Set children free: are playgrounds a form of incarceration?

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On the other side of a child-sized archway lies a street that has had supersized sprinkles of confetti painted across its tarmac. This leads to a surreal scene strewn with boulders, undulating benches and piles of logs. A tap emerges from one boulder, a hammock swings near a picnic table in the middle of the road, while a circle of planted willows forms a living den on the verge. When the pandemic struck last year and playgrounds were quickly sealed off with tape and metal barriers, this playful space in Hackney, London, remained open – because it’s not actually a children’s playground, but a public street.

“We were trying to show that play is an essential part of civic infrastructure, just as important as pavements,” says architect Liza Fior, whose practice, Muf, conjured this permanent play street for the council. “It’s not overtly a playground, but there are invitations to play set all along it.”

Halfway down the road stands a curious white metal ring on stilts. Nicknamed “the tiara” and accessed by a little doorway, it forms a circular pen in the middle of the street, its opening just big enough for a small child to cycle into. “This one causes the most consternation among adults,” says Fior, “because no one knows what it’s for.” Kids, on the other hand, have found innumerable ways to play in, on, under and around this gnomic prop, and beyond, for the last 12 months, in safely distanced bubbles, as their parents took their sanctioned daily exercise nearby.

Thrills kids, baffles adults ... the 'tiara' in Hackney, by Muf.

But such scenes have been few and far between. One of the biggest invisible casualties of the pandemic, receiving hardly any airtime in the debates about school closures and online learning, has been children’s right to play. While the right of adults to jog has been enshrined in the government’s rules since the first lockdown, children have been told off by police for building snowmen, tutted at for playing hopscotch in the street, and sent home for kicking a ball around the park. Only last week, after a year of uncertainty and shaming, was it finally clarified by No 10 that children can use playgrounds – strictly for exercise only.

“Lockdown has been brutal for children,” says Tim Gill, author of a new book, Urban Playground: How Child Friendly Planning and Design Can Save Cities. “It has seen an extreme acceleration in what’s been happening to children’s lives for the last 50 years: the total erosion of their everyday freedoms. I really hope the pandemic will be a wakeup call for people to see the broader impact of this form of incarceration that children have been living with for decades.”

Gill cites the Hackney play street, which is the first flowering of the borough’s ambitious child-friendly planning vision, as exactly the kind of thing our cities need more of. He wants to see playgrounds breaking free from their perimeter fences and spreading out across the streets, taking their rightful place as an essential part of the urban fabric. His message is not about designing snazzier slides and fancier climbing frames; he thinks enabling children to play freely outdoors is the sign of a healthy, liveable place – with kids acting as a kind of “indicator species” for the wellbeing of cities. As the anarchist thinker Colin Ward wrote in 1978: “One should be able to play everywhere, easily, loosely, and not forced into a ‘playground’ or ‘park’. The failure of an urban environment can be measured in direct proportion to the number of ‘playgrounds’.”

No play zone ... a closed-off children's park in Edinburgh last April.

With playgrounds strictly off-limits during the first lockdown, this idea was put to the test. Alison Stenning, professor of social geography at Newcastle University, was in the middle of a research project on “playing out” when the pandemic struck. “Our surveys found a really unexpected blossoming of playfulness on streets,” she says, “with rainbow trails, pavement chalking and doorstep discos. Suddenly, minute details took on immense importance for children, like little bits of verge becoming the centre of elaborate games. We received lots of stories about kerbs, including one from two girls who choreographed a dance on opposite sides of the street, because they knew they had to stay apart.”

With much less traffic around, streets took on lives of their own. But Stenning’s survey also found huge anxiety among parents, worried about being seen to be breaking the rules and not wanting to annoy neighbours. “A lot of people still think play is something frivolous,” she says. “But we argue that it’s essential – not only for exercise but for children’s mental health. The government’s definition of essential exercise has been far too limiting. An adult might go running, but kids would be stopping, exploring, adventuring and climbing in a way that’s seen to be against the rules.”

Despite the national restrictions, the last 12 months have seen a number of creative responses to our collective incarceration, with many residents taking advantage of low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs) to take control of their streets. Brixton, also in London, has seen a flurry of “parklets” sprouting up in parking spaces and on street corners as a result of road closures. Community gardening firm Father Nature has designed several of these, getting residents involved in planting beds, running seed exchanges and opening little street libraries – including one with a marble run that dings a bell each time a marble completes the route.

“A renewed appreciation of nature and gardening has been a silver lining to the pandemic,” says Father Nature founder James Swayne. When the lockdown began, he used an electric milk float to deliver seeds and seedlings to families without their own gardens, encouraging them to find places where the plants might take root. “If ever you feel anxious, just go and plant something.”

Transition Liverpool, an environmental campaign group, launched a crowdfunder to transform parking spaces across the city into temporary parks over the summer. “We tried a pilot in September, without asking for permission,” says Bernadette Colligan. “The parking warden loved it. He thought we should do it down the whole street. He said, ‘Don’t ask for permission – just get on with it.'”

Parents at Chisenhale primary school in Tower Hamlets, London, have also launched a crowdfunding campaign to see the road outside the school turned into an extension of the playground. “”When the kids went back to school in June they were in their ‘bubbles’, forced to play in smaller areas of the already small playground,” says Rob Hughes, a parent governor and public health researcher. “Meanwhile, the road was right there, lying empty.”

Working with Heat Island architects, Hughes and other parents have developed a plan to co-opt a stretch of the street and turn it into two playgrounds, with a pocket park and a portable stage, so the neighbouring Chisenhale dance space can run workshops with the pupils and events for the wider community. “We want to show that the world doesn’t stop when you lose 11 parking spaces,” says Hughes. “Is it right that we’re packing our kids into small spaces and letting cars all over our streets? The pandemic has allowed these conversations to be had, which otherwise might be seen to be too radical.”

Sign of a healthy city? ... Station Road, Harrow.

Gill’s book is brimming with examples of how we might plan a healthier post-Covid world. Unsurprisingly, many of the case studies come from Scandinavia, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, where the rights of children have been at the forefront for decades. One chapter is dedicated to Rotterdam, a city Gill says has arguably devoted more time, money and energy to child-friendly planning than any other. Removing parking spaces, widening pavements (specifically on the sunny side of the street), dotting play features across the public realm, opening schoolyards out of hours, and extensive greening have all led to an urban landscape that feels safe and attractive for children to roam.

Another innovation has been the “duimdrop”, a kind of communal toy box housed in a converted shipping container, filled with tricycles, scooters, rollerskates and craft materials. Installed in public spaces, these are managed by parents and grandparents. Children can “rent” equipment with a free membership card – and are able to collect stamps for helping out with tasks, such as sweeping the floor or fixing toys. They can then use these to upgrade to a better toy.

While toy libraries and special street furniture are nice-to-haves, they are not essential. “Children are really unfussy,” says Alice Ferguson, director of Playing Out, which encourages outdoor play. “A normal street or scruffy little scrap of land near the home can be just as much fun as a beautifully designed playground with all the bells and whistles. And, as a blank canvas, it can actually lead to more creative and imaginative play.”

The crucial first step is a shift in attitude. This week’s announcement of how lockdown will be eased shows that children’s rights have been ignored yet again. While two adults will soon be permitted to meet for a coffee, children too young to go out alone will have to wait for weeks to be allowed to play out with a friend after school. With the pandemic exacerbating the multiple crises of mental health, loneliness and obesity in the nation’s young, the message of Gill’s book is more urgent than ever.

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