sites of play helped shape the modern world. Johnson linked play and amusement with innovation and social change in a story that has stayed with me to this day.

As I was thinking about Johnson’s talk, I came across Playing Out, a social enterprise and grassroots initiative that ensures children have the freedom to play outside on their street or in their neighbourhood. With an emphasis on play and public space, Playing Out help children access play safely by teaming up with local residents to keep traffic off the roads for a couple of hours.

They’re now celebrating 10 years of work and in the following blog by Playing Out’s director, Alice Ferguson, we learn of their story, achievements, and plans for the future.

A small act of rebellion

Ten years ago, my children were 7 and 3 and I just wanted them to be free to play outside, as I had done as a child. The problem was traffic (and a general cultural shift – but that’s another whole chapter) – they couldn’t even cross the road to call on friends on the other side, let alone feel safe enough to kick a ball around or ride their bikes on the street. I felt like they had been physically pushed out of the space on their doorstep that should have been an extension of home, where they ‘met’ the world. As someone who grew up surrounded by community activists, I wasn’t content to accept this new normal, where I had to arrange ‘play dates’ and take my kids to the park like dogs needing a run-about – not (just) because I’m a so-called “lazy parent”, but because it felt like an injustice. Thanks to the way we had prioritised things as a society, children were now missing out on a huge and essential experience – one that had shaped my childhood and that of all previous generations.

My son, Amos, playing out on our street

Fortunately, I was not alone in feeling this way. Whilst many parents I met seemed to accept their role as as PA/bodyguard/chauffeur, I was lucky enough to find some restless kindred spirits and we started talking about how to change things. We campaigned for safer routes to our school and parks and challenged risk-averse policies that limited children’s free play. My friend Ingrid and I discussed the need for a national campaign to restore children’s right to play out and be in public space, never imagining the responsibility for this would fall to us. Alongside this, my neighbour Amy and I started looking at our own street – a long, straight two-way rat run – imagining ways to make it feel less like a “road” and more like a place for people, especially children.

Having spent a couple of years with our neighbours attempting to ‘DIY’ our street – physically creating a more liveable space by changing the parking layout, building planters etc. – we had come to the realisation that it was (sorry) bloody difficult to make big permanent changes (again, another chapter!). So the ‘model’ we arrived at was something much more temporary, easier and simpler. Something we could just get on and DO. Coming from Amy’s arts/theatre background and my environmental campaigning, this was a mash-up of pragmatic direct-action and imaginative, transformative, site-specific performance. We closed our street to cars for a few hours after school so the children could come home and play out before tea. That’s it: no bunting, no activities, no music, food or drink. Just a space – the same space that had always been right there, but without the constant flow and threat of traffic. For this reason, Amy called it “removal art”.

The start of a movement

“How boring”, you say? Far from it! What we had done, semi-intentionally, was to create a blank canvas – a safe, open, unstructured space – that children could access immediately and semi-independently. We discovered and demonstrated that this was exactly what children wanted, and all that they needed. “Time, space and permission” is the mantra of the professional Playworker, whose mission is to enable free, child-led play, and we had instinctively provided all three. This sounds pretentious but, the more we thought about it, the more the layers of our model revealed themselves. Not only did it create an immediate opportunity for children to play out on their own street, it started to re-build the conditions needed to make this possible again – safer streets, more connected communities, a ‘normalisation’ of children being out, seen and heard. And on top of all this, it created a powerful experience and visual image, sparking people’s imagination and memories, leading them to ask why we have allowed this essential part of childhood to quietly slip away.

Even at this very early stage, we had an inkling we were onto something. The way our neighbours and others responded was astonishing – almost as if we’d discovered gold under the pavement. But we certainly weren’t planning to turn it into a movement or, God forbid, set up an “organisation”. Of course we then discovered that when the time is right for an idea to flourish, it will (with a bit of help and hard work).

In this case, help came from many quarters: the neighbours who encouraged us; the enlightened Bristol City Council people who said “yes” to trialling the first Temporary Play Street policy; the early adopters who tried it out on their own streets, helping us to refine the model and develop resources; the play experts who told us we had stumbled onto a ground-breaking idea; the artists who helped us share this idea in creative ways; the funders who believed in us; the parent-activists from across the country who turned it into a national movement; the play and community organisations who supported it on the ground; the journalists, organisations and influencers who have helped get the word out; the 68 other councils and 15,000 residents who have made it happen on streets everywhere; the supportive parents, grandparents, advocates and cheer-leaders too many to name.

The original Playing Out team, 2013

Of course, it’s also involved quite a bit of work and dogged commitment from us at Playing Out ‘central’! In 2011, after doing a lot to get things going on a voluntary basis, four of us parents – me, Amy, Ingrid and Naomi – set up Playing Out CIC as a formal non-profit organisation to ‘hold’ this growing movement. With help from many wonderful people working with and for us over the years, we have achieved a lot as a tiny, committed team, now led by Ingrid and myself: 30,000 children regularly playing out on their streets; a growing movement of parents and others calling for change; widespread media coverage; a national conversation about children’s right to space; academic papers published; high-level political support; government endorsement of play streets; numerous related projects and ideas sparked across the world. You would think I’d feel proud of all this – and I do. But I’m also very aware there is still a mountain to climb to reach our ultimate goal of restoring children’s freedom to play out as a normal part of life.

How fast they grow up!

My daughter Eva was seven when Playing Out was born and I just wanted her to be able to roller-skate up and down our street. She is now 18 and on the very day we were celebrating Playing Out’s 10th birthday, she was out on the street again – not skating but protesting in London with Extinction Rebellion.

Eva skating, 2010

It’s hard to put into words how significant this felt. On the one hand, I was proud to have ‘grown an activist’ – a young woman with strong feelings of injustice and the courage to challenge it. On the other, it instantly drew me out of my self-congratulatory Playing Out bubble and brought home how little has actually changed for children over ten years. If anything, things have got worse and children’s need for space, movement and freedom has increased. Air pollution, child obesity and depression: these major issues have all come to the fore, not to mention the existential threat to children’s very future as a result of climate change. I know it’s not the only issue but society’s addiction to cars – and the political reluctance to do anything about it – has a lot to answer for.

The good news is that at last more than just a few ‘cranks’ are coming out to say this now. Health experts, politicians, planners, architects and the public are all more aware that we need to create safer, less traffic-dominated environments for children to thrive. I hope that the Playing Out movement has contributed to this shift by showing both the transformative impact of creating child-friendly streets and the level of support amongst parents for doing so.

Eva with the ‘red rebels’, 2019

What now?

So, rather than proud, let’s feel enraged, determined, hopeful and empowered. Let’s redouble our efforts to change the world our children grow up in, fired by a sense of even greater urgency than we had ten years ago. My children no longer need to play outside the front door – they have a wider freedom now – but this isn’t about them any more. My audacious hope for the next ten years is that, through bringing about policy-change and a cultural shift towards a more child-friendly environment, Playing Out will have done its job and that children’s right to play out will be a given, embedded into the fabric of our society.

Photos by Playing Out

If you’re interested in finding out more, check out Playing Out’s Twitter and Facebook.

Thanks to ASH Group Ltd for sponsoring this article.

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