This case study illustrates the value of research by way of localised play sufficiency assessments. This approach generates detailed evidence to inform strategic approaches to play and urban planning at neighbourhood level. This particular project was commissioned by a local community council via the local authority’s play and youth support team. It focussed on a single electoral ward, covering an area of approximately 0.6km2 and with a population of around 2250.
Purpose and Process
This play sufficiency research aimed to actively involve community stakeholders (including children and parents) in exploring opportunities for play within the local community. This included the identification of examples where things were working, for who and why and also where things were not so good and the reasons for this. With examples identified we were then able to highlight local assets that needed to be maintained, protected or improved as well as issues that needed to be addressed.
This process resulted in a report summarising the findings of the research and an associated set of evidence-based recommendations, enabling the local community council and local authority to take action to secure and improve levels of play sufficiency across their electoral ward.
The research included:
- a desktop review of existing data on the population and public space in the area
- mapping of local services to establish the type of out of school activities available to children in the local area
- a detailed audit of spaces within the local community to identify potential places for play as well as features that may support or constrain children’s freedom of movement and opportunities to play
- three research sessions with children in school, using a variety of mapping techniques enabling children to represent their views and experiences
- an additional focus group for parents also held at the local school
- a play and consultation event facilitated at the weekend in a local park
Data previously gathered through our online surveys to inform the local authority’s county-wide play sufficiency assessment suggested that children living in this ward reported lower levels of satisfaction with their opportunities to play in comparison with children living in some of the neighbouring wards.
Our research confirmed this, identifying that children living in this ward experienced highly constrained access to the public realm, to the point where they were totally reliant on parents to support their play outside of their homes. In contrast, the experiences of children living in or close to other neighbouring wards were considerably different. These children identified more time for ‘playing out’ and talked about having access to multiple spaces for play and plenty of other children to play with.
Furthermore, our research found the design and layout of the urban environment in these neighbouring communities looked significantly different. This begins to illustrate how children’s ability to play out and about in their immediate neighbourhoods is influenced by highly localised conditions. Identifying assets that support play in neighbourhoods where children regularly play out helps to confirm what may be lacking in areas where children play out less.
The Influence of Demographics
The electoral ward in question is reasonably affluent, with the majority of adults employed and the majority of homes privately owned. However (of particular interest for this study), the ward has more older residents and fewer households with dependent children compared to neighbouring communities or the county as a whole. Almost all the houses are also detached or semi-detached with gardens, meaning that children are likely to have space to play at home, but many homes are also bungalows, often a feature of neighbourhoods with higher populations of elderly people.
We concluded that: “whilst older people are obviously not a problem, it is likely that a place with more older people will have a different culture and atmosphere to one where there is a higher percentage of children. The fact there are fewer children and more adults… is likely to influence children’s opportunities for play because easy access to friends and potential playmates is very important to children. Furthermore, parents tend to feel more confident when children are playing out together. If there are fewer children more spread out in a community, children are less likely to want or be allowed to go out to play. As a consequence, children play out less often and people become less familiar with children playing out”. Equally an associated factor where neighbourhoods experience these issues can be a retreat to the home, where experiences of isolation become heightened, accompanied by anxieties about other people in the neighbourhood.
Here we have the classic double-edged sword,
The less people see and associate with other people in their neighbourhood the more they become concerned by those in their neighbourhood they have no association with.
We went on to suggest that many of the initiatives that could improve conditions for playing would also be of benefit to older people, and may help to reduce issues associated with people becoming isolated.
Overview of the Urban Environment
Throughout the ward itself, roads seemed fairly quiet and most houses have private parking, reducing the need for on-street parking. However, whilst the roads also have reasonably wide pavements, there are very few traffic-free routes or footpaths providing cut-throughs between roads. Children, therefore, have to walk or ride around the community using the same routes as motor vehicles. Furthermore, on three sides of the ward, there are substantial roads with increased traffic levels and speed. One of these is extremely busy with very fast-moving traffic making it all but impossible to cross except via a footbridge. However, the other roads are also perceived to be busy enough by parents that they are reluctant to allow their children to cross them unaccompanied.
This becomes a particular problem for children wanting to access the large urban park on the edge of the ward, which sits on the other side of one of these roads. This park incorporates large expanses of grass, woodland areas, a lake, footpaths and two relatively small designated play areas. However, a wall and fence also run along the length of the main road, with the only obvious entrance from this neighbourhood being opposite a road junction.
Within the ward itself, there is only one space that is identified in the local authority’s most recent Public Open Space assessment. This grassed area with a few established trees seems like an ideal place to play close to homes. However, there is a ‘no-ball games’ sign suggesting there may have been tensions associated with children’s use of the space in the past.
There are then also several tarmac areas at the entrances and ends of roads within the estate, most of which are red in colour. The reason for these is not clear and they appear fairly barren but children report using them in their play and when learning to ride their bikes. We suggested there may be potential to do something more interesting with these spaces!
An overriding (but unsurprising) message from this research is that parents are struggling to permit their children to play out. Parents do not feel that the environment is safe enough to allow their children to go out and play, even though many would like them to. All parents identified traffic as a major factor but also a heightened sense of danger from other people as a consequence of national, local and social media reporting. This is despite parents acknowledging that they live in a relatively safe area and that in reality the risk of their children being harmed by a stranger remains low. However, as a consequence of these concerns, children aged 10 or 11 are only just starting to be permitted to play out independently. Younger children are therefore spending the majority of their time to play at home and are reliant on parents to take them to places where they can play. As a result, it appeared to have become the accepted norm in this community that parents are present while children are playing.
Possible Improvements to the Built Environment
The majority of parents said they used the large urban park on the outskirts of the ward regularly as a family and clearly valued it greatly. They also placed a strong emphasis on improving provision at the park when talking about their children’s opportunities for play (much more so than the children did). Many parents were critical of the designated play area within the park and suggested that, as a consequence, their families were travelling outside of the area to visit other destination play areas, which they perceived to be of greater quality than what was available locally. We recommended that if plans were to be developed to improve provision at the park, this should include developing safe routes to the park through the neighbouring estates.
This large urban park is undoubtedly an important resource for families and improving the play provision in this area is likely to have a significant impact on parental satisfaction with children’s opportunities for play. However, the research with children illustrated that a desktop analysis of public space rarely tells the whole story. The reality is that none of the children involved in the research said they could access the park without an adult or older sibling accompanying them. Only improving the provision at the park is unlikely to change this situation. The real crux of the problem is that many children are not being allowed out to play in their immediate neighbourhood. This is, therefore, the priority in terms of where changes need to take (or create) place.
Children’s peer play is vital for physical and mental health and as important for their enjoyment of life. Peer play enables children to build networks of relationships within their neighbourhood that improve attachment to people and place. In peer play, children develop their social and emotional capabilities, and when these experiences are freer from adult oversight, children can express and refine their abilities to mediate, cooperate, negotiate and self-regulate. If we want children to be able to start playing out close to home from a younger age, the proximity of, and number of spaces are key, in fact, one of the ways we might evaluate success is by monitoring the age at which children are allowed out to play.
Interventions should aim to make it easier for parents to allow younger children to play out. One space is unlikely to ever be enough because all children need space close to home. While a single space may be close to some children’s homes, the further away children are located from that space, the older they will have to be before being permitted to access it without an adult. Where this is the case those children are missing out on vital formative experiences.
Equally, where only one space is provided for play problems will inevitably emerge as a result of all children being expected to play together. A shift away from this approach to play is essential; we should be looking for opportunities to create networks of multiple, often incidental spaces in which children can choose to play and move between. The proximal nature of spaces for play would then help to decrease overcrowding and contests over space, reduce the isolation of children and increase parental confidence to allow children incremental freedoms of movement.
In an established neighbourhood such as this, where the majority of land has already been developed, it would be challenging to change the layout of housing and roads or even introduce new footpaths. That’s not to say it can not be done and, whilst it may seem radical and controversial, a solution at least worth considering in this situation might be to purchase and demolish a house or two to create new public spaces directly accessible from people’s homes. It can not be the case that only new developments can be planned to be representative of modern-day living.
There are also other options. For example, there is a reasonably sized public space located in the centre of the ward. However, one of the first things that people might see when arriving at this space is a sign telling them what they cannot do. Whilst this ‘no ball games’ sign isn’t prohibitive of all play, neither is it welcoming of it. We, therefore, suggested consideration be given to the types of messages the community wants to give its youngest residents; is this a place where they are welcomed or discouraged?
Prohibiting play should be a last resort and only permitted where all other options have been exhausted. However, as previously suggested, it’s also important to acknowledge that restrictive signs such as these are often an indication of prior community tensions. In response, we recommended that if concerns are raised about children’s play in the future, a community development approach should be taken to involving children and adults in exploring possible solutions.
This also raises the issue of where children are expected to do something as simple as kick a ball around if they’re not allowed to the urban park on the outskirts of the ward. There is of course space available at the local school but, like most schools in the area, the grounds are not open to the general public. Here then is another opportunity to free up space for play. However, this would require a willingness from all stakeholders to negotiate concerns regarding maintenance and liability and to give things a try.
Changing (or adding to) the function of residential streets is another way of opening up space for play immediately outside of children’s homes. One example of this is the local community council’s own intention to provide signage in their community resource centre car park, warning drivers that this is also a space where children may be playing. Another highly successful example is the temporary street closures championed by Playing Out, the parent and resident-led movement that started in Bristol and has since helped to revitalise a culture of playing out on many residential streets across the UK. Here again, a community development approach may be necessary to get things started and keep them going.
There are then the unusual tarmac spaces where creative things could happen. Maybe there could be a basketball hoop installed on one, some concrete features for scooters and skateboarding on another, and perhaps some floor markings for younger children to ride around on elsewhere. These are just ideas, but this type of approach could be fairly cost-effective, low maintenance and encourage people to make more use of their local community. However, given that people may initially be resistant to physical changes being made to spaces outside their homes, a community development style approach may be required. This process might start by facilitating events on some of these spaces, creating opportunities to speak to residents and involving them in developing ideas of what might be possible.
Possible Improvements to the Human Environment
In this particular neighbourhood, the design of the built environment, the type of housing and the demographics of the community have all contributed to creating a culture or atmosphere that isn’t particularly conducive to young children playing out together. Making changes to the built environment would help to shift this established culture by opening up more possibilities for playing. However, this will also require some facilitation to sensitively change perceptions and gently disturb people’s routines of habit.
Parents talked about the neighbourhood being a nice place to live but also one that feels quite private and lacks a sense of community. They talked about knowing their immediate neighbours but not many other people in the local area. Several parents also said that most of their neighbours were of the older generation meaning that their children had limited access to potential playmates. Some also thought that not knowing people increases concerns about them and one parent of an older child suggested this was a particular issue for teenagers, who were all presumed to be up to no good. However, many parents liked the idea of having more local events to bring people of different ages together, helping them to get to know each other and thereby increasing their sense of community, and that this would, in turn, improve people’s perceptions of safety and make it easier for parents to allow their children out to play.
We recommended that the local community council and local authority work together to develop a program of playful community events, arranged around culturally significant times throughout the year. Furthermore, whilst there didn’t appear to be a shortage of free or low-cost out of school activities, especially for children of primary school age, few of them took place in the neighbourhood itself.
We therefore also recommended establishing regular community-based activities focussed on encouraging and enabling children to play out and about in their immediate neighbourhood. Enabling children to meet up and play together will be especially important in a community where there is a lower number of children. As suggested above we also recommended that a community development approach be adopted when developing interventions ensuring residents feel involved, have opportunities to share concerns and have enough time to become comfortable with any changes made. This vital enabling role could be provided by local authorities who often also hold responsibilities for other policy areas addressed by these recommendations (e.g. planning, housing, education) and are therefore well placed to help communities make improvements in respect of children’s time, space and permission for play.
We are pleased to report that since we submitted our findings, the local community council and local authority have worked together to trial the delivery of staffed play sessions on the only (formally recognised) public space in the ward, a simple but significant step in the right direction.