Once kids played out on every street corner, and chalk drawings, skipping ropes and the sound of children playing were part of daily life.
Now campaigners are calling on local authorities to get behind an new plan to encourage Scottish children to get back outside to play on city streets - a culture change which they claim will help combat childhood obesity, stress, behavioural conditions like ADHD, and vitamin D deficiencies.
Street Play Glasgow, a campaign led by youth workers and local residents, and Playing Oot, an Edinburgh equivalent, are calling on Scottish councils to offer free temporary road closures to help locals organise street play events which are increasingly common in England.
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Research has shown that the development of ‘Play Streets’ in London boroughs such as Hackney and in cities including Bristol and Newcastle – where residents temporarily close their own road to through traffic and let children lose with bikes, skipping ropes and footballs – have many benefits. Once children return to playing on the streets, they say road closures will no longer be necessary.
According to the Scottish Health Survey, a third of Scottish children are at risk of obesity. Some blame a lack of time spent outdoors for rises in childhood anxiety and are concerned by our risk adverse culture - since the 1970s the distance children play from their homes has declined by almost 90 percent.
In response residents groups have organised several ‘pilot’ street play sessions in Glasgow and Edinburgh, with Glasgow City Council offering free closures for the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and one to celebrate the Summer Solstice this year.
However campaigners claim prohibitive costs of up to £2,000 and bureaucracy are preventing the concept taking off in Scotland. Cost incurred to close a road include paying for public announcements, the delivery and laying out cones, and diverting traffic.
Craig Thomson, a freelance youth worker who set up the Street Play Glasgow Facebook page, said: “Streets offer the most accessible place for free play - not everyone has a garden or parents with time to take them to the park. These events also allow people to meet each other and build strong communities.”
He is calling for barriers to be reduced and hosting an open meeting in September to discuss ways of making street play free and accessible.
In Edinburgh, street play is highlighted in the council’s new play strategy but Thomas Lynch, who lives in the south west of the city with his six-year-old son, is frustrated by the lack of progress.
He organised Edinburgh’s only street play session to date in October last year but after spending almost six months trying to organise another, has been told to apply for a road closure using the costly standard procedure. “I understand it takes time, but surely this is an easy win for the council? Everyone stands to benefit,” he said.
Emma Hallet, operations manager of Playing Out in Bristol, where 100 streets are regularly closed to through traffic (residents cars are allowed through - though at walking speed only), believes there are ways round the legislation. Some councils, such as Hackney, allow residents to register their street for a one-off road closure notice, others have made exemptions for street play sessions.
Play England, which runs a street play project funded by the department of health, works with 35 local authorities, none of which charge residents.
Edinburgh City Council’s Play Champion, Councillor Keith Robson, said: “We recognise the benefits of outdoor play and are currently working to encourage this further. One of the ideas we are actively pursuing following representation from residents is closing some roads temporarily, to provide safer play areas.”
However a spokeswoman for Glasgow City Council said: “The costs are incurred by the council due to the legislation in place and the safety required to close the roads. The council has no funding to incur these costs on a regular basis.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said they had met with groups in England and Scotland to look at developing street play. “These discussions have been really helpful and we are considering how we can open up street play in more areas across Scotland,” she added.
“Going out to play shouldn’t be a big deal”
While ferrying her children from sports practice, to swimming and piano lessons, Sarah Shannon began to question the tightly scheduled lives of eight-year-old Juliet and six-year-old Leo. “I often feel like I micro-manage my children,” explained the 42-year-old from Kelvindale in Glasgow. “When I was a child I was out on my bike or playing all day long."
So when she came across Playing Out, an organisation promoting street play in Bristol, its ideas resonated. Last year Commonwealth Games funding for temporary road closures in residential areas, allowed her to organise the first street play event for free. And in June, she organised another to celebrate the Summer Solstice.
“It was great fun,” said Shannon. Her children agree. Juliet learned skipping games and met new friends who lived further down the street. Leo loved the water fights and riding his bike on the road. Cones were used to stop through traffic, with residents acting as marshals guiding residents’ cars in and out of the street.
Shannon has already noticed positive changes. “Before this the parents might text each other and arrange play dates but now our kids go round for each other and knock on the door. I used to have to engineer getting them outside. I worried that they didn’t get enough vitamin D. But now there are more children around, they naturally play out.”
She’d like to do street play sessions every couple of months but is stopped by the combination of the costs and onerous paperwork. “In Bristol it’s very easy; the forms are straightforward, a van delivers the cones and the residents do the rest,” she said. “That’s what we need here: an easy process that is free and means everyone can take part. Going out to play shouldn’t be a big deal. Let’s make it natural again.”