Playing outside in traffic-free streets

This article was published in 2019, in Magazine 144.

© Playing Out
Image as described adjacent

I suspect adult supporters of Camcycle have at least these things in common: firstly, we enjoy being outside; and secondly, as children, we spent more time than today’s children on roads with fewer cars.

We learned the benefits of being outdoors at a young age, while in view of parents at home, when we called on friends, kicked a ball about on the street, learned to ride our bikes and played ‘kerbie’. Many of my friends have great stories about playing out as kids in the 1980s – a neighbourhood activity which gave us plenty of exercise, fresh air and fun.

These days, as our streets are dominated by car traffic, most children miss out on all this. There has been a significant reduction in time spent outside for children and adolescents, with the steepest rate of decline in girls whose average time outdoors decreased by 31% in the last five years. More time indoors is related to reduced physical activity and increased risk of childhood obesity – now a massive public health crisis. But there is a way to stop the traffic and give children the simple freedom to play out with their friends within their immediate environment – and it’s happening in Cambridge.

I first experienced a Playing Out session on a road in London – usually off-limits for play owing to the volume of traffic and parked cars. But on this particular Sunday afternoon, residents closed the road to through-traffic, and the long stretch of normally busy tarmac was filled with children from the street. Children riding scooters and bikes. Children playing ball and drawing huge pictures and patterns with chalk down the centre of the road. Running, laughing and making new friends. I thought it was fantastic – a normally busy road turned into a street of play. I discovered it was not a one-off event: this street organised ‘playing out’ once a month. And then I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do it in Cambridge for my children and the kids in my local streets.

Residents closed the road to through-traffic and the long stretch of normally busy tarmac was filled with children from the street

The ‘Playing Out’ model – started by parents in Bristol – lets parents and residents create their own temporary play street, by closing the road to through-traffic for an hour or two, giving children the freedom to use the space outside their own front door. The idea has been taken up by over 800 street communities across the UK and is supported by the national Playing Out organisation as well as local organisations and councils.

Thanks to the scheme, children are learning new skills, streets are becoming friendlier and people are feeling happier. Residents report a greater sense of community, with children feeling it’s normal to be out playing and dropping in on each other. It’s estimated that children are three to five times more active during playing out sessions than on a normal day after school.

It’s also given a helping hand to children who want to learn to ride a bike. The wonderful thing about having a street closed to through-traffic is that children can simply get out their bikes and ride. They have the freedom of a largely car-free space while experiencing the feel of a road. Some 80% of Playing Out street organisers reported children learned to cycle or improved their skills and confidence as a result. I’ve seen it myself in our latest Playing Out session, where a tentative four-year-old cycled several laps on her new bike, with her Mum trying to keep up.

Louis Schafer (aged five), whose parents have organised regular playing-out sessions since he was two, says it best:

‘I was playing outside on my bike, and then I kept on falling off, and then I gradually got my balance and I started to go faster but I kept on crashing into things at the end. So I had to learn to make it controlled and slow down… and I started to learn other things. I started building ramps for it… and I went to the end of the cones and I went back down again and cycled up and down and I kept on doing that ’til I found it really easy to do it, and that’s why I know how to do it now!’

You can’t argue with that.

Join the Cambridge Playing Out facebook group at facebook.com/groups/playoutcambridge/

Read more about the movement at playingout.net

Find out more about how to organise Playing Out on your street by contacting Paul Connelly, Cambridgeshire County Council Youth & Community Coordinator Paul.Connelly@cambridgeshire.gov.uk

Julia Sang