The Realities of 21st Century Street Play: work versus play


The recent warmer weather in the UK has had the usual effect of getting people outside. Both children and adults have been enjoying the burst of sunshine and taking to the parks and green spaces to enjoy it. There has been a similar effect on my own street. As is usual at this time of year, suddenly the children come out of hibernation after school and are seen out playing on the street. Great, I say. Or do I? The reality may not be quite as idyllic as the scene suggests.

In street play terms, my children are lucky I think. Our street is by no means perfectly designed, but to start with it’s a cul-de-sac at the end of a row of cul-de-sacs, so there’s definitely no through traffic and rarely any unknown vehicles. People expect to see children on the street. We have a garden with a back gate that opens out onto some shared grass (largely but not limited to sharing with our next door neighbours). It also means my children can, if they want to, loop around from the front to the back of the house pretty easily. Everyone on the street benefits from the cul-de-sac positioning, but not everyone else benefits from easy access to it. There are quite a few flats and some of the other houses are less well situated. But in any case, it’s a street that since I have been there has always had some (not all) children playing on it.

To the story. Last week, on a sunny day  after collecting my two boys (5yo and 4yo) from after-school club/nursery, we got home and, as usual, before they’d even got through the front door they asked ‘can we play outside?.’ What do I say? Let’s remember that it’s already gone 5pm, one child is already getting tired and is constantly exhausted from being at school most of the day. I have been working all day and now have a relatively short period of time to get dinner ready before a full on meltdown occurs. In the interests of efficiency, wouldn’t it be easier just to sit them in front of the TV?

It’s important to remember that when we hear anecdotes of how children used to play out all of the time, the realities of parenting were often quite different. It was much less common for both parents to work, and whether or not the child was collected from school or not, there was usually someone at home when they got back. This is now often not the case. Many children are now in after-school clubs until relatively late and there is a pretty short window between them finishing that and bed time. Where does street play fit into this? I don’t even work full-time (really). Does doing a PhD count?

Back to the story. As I was feeling relaxed, I let the boys play outside. No, I don’t say yes every time. Sorry to disappoint. A school friend came down from the flats opposite to play too. Great, I thought, that should keep them occupied. I started to cook dinner. They got the water guns out and seemed to be having fun. They got soaked. One child was crying, then laughing, then crying. The other wanted to get changed. Dinner was put on hold. And the clock was ticking towards bed time. I had more than two children in the house, one with no clothes on. Dinner still wasn’t cooking itself. Next door’s dog had now come into our garden too. I go back out to move him. Dinner still wasn’t cooking itself. Some other children turn up. The water guns are put away. The boys now want to get their bikes out. Cue me helping them to get their bikes out from the hallway. And what about the dinner? It goes quiet for a bit. Are they ok? A quick check to see they’re still there. Yes they are. Back in to check on the dinner. Then some more crying as someone’s fallen off their bike. A bit of a hug. Back to the dinner. Dinner’s now ready. No-one wants to eat it. Or come in. Debate about the importance of dinner and going to bed, pretty much lost on a 4 and 5 year old, and likely resulting in me shouting…

I know it’s not all about cooking dinner, but hopefully you can see how this goes? On that particular day, we had a fairly short window for the boys to play before they needed to be in bed or they’d be double grumpy the following day (when we all have to go to school and work again). It’s easy to understand why working parents would simply say no to a request for their children to go out, particularly if they didn’t have such an enabling environment as mine. As it was, dinner was later than planned, bedtime later than planned, my stress levels likely increased. The children were fine of course.

It’s easy to talk about how we want things to change, but it’s often less easy to actually make that change ourselves, even if we know that at heart it's a good thing, and there are various reasons for this. Children’s mobility and children playing out on their own street or the streets in their neighbourhood is something that is influenced by a complex array of factors. Trying to understand these is difficult - the clue is in the name: it's complex.

I’m not trying to make excuses. But sometimes it’s difficult to get the realities of what something entails unless you’re in the thick of it. I’m in it. If I hadn’t been working all day, then maybe I’d have got dinner ready earlier. Maybe I’d have also picked the children up earlier so there’d have been more time to play. I’d have probably been a bit less stressed about the whole thing. I’m not sure if it’s good enough to say that times have changed, but they have. And we need to be mindful of that when we’re trying to make further changes, hopefully for the better.