ORGANISATIONS WORKING AT THE NEXUS OF URBAN DESIGN AND MENTAL HEALTH
UD/MH Associate Sarah Willson speaks to Alice Ferguson, Director of Playing Out Bristol, an organisation helping children and parents change their experience of residential streets.
Wow, so the movement is really growing. How did it all begin?
Playing Out was started by myself and my neighbour, Amy Rose, in response to feeling that our children’s lives were too restricted and that they were missing out on something we had taken for granted as children – having the freedom to play out independently and make friends on their street. For us, the main issue was that our residential street was dominated by cars and just didn’t feel like a safe or pleasant space for children to be in.
How does a Playing Out session work?
The ‘playing out’ model is meant as a temporary way to give children a taste of this experience and a catalyst for longer-term change. Neighbours get together and apply to the council to close their street for a couple of hours, weekly or monthly, to create a safe space for children to play freely. There are no organised games or activities – the whole idea is for children to have the freedom to follow their own ideas and use the space as they choose. This leads to an astonishing variety of activity, from cycling, scooting and skipping, to more imaginative and invented games – or just ‘hanging out’ and getting to know each other.
What is the benefit of free play for children? Physical health? Mental development? Social interaction? Community belonging?
All of the above! There is a lot of evidence of the general benefits of free play for children, especially in terms of emotional and mental development. The problem is that they have less and less opportunity for this, as both their time and the space available to them has become increasingly more restricted. See here for more information on the evidence of the specific benefits of the ‘playing out’ model.
For children, one massive benefit of playing out is making friends on their street. Because they have a shared sense of belonging – the street being an extension of home - you tend to see much greater interaction across the normal barriers of age, gender, ethnicity and social background, compared to play in the school playground. Often, the children who live on one street will go to several different schools and don’t even know of each other’s existence until they meet at a playing out session!
There hasn’t been any specific research (that I know of) on the link between street play and mental health – but it would definitely be something we would be interested in.
(UD/MH Editor: the research on play and mental health is summarised here).
Children enjoying a Playing Out session. Credit: Playing Out
How does the project affect and involve other residents?
Playing out is generally – though not always – initiated by parents who are motivated to change things for their own children. As a result of being involved in sessions, parents have reported feeling increased confidence to let their children play out, increased sense of belonging in their street and trust of their neighbours, and a sense of satisfaction at knowing they are giving their children something really valuable. Some mothers have even said that getting playing out happening on their street has helped them to come out of post-natal depression and overcome isolation.
Older residents and those without children have also been involved on many streets. For older people especially, it can be a valuable way of getting to know their younger neighbours and becoming more ‘visible’ in their community. We have even heard stories of 999 calls being avoided (for example, when an elderly person had a fall in their house) because of neighbours getting to know each other through ‘playing out’.
What types of streets and urban spaces are suitable for outdoor play? Is there an ideal form?
The main thing children need is access to safe space near their front door. It is a bonus to have somewhere with interesting, playable or natural features but really, children are not too fussy and will find imaginative ways to play in any space that is available, however dull or ugly it may seem to adults.
So how can people start organising their own Playing Out sessions? Is it a difficult process?
It’s pretty simple. Everything you need to know is on our website www.playingout.net. The first step is to talk to your neighbours and build support for the idea. Meeting other people on the street can be a great side-effect for adults involved in making it happen.
What has been the response of local councils and officials? Are they receptive of the program?
In general, councils have been very welcoming of the idea as a low-cost, community-building way of getting children outdoors and active. It really is a no-brainer for councils to support it from a public health point of view. All they have to do is put a policy in place to allow people to apply for a regular road closure and residents do all the hard work themselves! Over fifty local authorities have done this so far and we are here to help advise any other councils that are interested in supporting it.
What does this mean for public health policy?
I would just say that we need to look at the root causes of our current public health issues – especially those affecting children – and tackle those in a more radical, sustainable way. Children want to play - it’s not a chore for them. They just need to be given the time, space and opportunity to do so immediately outside their front doors.
What are the long-term goals of the Playing Out project?
Our long-term goal is for all children to have the freedom to play out safely where they live, every day. As well as political and physical changes to slow traffic and make streets and cities more people-friendly, this will mean a big shift in culture and attitude towards widespread understanding that, for children, playing out is a vital part of a healthy, happy life.
A young girl enjoying a Playing Out session. Credit: Playing Out
Playing Out materials
Read more about the links between environment, play and children's mental health
Free Play and Children's Mental Health - David Whitebread (2017), The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health
The Importance of Play - David Whitebread (2012)
Further journal research papers (you can read the abstract summary; you may need to sign in through your institution to read full text)
The Power of Outdoor Play and Play in Natural Environments - Kemple et al (2016) in Childhood Education
Play and its role in the mental development of the child - L.S. Vygotsky (2014) in Soviet Psychology
Using Nature and Outdoor Activity to Improve Children’s Health - McCurdy et al (2010) in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care
Sanity and Urbanity: