One sunny afternoon a few years ago, my then 9-year-old son uttered those words every parent or carer will be familiar with: “Mum, I am bored.” I gave him my usual response: “Go outside and find someone to play with.” He went out and returned five minutes later: “There is nobody out there.” I looked out the window to check that it hadn’t suddenly started raining, but no, the sun was high in the sky and not a cloud in sight. And indeed—not a kid in sight either.
Between June and December of 2016 researcher and urban explorer Daniel Raven-Ellison walked “the length of Britain and a bit” wearing an EEG headset that monitored his brain’s responses to the different places he visited. In an interview on BBC Radio 4 earlier this year he was asked to share some of the things that had stood out during his journey. “There are no children playing in the street,” was his first remark, “except in Newcastle.”
According to research conducted by Play England, 71% of adults say they played out in the street every day when they were children. For today’s children that figure is only 21%.
During most of the 20th century, a typical street in Britain, after school and on the weekends, would be filled with children running, shouting, skipping, hopping, clapping and laughing. The sounds and sights of children playing have characterised all human cultures around the world – even when forced into crowded cities, children’s wild and playful nature has always emerged at the slightest chance.
When I was growing up in New York in the 1970s any free space would quickly become an opportunity for play – empty lots, rooftops, alleyways, even the space between cars or on bonnets – the streets were our domain, we occupied them. Our instincts were not easily subdued and one might argue that irrepressible play spirit brought a sense of freedom into our overcrowded cities, making them a bit more human, a bit more joyful and a bit more connected.
Fast forward 40 years and across most of the modern world the free range child is fast becoming a thing of the past. The Last Child in the Woods, a 2005 book about the separation of children from the natural world, is now being joined by the Last Child in the Street.
When Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published in 1962 she used the image of bird song disappearing as an eerie metaphor for what we were losing as a result of our poisoning of the natural world. Observing our silent streets I experience a similar foreboding: our children, which the pioneering mayor of the Columbian capital Bogota Enrique Penalosa once called ‘an indicator species’ for the health of our communities, are struggling to express their natural behaviours. Instead of having the space and time to explore their world on their own terms, they have been corralled into adult-supervised activities (after-school clubs, play dates, organised sports), digital technology and homework. And like the gradual disappearance of the natural world, this loss of our children’s nature has gone largely unnoticed, as our baseline shifts into a ‘new normal’.
What happens when we don’t play
In his 2014 TED Talk Peter Gray, psychologist and author of Freedom to Learn, describes how animals who have been prevented from playing during early development become socially and emotionally crippled:
“When you place one of these play-deprived animals in a somewhat novel, somewhat frightening environment they overreact with fear. ( …) They alternately freeze with fear and lash out with inappropriate and ineffective aggression. They don’t learn to respond to the social signals of the other animal.”
We cannot by law perform clinical studies depriving human children of play, but according to Gray we are currently living through a real life experiment. He observes a strong correlation between the steady decline in play since 1955 and a steady increase in depression, narcissism and suicide and a decrease in creativity and empathy in young people. Children are now more anxious than they were during the Great Depression or the Cold War. Under mounting pressure from educational policy makers, “childhood has turned from a time of freedom to a time of résumé building.”
Attempts to heal
My own small response to this play deprivation, as a citizen and a mother, was to try to recreate what was once an unremarkable occurrence: children playing in the street. Thus, the Totnes Street Games Festival was born.
The plan was simple: invite people of all ages and cultures to share the street games they had played as children, in one of our town squares. My friends and I ‘prepared’ the space in anticipation: putting up signs saying ‘Play Here’ and ‘Street Games Allowed’, and placing skipping ropes, chalk, french elastic, marbles and balls around the place. Not much else was needed. After a few tentative approaches children let go of their parent’s hands and started to try things out. Some of us started playing clapping games and gently invited shy observers to join. We collectively remembered the rules of hopscotch and the songs that accompany skipping games. We played ‘Helicopter’ and ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’.
Everyone quickly lost their inhibitions and soon kids were climbing trees, balancing on fences and a wild, new game was created involving a disused phone box and some skipping ropes. A skipping game evolved into a tug of war without any one particular person having ‘decided’. Laughter, connection, creativity and spontaneous invention came pouring out of everyone, adults and children alike, simply by creating an invitation to play in a public space.
In a world where so many aspects of our lives have been commodified, spending an afternoon having fun together felt like an act of defiance. Defiance of a culture that tells us that value is determined by a price tag. Defiance of a story that tells us that we are only worth what we produce. Defiance of a system that tells us that billboards have more right to our public spaces than people.
And here we were, enjoying ourselves in a town square, having fun for free, not adding a penny to GDP.
Play is political
Bernard DeKoven, founder of Deep Fun, calls playing in public a political act:
“(Playing in public) is a demonstration in every sense of the word: a demonstration of how easy it is to transform a public space to a play space. A demonstration of how easy it is to take a place of anonymity and change it to a place of intimacy. A demonstration of how easily we can change a no trespassing zone to a zone of shared laughter, (…) a place where we are safe enough to let ourselves be beautiful, together, in public. Easy, and, yet, when you think about it, radical.”
I learnt something that day: play is our birthright. Whatever age we are, from our first to our final breath, we have a right to space and time that is free for experimentation, joy, creativity and connection, without any agenda. Our children know this as they rebel against a world dominated by test scores and spreadsheets. Others around the world know this as the movement for play grows.
I also discovered something else. Real play, like real freedom, cannot be appropriated into the corporate matrix. It is by its nature anarchic and therefore a powerful tool for social change. If we are to resist the all-out domestication of our wild and free nature, if we are to combat the commodification of every meaningful aspect of our lives we must put play centre stage. We must occupy with play the spaces that belong to us as citizens, taking down both real and metaphorical billboards that dominate our towns and our inner landscapes.
And finally: Play is easy. Nature primed us for it, it’s in our bones. No matter how long ago it was since we allowed ourselves, somewhere inside we are always ‘ready to play’. All it takes is an invitation.
This is yours.
This article was first published in Stir Magazine, Summer 2017
The Totnes Street Games Festival took place on 23 April 2017 in the Rotherfold Square in Totnes. You can see more pictures here.