Traditional play is disappearing and so are children from public spaces, says a new report. Kids are now told where, when and how they can play and it isn't working for anyone. The solution?
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Our notion of play has changed over the years and has little to do with fun. These days the closest a child gets to an adrenalin rush is rocking back and forth on a springy chicken in an asphalt-covered playground.
Children are losing the freedom to roam and play independently, says a new report from the think tank Demos, along with places where such exploration is allowed. It argues that children have effectively been segregated from public spaces, and are instead herded into fenced-off playgrounds or driven to activities deemed "acceptable" for letting off steam.
But the erosion of unstructured play is not making anyone happy.
The UK recently came bottom of the Unicef rankings for child wellbeing, with the nation's teenagers branded the "worst behaved in Europe". And adults are increasingly torn between a fear for children and fear of them.
"Unless young people are in structured activities or acting as mini-consumers, we assume that they are causing trouble," says Celia Hannon, one of the authors of the Demos report.
"Our streets, squares and parks need to be accessible and enjoyable for all, otherwise existing anxiety around anti-social behaviour will get worse. Children should be seen and heard."
So what can we do differently? Three experts in the field consider the future of play.
Play means more than just swings and a slide, and it definitely means more than playgrounds. Taking a space not usually associated with children and turning it into a playground for all ages can transform an area.
This summer more than 80 tonnes of sand were imported from the Bahamas to create an urban beach in Manchester. One of Bristol's city centre squares was also transformed into a sandy paradise. The beaches revitalised the areas and became a place for people of all ages to meet, relax and play.
Urban beaches 'unite generations'
Such projects are not just about the physical, they also send out a message, says Adrian Voce, the director of Play England.
"They challenge people's notion of what play is and where it can be done.
"They have impact and send out a message that play isn't something trivial, it is something that can break down barriers and create a place where people of all ages can be."
Cars, commerce and "adult play" take priority over children, says Demos. So the opportunities for many children to have fun are few and far between. Also, there are times when play becomes even more important, like in the school holidays.
This is why play in the future could be brought to children when and where they need it.
In Bristol "play pods" are being built out of refurbished shipping containers. These will be filled with toys and moved around areas during school holidays.
"It's about taking the action to children, moving play to where it is needed," says landscape architect Phil Heaton, who has been involved in the redesign of many play areas.
"It's about giving kids who don't have many opportunities for play the chance to get involved."
Play has become so narrowly circumscribed, there are few places it is considered "acceptable". Even in public places there are limitations on noise, meeting friends, playing ball games, riding bike, using skateboards... the list goes on.
To challenge and change such ideas, good play needs to be part of the nation's iconic spaces - or temporarily transform them. It doesn't mean putting an ugly, plastic playground in the grounds of Hampton Court, it's about thinking differently and challenging perceptions.
Creating a village in central London
Last year Trafalgar Square was grassed over, creating a family-friendly environment in central London. Grassing over major road arteries for the day, such as Spaghetti Junction and London's North Circular, are other suggestions.
"Schemes like this turn traffic-congested roads and places into villages," says Mr Voce, of Play England. "It creates a carnival culture where people of all generations come and mix. For too long cars have been given priority over people. Events like this turn the tables."
CREATE OWN SPACE
In the future children should be encouraged to appropriate and adapt their own play space. Adults should not to be so hung up on kids hanging around, says Ms Hannon, of Demos.
Unstructured play is an important part of growing up and an important way children learn about themselves and others. If they make a place their own, it's not always a negative thing.
Skateboarders are now part of South Bank
Skateboarders on London's South Bank have become a tourist attraction in their own right, turning a dark warren of covered spaces into an exciting, vibrant place to be.
"These young skaters have made this place their own, but not to the exclusion of anyone else," says Ms Hannon.
"It's a great example of somewhere that is safer with young people hanging around. It is usually assumed that they make a place more threatening."
Below is a selection of your comments.
Am I living in a parallel universe? When I was a child we went to the swings and now I'm a parent I regularly take my two children to the local park to play in the playground on the swings, slides, climbing frames etc. We often have a little walk round the park too. They really enjoy it and it's free. It's also always full of other families doing the same. Any research that says that playgrounds aren't used is just another attempt to sell them off. We all need to defend them so that all kids can carry on playing for free, outdoors and not become obese.
Catherine Hill, Croydon, UK
Do we really need a think tank to tell children how to play? For heaven's sake, just let them get out there and get on with it.
Douglas Lee, London, UK
Some Scandinavian countries have developed play grounds with equipment that can be used by all - adults, children, people with disabilities. So instead of signs that say 'for under 14s only', and dreary parks where parents have to stand round and watch their children on the swings and slides, and climbing apparatus, they now have places where everyone can go and enjoy a bit of play. Surely an idea that we should take up in this country? Why should a 15 year old, or 50 year old, be banned from having some fun?
Dot Peryer, Penryn, UK
Could not agree more. We should not exclude children from the adult world. I expect respect and good manners from children. I hope I deserve this. I despair of adults that don't.
Colin McFarlane, Gawcott, Buckingham, UK
I think part of being a child is having fun with the imagination. To the adult mind it might only be a silly "springy chicken" but in the imagination of a young child it is something much more fun and exciting than that. Part of playing is letting the imagination run free in whatever space you find available. Like somebody has said, we just need to provide the children with the breathing space to find their own areas of play and stop developing over them.
Kirsty, Cornwall, UK
As innovative as the new play proposals are, they still focus on controlling and approving places to play. When I was a child (which wasn't too long ago), it was all about finding your own places to play: Fields, trees, wooded areas, 'the green' etc. If every spare bit of land didn't turn into a crowded housing estate or new shopping complex within the blink of an eye, then kids would still be able to do this. Instead of designing our way out of problems all the time (play pods?), we actually need to slow the rate of development down and give kids a bit of breathing room.
The mentality of children changes with each generation, its foolish to presume that just because our parents enjoyed something, we Will. We need something that suits the modern generation.
Matt, 16, Scunthorpe, UK
We didn't need spaces or equipment to play when I was a child. There were well defined seasons, skipping, whip 'n' top, two ball etc- all had their season when quite by magic, everyone suddenly played the same thing. We played games that these days don't seem to have been passed on to the next generation. Kick out ball, hopscotch... I could carry on naming all sorts of games that we played in the street. We played rounders and cricket and mums and dads would come out and join in the fun, or a gang of us (including parents) would go to the local park and play there. Life is too fast now and there is too much reliance on technology which isolates kids and keeps them alone and apart from their peer group.
As a parent I don't feel it safe for children to go off and find their own spaces - you can't trust strangers and you can't rely on the general public to help out a child in distress because they also don't want to be put in that situation.
Isn't the real issue here safety and crime, there are places for children (and adults) to play but they get vandalised or used by drunks and drug addicts. Twenty-odd years ago when I was growing up I could go to the park without my parents worrying about alcoholics or abusers.
I agree with the point about cars taking precedence over people. Traffic is a far greater danger to our children's safety than predatory adults, yet strangely nothing is done about it. Riding a bicycle to a friend's house isn't even safe for an adult. The priorities need to shift from cars going as fast as possible with as few interruptions from pedestrians as possible, to a recognition that the pedestrians were here first, and have a right to use the entirety of public space. Let the cars sit in traffic for an extra minute: it's not going to kill anybody.
Councils should be looking at the playgrounds projects of the architect Aldo van Eyck. His playgrounds were in public spaces and involved objects that let children explore them, rather than only giving them one way to play on them. They didn't look like playgrounds either, and the objects within sometimes looked more like sculpture than climbing frames. If more playgrounds were designed like this here then it would be far easier and arouse little or no opposition if they were integrated into public spaces.
Richard, Swansea, UK
As a kid growing up in Bristol in the 80s we had a disused railway track running behind our house. We used to play all up and down it, on adventurous days we'd walk for miles to places we'd never been before and have a good look around the area. There were old signal huts, eroded embankments, railway bridges and dozens of other things to look at and explore. We did this as young as seven or eight years old. We got in scrapes, the odd experiment with boxes of matches and discarded mattresses and maybe even a bit of fisticuffs but it was great. Excepting the odd glue-sniffing skinhead, no one except kids wanted to go on this railway track. It was ours. I feel very sorry that kids have nothing like this today.
Aoin Douglas, Liverpool