“This is our street”: How community-powered play creates health, happiness and connection

March 26, 2024  

The brainchild of frustrated parents, Playing Out has its roots in a single South Bristol street. Growing up in the seventies, friends Amy and Alice had fond memories of playing out after school. Fast forward to the late 2000s – they were raising children of their own but an increase in traffic meant the streets no longer feel safe.

They realised what their children were missing out on, and they hit on an idea – to close their road using a street party application from the council, tell their neighbours and see what happened. Fifteen years on, this small-scale parent-led action has evolved into a national movement supported by communities and councils across the country.

Summer Simpson speaks to Lucy Colbeck, programme manager at Playing Out, about the benefits of street play for local communities, growing support for the movement in local and central government, why residents should stay in the driving seat and the barriers standing in the way.

What are the origins of Playing Out?

The first ‘playing out’ session happened in 2009 and it was a really big success, loads of children came out, parents, and people without children too. Amy and Alice asked some neighbours to stand on the closure points as ‘stewards’ to support the safety of the session and allow stewarded car access for residents on the street. There was some local press coverage and other streets decided to give it a go. Bristol City Council’s public health team caught wind of the idea and wanted to back it. They provided a little bit of funding so that a group of parents could support other streets and it grew in their local neighbourhood, and beyond across Bristol. The benefits for children’s health and wellbeing, and community cohesion, were quickly recognised.

The outcome of all of that was that Bristol City Council decided to introduce a radical new policy called the temporary play street order, which is where residents can apply on one piece of paper to play out up to once a week across a whole year. In theory they could have 52 play streets in a year if they wanted to. At the moment, most streets run one a month or one a fortnight. And it’s free – no charge, no insurance.

And word spread beyond Bristol?

The group started receiving enquiries from people all over the country who wanted to do something similar in their neighbourhood. This demonstrated the deep need that parents felt for their children who were missing out on an experience they had growing up. They decided to form an organisation to offer support and guidance – and Playing Out was born.

They made a website with resources and it took off from there. They started supporting other councils to follow in Bristol’s footsteps. They hired ‘activators’ – people who helped spread the word, encouraging local people to join in and helping them through the process. Fast forward to today, 100 councils now have a supportive play street policy which means residents can play out regularly using one form. Over 1,500 street communities have ‘played out’, with around 45,000 children and 23,000 adults taking part. And it’s growing internationally as well.

It’s not just for families with children. That’s a big thing. It’s for everyone. Older people can benefit from play streets too.

How do play streets benefit local communities?

The main benefits are for children – our mission is for children to have the freedom to play out where they live for their health and happiness. And we’ve got a lot of evidence to show that children are much more physically active on a play street than they would be on a normal day. They learn new skills like riding a bike, hopping, skipping and throwing. They make new friends of all different ages and they feel like they belong. It’s the same for adults as well. They feel more connected, like they belong in that area and they get to know their neighbours.

But it’s not just for families with children. That’s a big thing. It’s for everyone. Older people can benefit from play streets too, and our research shows that they help tackle social isolation. We’ve seen lots of offshoots – people set up WhatsApp groups, start helping each other out and sharing resources. And because people are taking ownership of their street, there’s that sense of agency and doing something for your community too.

See Playing Out’s resident guidance on how to organise a play street.

Samira’s story: Setting up a play street in a central Bristol estate

Are more councils starting to back the idea?

It’s a real mixture. A lot of the time one person hears about play streets and is like, “This is amazing, we have to have it here”, and gets in touch with their council. In Epsom and Ewell, for example, a resident who describes herself as “very bloody minded” and “unwilling to give up” spent months trying to get her council on board. Playing Out supported her with templates and evidence and the council agreed to do a trial play street and to introduce a policy at the end of last year. It’s really exciting – it’s the first one in Surrey and we’re hoping that it’ll spread from there.

But we also have around 30 live councils who are interested in the idea, developing policies or working on pilots. And that’s a really interesting one because we have to encourage them to really see it as a bottom up initiative – it’s not a council delivered thing. But that comes with its own challenges in terms of finding key residents to engage with.

I have a strong willed two year old and it can be a struggle some days to get him out of the house to the local park; doorstep play is exactly what he needs.

How should councils go about finding residents to engage with?

Our advice to councils is always to work with the voluntary sector, work with what you’ve got, find the community groups that might be interested, like parent networks. Parents are a big audience for this because when you’ve got young children at home, play streets make so much sense. I have a strong willed two year old and it can be a struggle some days to get him out of the house to the local park; doorstep play is exactly what he needs and exactly what I need as a tired parent who could really use a supportive chat with my neighbours! So we encourage councils to talk to children’s centres, local schools and nurseries to try and reach parents with this idea. The other big audience for this is green activists – cycling campaign groups, climate change groups etc.

We also encourage councils not to use ‘council-y’ jargon. Use the type of language that parents or residents will respond to – do you want your kids to have something free and fun to do? Do you want to get them outside running around and making friends? And rather than the council picking streets, it’s really important to go with the interest – once you’ve found a resident who wants to do it, work with them and support them to make it happen. Once you have your first street up and running, you have a local story to tell and spread the word. We have loads of information and resources about promotion on our website here.  

What are the steps involved in setting up play streets? What are some of the common barriers?

Once a council has decided it wants to support play streets, the first step is to get buy in across the council with the relevant departments. Build your team, find your allies and get cross-departmental and political support. The kinds of departments that tend to be interested include public health, active travel or sustainable transport teams, and communities teams. Highways teams are also essential, but it can be harder to get them on board because play streets can go against their training which is based on the idea that the road network is for the movement of cars as efficiently as possible. So it can require a bit of a cultural shift. They are also often very stretched for capacity, so it’s good to share the work as much as possible across teams, and just keep the Highways bit as small as possible (approving road closures).

The next step is to decide on your vision – what you’re hoping for in the first one-to-three years, for example. It might be that you want to set up a few pilot streets initially to test it out and learn how to make it as easy as possible for residents to get involved. Something we often support councils with is how to make it inclusive. How to provide the right support for communities who face greater disadvantage, those who might not have the resources, time or confidence to do it by themselves. What should that support look like? It might be that support is available within the council, or they might commission a local voluntary sector organisation.

The third step is to create a clear and simple process for residents to apply for street closure. We always encourage councils to signpost to Playing Out because there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, and it helps if residents feel like they’re part of something bigger. Finally, the fourth step is to launch the policy and spread the word.  We have loads more info for councils, including downloadable templates here. Our team can also support any council who is interested, feel free to get in touch: lucy@playingout.net.

Is there central government buy in for this?

We’ve been lobbying the Department for Transport for a long time and in 2019 they sent a letter to all local authorities in England stating their support for play streets and explaining the legislative routes. It provided legitimacy and support for councils to take part, but it didn’t solve all the legislative challenges. At the moment, under the RTRA Section 16, councils have to write to the Secretary of State every time they request a repeat closure and this stops some councils from taking part.

There is another legislative route called the Town Police Clauses Act which some of the most successful play street schemes are using. The Act is extremely old – it predates cars – but it’s still live and works really well for many councils including Bristol, as it is the least bureaucratic option. You can read more about the legislative routes here.

Play streets are a low cost, high impact initiative that boost wellbeing for children, parents, families and wider communities. The council’s role is to be the enabling force, it’s about clearing the way for residents.

What would your message be to councils that don’t yet have a play street policy or haven’t considered it yet?

Play streets are a low cost, high impact initiative that boost wellbeing for children, parents, families and wider communities. The council’s role is to be the enabling force, it’s about clearing the way for residents. It doesn’t take a huge amount of work and it has enormous benefits. In Bristol alone we’ve had over 250 play streets in 10 years. That’s hours and hours and hours of free play and community connection that the council didn’t have to organise. They just had to enable it. Once the upfront work is done to set it up, the day to day is easily absorbed into officers’ workloads.

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