I realise that my last couple of posts have highlighted some of the potentially negative aspects of street play. So here’s a more positive one on weak ties! But what are they?
With the advent of social media, adults are able to worry a lot less about knowing their neighbours. Instead of getting to know people nearby who aren’t quite ‘like them,’ they are able to maintain contact with people who might not even live in the same country as them and feel like they know them. This is how we satisfy our need for what psychologists and sociologists call ‘weak ties.’ Weak ties are arguably responsible for much of the social structure that we know, people that we are acquainted with but wouldn’t call friends. Relationships involving less frequent contact, low emotional intensity, and limited intimacy. Social media networks, such as Facebook can provide people with these without the need to even step out of their front door. We know what these people are doing without really knowing them and certainly never seeing them face to face. Weak ties are good for us, our well-being and for community integration. They're pretty important for staying sane.
The Good Old Days
In the past though, we would have gained these weak ties by getting out and about in our neighbourhood. Being a parent provides the opportunity to do this, perhaps by walking to school or the local park with your children, or perhaps by supervising your children whilst they play out on the street. These weak ties are an opportunity to say ‘hello’, perhaps comment on the weather or what’s just happened in the news, and then move on (so just like Facebook really, but with a real person in the flesh!). But what if you don’t know that neighbour? What if you always drive to work, pick up your children in the car and then keep them indoors or in the garden to play? Then the person you walk past on the street is a stranger and you say nothing. Maybe you don't mind because you have those links on social media already.
A World Without Social Media
For young children (pre-mobile phone, so probably under 10 years old), they don’t have the option of Facebook and other social networking sites. They therefore have to rely on those ‘real’ face to face interactions to get that social interaction and start developing those ‘weak ties.’ And what if they never have that? What if they are always being driven to after school clubs, or not allowed outside to play and to bump into other children and neighbours? Then the person they walk past on the street is a stranger and they say nothing. And they have no other opportunity to build those all important community connections.
What's it got to do with street play?
A known benefit of children playing out on the street has always been that they will play with other children. That’s really the purpose of it, right? They have the opportunity to get to know children who live nearby. They will inevitably develop many weak ties and a few strong ties as part of this. I see this with my own children. It’s interesting that children that my son goes to school with, but never plays with at school, will come out and play with him on the street. They have that weak tie already and they want to continue with the interaction. Street play gives them it. An unintended benefit of the Play Streets movement is the weak ties that parents develop. A review of Play Streets in Hackney found that they unanimously delivered strengthened community ties. This was unexpected at the time, but can be easily understood. The Play Streets movement specifically brings parents together to close off the street for children to play, and in doing so creates a network for the parents too. Ad-hoc street play, in my experience, will of course provide these benefits as well.
I live in a fairly mixed neighbourhood. According to Schelling's segregation model, a mixed neighbourhood should be more integrated. It’s fair to say, there’s not that many people that I would say are ‘like me’ but this does probably mean that I make more of an effort with the people who aren’t. I’m not best friends with my neighbours. But I know most of them now, or at least the ones with children because we’ve been playing out. Since my children were born, they’ve been out interacting with the neighbouring children and that means I’ve been out on the street too. To start with I was stopping them from crawling onto the road, and now I’m trying to drag them in for dinner.
Knowing my neighbours is important to me and it's important to my children too. I think it develops a feeling of trust and security. It means we all have more weak ties and should have enhanced well-being because of it. The children have others to play with and feel like they are part of a community because of it. I have more people to say ‘hello’ to, and moan about said children to, which is never a bad thing!