I had a little moment in the sun today, as I shared the bill – along with a neighbour of mine – with Diane Abbott MP at a national conference held at City Hall in London (and, yes, Boris popped his head in as well).
My neighbour and I had been invited to address a conference organised by London Play and Play England about our experiences in organising a play street over the past few months and, in particular, the opposition we’ve faced from an aggressive minority in doing this. Our experience, it seems, is fairly unique. Most streets wanting to allow more time and a safer environment for their children to play out in seem to have a relatively simple ride in achieving this, and the events themselves – which involve closing local residential roads to through traffic for a short period to allow supervised play for kids – have been popular, successful, happy and neighbourly events that those who engaged with wanted to repeat. Our experience – in which our efforts have been so far scuppered by fears about paedophilia (which raised a laugh from today’s audience), abduction and damage to property – is the exception. By contrast, the Borough of Hackney have now organised 17 play streets, had over 2000 children engage in it and 1800 adults involved, with only 3 complaints.
And it appears that momentum continues to gather about the benefits to everyone of giving more time to children to play outside their houses. All those involved in street play report better neighbourhoods, new friendships, happier children mixing with kids of different ages, and children being creative with open space, making noise and having everyday adventures. Diane Abbott referred herself to the British love affair with cars which overtook our love of our children sometime in the 1980s when, as London Play’s Paul Hocker explained, play streets disappeared from our country after being a familiar and valued asset for nearly 150 years. Another commented that children playing in the street was a fundamentally social activity. Driving cars in streets made them dangerous, noisy and dirty – in essence, driving was anti-social. Logically, it should be drivers that are limited from driving in streets – not kids banned from playing in them.
We have the fattest kids in Europe. About 25% of kids in Hackney are obese by the age of 11, and a further 16% are overweight (Enfield has a higher rate). Fat kids generally make for fat adults. Obesity can cause problems with diabetes, heart problems and cancer in later life, and diabetes now accounts for 20% of the national NHS drugs budget. We have to get our kids out and exercising; we cannot continue to engage them in sedentary activities and leisure pursuits that require them to consume or to provide instant gratification. Kids, by their nature, run around, make noise, explore, make up worlds, find each other. One of the best places to do this is their own street, where they can explore risk, cross boundaries, be creative, become familiar with the wonders of the world and the value of their own communities and environment. It’s illogical to think any other way.
The vote for our play street ends on December 9. We hope to get a ‘yes’ vote, but even if we don’t, we’ll be carrying on extolling the benefits of kids playing out until we do. And after today, I know we have plenty of weight behind our case.