Children’s play depends much more on the design of roads and areas of housing than it does on the provision of playgrounds or play centres.
In most housing areas children are unable to play out on the roads as did their grandparents, yet the debates about children’s play, obesity and Big Society all tend to ignore this basic fact. In research this year in Cardiff we found out that there were dramatic differences in the ages and numbers of children playing out between two different residential areas.
The main reason for this was the traffic. Where the roads were straight and un-calmed children did not play out, yet where the traffic was slowed through cul-de-sac design and a layout with bends, the children played out as they have done for countless generations.
These findings are consistent with similar observational and interview research I have carried out across nearly 70 areas of housing in different areas of Britain over the last 20 years.
Parents are blamed for being “risk averse” yet they and their children consistently ask for “bigger, faster, higher” equipment on playgrounds. In a questionnaire, 94% thought that playgrounds were about right or too safe, with only 6% thinking they were too dangerous. They are clearly not “risk averse”; it is just that the roads have become more dangerous and so quite reasonably parents do not let their children play out on them.
What is rather ridiculously called “road safety” is there to prevent cars being damaged by impacting on children. If it were there to protect children then on entering a residential area it would be the car driver who would have to look right, look left and proceed with caution. Many bemoan the loss of “social capital” yet where children can play out parents talk of “keeping an eye out” for each other’s children.
Where the traffic is slow both parents and children are seen to be out and talking to each other more. At play children naturally learn to take turns, reach agreements, make rules and settle disputes.
The obesity debate tends to be dominated by those who will benefit financially from the provision of treatments or therapies and the loss of children’s freedom to play out is ignored. We have found that children are instinctively active. They want to get healthy exercise. We have estimated that in a housing area with 100 children if only half of them could play out but and were able to freely wander round their neighbourhood they would make 281,000 journeys each year. This is massive yet no government has recognised this healthy, non-polluting activity as transport.
So what can be done about this? Firstly we have got to stop measuring the number of play facilities and give a primacy to measuring the outcome “can children play out?” As far as I know, there is not one local authority or government department that measures this.
A simple proxy measurement would be to ask how many primary school children are allowed to travel to school unaccompanied. If they can travel to school then it is likely that they could walk to their friend’s, do errands for their parents and generally play out.
Some may be appalled but we should recallthat for most of the last century, certainly up until about 1970, the vast majority of five yearold children walked to primary school on their own or with friends/siblings.
Their parents would take them for the first week or two but after that they would go on their own. It is not unreasonable to do this. There has been NO increase in stranger danger; it is only the car that is causing the problem. The roads prevent community interaction and therefore the fear of stranger danger rises exponentially.
We need to make the environment fit for children. Residential roads need to be treated as pedestrian crossings for their whole length. The 20mph limits are not intended to enable children to play out or walk round their neighbourhood; they are there to reduce the severity of injuries. 20mph is not sufficiently slow to make parents feel confident that they can let their children play out. At the present rate of development and cost Home Zones will take thousands of years to make any difference.
We need to change our attitude to children’s travel distances. All the research has found that certainly up to the age of 11 most children (and their parents) want to play out within sight and sound of home or possibly the next street if a friend’s parent can keep an eye out for them. In previous generations children had the freedom to travel further but even so the majority of every-day play happened in sight and sound of home.
We therefore need to abandon the misleading process of drawing large circles around playgrounds on plans and assuming that all children within the circle will play there. Children’s every-day ranges are short and no council is going to knock down houses to provide play space on every street corner. We therefore have to make the environment fit for children to play out.
Town or large destination playgrounds are important family facilities but they do not cater for children’s every-day play. A simple headcount shows that the ratio of adults to children is less than 1:2 and nearer 1:1. The children cannot play there when they want to but only the half hour or so a week when the parents accompany them.
For children play is an everyday activity taking more time than school (including weekends and holidays). They value play areas and play centres but for the vast majority, none are available within site and sound of home. The traditional place is the road which should be reclaimed both for them and to create more neighbourly communities.
Rob Wheway is director of the Children’s Play Advisory Service. Links to research on which this article is based can be downloaded free.