Every now and again, I come across a brilliant social initiative that is so inspiring that it makes me want to shout it from the roof tops.
Last Saturday’s Family section of The Guardian featured the article ‘The Streets Belong to Us’ about Playing Out, a brilliantly simple yet radical initiative in Bristol by two extraordinary ordinary mums to find a safe way for their kids to simply play in their street.*
Alice Ferguson and Amy Rose yearned for that once basic yet now unheard of past time of kids from the same street playing together in the public space outside their front doors, a place that is now out of bounds thanks to the dominance of the car. Fed up with having to ferry their primary-aged kids here there and everywhere to do an after school activity or simply have a play date, they fell upon a simple idea after having a Street Party three years ago. Why not close off the street for a couple of hours after school one day a month (now once a week) for the kids to do their own thing?
Thankfully Bristol Council grabbed a hold of the idea and helped them make their vision a reality, granting them authority to do this and even giving them a grant to set up a website and run workshops. It’s so popular that 30 odd streets are doing the same across Bristol. Read the article for more detail – its worth a read, or see the website for how to set one up yourself.
Brilliant! I love it! What’s brilliant about it is its simplicity and lack of structure – adults are present but very much in the background, leaving the kids to their own devices to play whatever they want, be it using scooters or chalk, mixing across the ages in a way that they’re not allowed to at school or nursery. In other words, they’re not being guided by well-meaning but over-protective adults such as teachers, child minders and parents (well, I speak for myself anyway)
What I also loved about these two women was their analysis of one of the reasons we as a society have stopped allowing our kids to play out. “Attitudes have changed too” explains Amy Ferguson. “Parenting has been professionalised and too readily judged and that kills play. Parents are either blamed for being irresponsible or over-protective.”
There it is. Comparative parenting again. Something which is as old as the hills, but which has reached a frenzied peak in the last decade or so. Why? Us women (again, I speak for myself) who’ve had fine educations and jobs before going through the metamorphosis of becoming a mother, have turned our professional hand to parenting – with all the analysis, best practice, and quality control that we know how. Aaagh.
Sadly we don’t live on a street where I think it would work, as we have so few kids (I can count them on one hand including our own), plus it is within eye shot of a playground so I can imagine the protestations from childless car owners who’d angrily point to the park as the place they should be tidied off to, not getting in their railroad-way. But this misses the point – its not near enough for me to send my two down there on their own, or for me to keep an eye on the simmering potatoes whilst they muck about.
I yearn, really it is a yearning, for our kids to have that kind of freedom, even just to pop next door to play with a friend. Such is the generous design of our ex-council houses that people don’t move, so we are surrounded by pensioners who first took up residence in the 1950s. I know, I’m aware of the pitfalls, such as annoying kids yelling across the fence to play just when you’ve put the dinner on the table, or finding they’ve scarpered next door when there’s home work to do, but that’s all the stuff of life, isn’t it?
Not only would my life be more relaxed and less ‘here there and everywhere’ but it would give the kids the gift of space without adults directing them. “I love playing out” says one girl, “It is a bigger space to play and you get more time with your friends. We pretty much know all the kids on the street now because this has made it easy to meet people” and, pricelessly goes on to refer to adults as usually “too bossy”. She’s bang on.
Our kids tend to only experience this kind of freedom in the summer holidays – we deliberately go places where they can roam freely and feral-like with other kids on the same campsite/holiday park, returning mucky but with a sparkle in their eyes.
The recent resurgence of street parties in this country make it a perfect time to try and reverse the trend of the past 30 years. So, let’s start a street revolution in St Albans (or anywhere else for that matter). Anyone up for it?