Play sufficiency is about making sure children have enough time, space and permission to play. The need for play sufficiency persists throughout childhood. From the youngest children, dependent on parents and carers to access opportunities to play, to older children and teenagers, who should be able to seek out play opportunities unsupervised by their parents.
But as children get older and move into teenagerdom, we see significant gaps opening-up between the time, space and permission to play afforded to boys on the one hand and girls on the other. There are lots of factors at play. Questions about time, the way that girls and boys respond to the pressures of school work and the different expectations placed on girls and boys in terms of their roles in the family would take up a whole other blog (and then some).
For younger children, often the permission of the parent or carer is key. But as they become teenagers, girls not only have to negotiate permissions from their parents; they are also confronted with the uncomfortable fact that they need to negotiate permission to use parks and other public areas with the teenage boys who regularly dominate those spaces.
Often teenage boys simply don’t see any need to negotiate. A study in Vienna showed that if boys were already using a space, girls didn’t try to negotiate access 70 % of the time; but when they did try to negotiate access, they were rebuffed, 87% of the time, often with insults of a sexual nature.
As one girl (skateboarding in a car park when there was a perfectly good skate park a few hundred meters away) told us:
“We’re not good enough to go on the skate park… the boys just heckle us.”
So when it comes to permission, part of play sufficiency for teenage girls will require changes in the behaviour of teenage boys, and a willingness by those who work with teenage boys and girls to challenge the sense of entitlement felt by some boys when it comes to dominating spaces designed for teenagers.
Which brings us to consider the question of space: what spaces do play strategies provide for teenagers? The unfortunate fact is that almost all strategies for parks and guidelines for play provision see teenagers as one homogenous mass. And they are pretty clear on what this lump of teenagerdom requires: a skate park, a MUGA or other kind of pitch and perhaps if we are feeling generous a BMX or pump track too. Job done.
The uncomfortable reality is that all these standard facilities are – at least as far as we know – predominantly used by boys. By creating spaces that signal, this is a space for boys, we create contest over space where one group comes to understand this is a space for them and the other, that it is not.
It’s not just that they provide activities which are more often in the province of boys than girls. It’s also that, as we have explained above, they are often ‘policed’ by the boys as well, preventing girls from using them, hassling them until they decide they’d be better off going somewhere else. But where do they go? Because nothing in the park has been built for them.
We use the phrase ‘as far as we can tell’ above because there is a real shortage of hard UK data in this area: studies have been done in the US, Australia and Scandinavia showing that skateparks are male-dominated places. Data from Skateboard GB suggests that 85% of UK skateboarders are male, and a survey in Nottingham indicated that the vast majority of respondents were male. But most of the time no one seems to look at the gendered use of these facilities.
Which is a shame. Because there’s been a lot of investment. There are approximately 1,650 skateparks in the UK, and even the smallest “micro park” costs £40,000 to £50,000. So, a conservative estimate suggests that circa £100 million has been invested in skate parks. Tens of thousands of MUGAs have been built across the country: again, a massive investment. All this money spent without stopping to recognise that teenage girls are not using these provisions.
This absence matters for a whole host of reasons: spatial justice and the right of teenage girls to play to start with. Girls need to feel welcome in public space to participate in the community. Their health is a massive concern – only 8% of teenage girls meet government activity guidelines. But this problem never seems to be related to the lack of anything to be active on.
Girls understand all of this. We asked the teenage daughter of a friend whether she went to the park, and she just looked at me. ‘Why would I?’ she said. ‘There’s nothing there for me.’ The strangest thing of all is that none of this should be happening. Under the Public Sector Equality Duty councils and other public bodies have a duty to meet the needs of protected groups, and to promote equality.
Girls are clearly disadvantaged and their sex makes them a protected category but they never feature on equality assessments. This needs to change.
The process begins with finding out what teenage girls want from parks – where do they want to go and what would they use; can we create better designs which let everyone use them equally? Next, we need to trial some simple interventions to see what works. Then we need to build girls some facilities of their own.
None of these measures have to be expensive, or even difficult, and Make Space for Girls has begun to work with a small number of councils on pilot schemes. But the change needs to happen nationwide, and to be permanent. It should be written into strategies and built into all our public spaces. It’s time to make space for girls.
Make Space for Girls have prepared a detailed research document setting out key findings in this area which can be accessed at http://makespaceforgirls.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/Make-Space-for-Girls-Summary-of-Research-findings-December-2020-web.pdf.
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