Overweight children. Urban isolation. Neighbours who’ve never spoken to each other. These are the problems being tackled by a free grassroots project encouraging kids all over the England to play in the road.
In the Street Play scheme, groups of parents close residential streets to traffic so their children can come out and play for an hour or two. The parents involved say that it brings both them and their children into contact with people around them they’d otherwise never have known.
One of the parents interviewed for a study commissioned in London said: ‘There’s something quite exciting about seeing things you would never… like Turkish mums doing French skipping. You don’t normally see that: if you think of what is a Turkish mum, you wouldn’t think of a woman French skipping. There’s something quite exciting about seeing different cultures play in different ways, and seeing the universality of it. I think that that’s a real buzz.’
Kari, a mother who helps organise street closures in the diverse neighbourhood of Hackney, East London, said, ‘I’ve met so many people, especially those whose kids aren’t school age yet. It’s helped make a really strong sense of community, and I know a lot more people walking around the neighbourhood.
‘I grew up in a small town in rural Iowa and we pretty much had the run of the town. Kids today don’t get to do that. And everyone’s back gardens are fenced off, you can’t run between them like you did when I was a kid. So I really liked the idea of the kids going out and playing in the street.’
More than 500 streets across England have been temporarily closed for play over the past few years, with support from around 45 local authorities, and the idea has recently spread to Canada and Australia. Aside from bringing together people who would otherwise live cheek by jowl without ever speaking, the scheme tackles childhood obesity. In England, a third of children aged between two and fifteen are overweight or obese. Four out of five children don’t get the minimum recommended amount of exercise, and the cost of obesity treatment is projected to reach £50billion ($64billion) annually by 2050.
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“It encourages them to get off their iPads and go outside”
Nevertheless, the street closures are usually organised weekly, monthly or quarterly. Even if there are several in the area, it’s improbable that a child would ever go more than, at most, once a week. How much difference can that really make?
‘If it’s just that one session, it’s still significant,’ said Tim Gill, an advocate for children who has written a report on the scheme. ‘If it’s once a week, you’re getting up to 10% of a weekly “dose” of play. Of course if they’re not so frequent, that’s going to drop off. But there are public health people who’d be very happy to see even a few percentage points difference.
‘We’ve also got anecdotal evidence that parents are more willing to let their kids play out or make little trips even when the road closures aren’t happening. Even very modest improvements can have a big benefit if they’re sustained.’
“It’s like a cork popping out of a bottle”
As Kari put it, ‘If it’s part of something that encourages them to get off their iPads and go outside, it contributes. It’s socialising and doing something that isn’t just staring at screen, an opportunity to interact with kids they may not know very well already.’
Street play is not a silver bullet for childhood obesity – not least because it doesn’t address the children’s diet. Although the research shows that the sessions lead to an increase in physical activity, which should be beneficial, there’s no direct research comparing participation in the scheme with overall health benefits. But while those benefits cannot be precisely defined, the costs are essentially zero.
The closures, which were invented by a group of parents in the city of Bristol, are still organised by groups of parents with help from local councils. The parents act as stewards at the ends of the road, to stop traffic and escort cars driven by any residents. The councils have provided some equipment, like cones and fluorescent vests, and simplified the paperwork the parent groups need to complete. For example, instead of making the parents apply each time they want to close a road, the councils have set things up so the permission is recurring. But the emphasis is on doing as little organising as possible, to make it as easy as possible for the volunteers.
The project has managed to reach some disadvantaged areas, but has struggled to reach the most disadvantaged. Most street closures have been organised by relatively middle-class groups. And some of those involved suspect that a lack of diversity among the organisers reduces the diversity among the attendees.
Kari said, ‘If you have white middle-class people organising something, they’ll organise it in a way that makes sense to white middle-class people. If you want to involve a different demographic, you need to involve them in planning it.’
The scheme may not work at all for big housing projects, where there aren’t obvious roads to close off and where reports find that residents lack ‘social capital’ – social networks with the confidence that they can change their environment.
Whatever the limitations, the children love it. ‘It’s a bit like a cork popping out of a bottle,’ said Tim Gill. ‘Children just come out onto the street. They bring their toys or their scooters, their roller-blades. I often see children meeting other children for the first time. They don’t need to be told to do anything. It’s a little bit like when you’re on holiday, it’s amazing how quickly children can make friends.’
Or as Elizabeth, an 8-year-old attendee put it, ‘There’s always lots of my friends there and you can bring your own toys. I do quite a lot of chatting and sometimes I use chalk and do drawings on the road.’