Despite the rapid rise in children's leisure time being spent indoors, often watching television or playing computer games, research tells us that they actually enjoy and often prefer to play outside. So why are kids spending less and less time outdoors?
Children of yesteryear (and certainly my generation) played outside almost daily, primarily in their front yards, in the streets, in vacant plots of land or local woods. They played in pairs and in groups, it was common to see small gangs of kids on foot or bikes in the neighbourhood. But the sight of children playing out in communities has become rare, so much so, that the first thought upon seeing children playing unsupervised is usually where are their parents?'.
Sure, lots of things have changed and a decline in street play is likely due to a variable mix factors, including more cars on the roads; an increasingly risk averse society (especially when it comes to children); an increase in the number of organised activities children participate in; more homework; time poor and working parents...the list goes on.
But if kids want to play outside AND we know that unstructured, outdoor play is good for them, then what can we do to get kids back out playing in our communities? How do we turn neighbourhoods into playbourhoods?
In 2013, I heard Tim Gill talk about the Playing Out model and thought the idea was brilliant. At the time I was working for an inner city council in Perth and at the end of 2013 we decided to trial the model by closing two streets to cars for children to 'play out' over summer. There was an overwhelming number of applications. Residents of the two streets selected had a fabulous time and the trial attracted a lot of community and media support. To date, the council have not extended the trial, but it seems that Campbelltown City Council in South Australia are running with the idea. I loved the concept so much I was keen to get something like this up and running in my own locality. Early last year, I approached my local council to trial playing out in my community as resident driven project and sadly was met with luke-warm interest.
But then I stumbled upon a book by Mike Lanza, Playborhood: Turn your neighborhood into a place for play. A playbourhood is a neighbourhood which is inviting for children to play in; where residents take it upon themselves to create places children can and want to play in.
The book briefly looks at what the author calls the free play problem; why children don't engage in free, unsupervised play outdoors. He acknowledges the usually cited reasons of screen time, structured activities, working mothers, school/homework, stranger danger and so on, but goes on to suggest that for getting children outside, none of these is a useful problem frame. He argues that the problem with these frames is that they imply individual solutions; that if you simply limit screen time or cut back on scheduled activities, then the problem will go away. He states that the free play problem is more of a social problem and needs a social solution. The author suggests that the single most important social factor that if changed, will lead to and increase in children's free play, is the attractiveness of the neighbourhood.
What resonated with me was the idea that kids are not going to want to play outside if neighbourhoods are unappealing; if there is nothing to do and no-one to play with. The majority of the book is solution focused; it lists multiple innovative examples from around the world where residents have tackled this challenge and made their neighourhoods more playable. The author's personal strategy was to turn his front (and back) yards into play spaces for all the neighbourhood kids.
I really liked this idea. It felt doable; it didn't involve council permission or red tape. It was an action I could take immediately. On social media I regularly see articles about creative elements parents can add to their back yard to entice children out - cubbies, tyres, ropes, swings, trampolines, mud-pie kitchens and so on. They are all great ideas; we've got many of them in our back yard BUT what if we all put less energy into our back yards and brought these elements into our front yards and invited neighbourhood children to play?
So at the end of last year, I purchased a trampoline and instead of putting it in the back yard as originally planned, I put it in my front yard. I put a few other toys out there and we put up a sign inviting children to come and play.
I figure it's a snowball effect, the more kids playing, the safer and more desirable it will feel for other kids to play out. So in 2015 I have a mission, I declare it the year of the playbourhood. Where residents collaborate to reclaim our community as a place where children can play and where it's once again normal to see children 'playing out'.
If you want to join me, check out these 10 ideas for creating an amazing playbourhood and add some of your own...
Ten things YOU can do to create a playbourhood
2. Put a cubby, trampoline or other fun items for children out the front of your house. Invite the neighbourhood kids to come and play. You may find your street really only needs one or two of these big ticket items.
3. Have you got the perfect driveway for bikes and scooters? Then how about inviting kids to use your driveway to practice their skills. You could put some chalk elements on the driveway as an invitation.
4. Super simple, cheap and as easy as can be, tie a large rope to your letter box or a tree in your front yard and invite kids to skip. This could also be a great chance for local residents to stop for a bit incidental exercise on their morning or evening walk.
5. Have you got a great tree in your front yard that you could put a tree swing in? They are irresistible to kids and you are guaranteed to get passers by having a go.
6. Buy a big bucket of chalk and add chalk games to your driveway, pavement or street. If you make a different one each week, kids will be intrigued to find out what's coming next. Hopscotch is a big favourite here, but we've also done target practice with a chalk bullseye and bean bags. Leave plenty of chalk out the front as an invitation for kids to draw.
7. Plant fruit trees and/or build veggie patches out the front or your house. If you are happy to share produce; put up a sign saying kids are welcome to help themselves. Cherry tomatoes and beans are a winner with small hands. Front yard gardening is a GREAT way to meet your neighbours.
8. Place a geocache in your front yard. Geocaching is a world wide treasure hunt where small treasures are hidden and GPS coordinates recorded on an app. Hunters download the app and search for any treasures near them. You could quickly become the most popular house in the neighbourhood.
9. What about organising a street party, either for a special occasion like Easter or Christmas, or just because you feel like it? Pick a date and put some flyers in your neighbours letter boxes. You can either hold it on a suitable verge, your front yard or even apply to the council to close of your street. Some councils have programs to support street parties, or you may be able to apply for a grant.
10. Tear down your fence! Okay, this might seem a bit radical (especially if you've just built one) and sometimes it's just not practical (if you live on a main road), but let's face it, high front yard fences are a barrier to creating community. If you don't really need that fence, then maybe you could consider removing it, or replacing it with a low picket or wire fence. If you were considering putting one up, perhaps reconsider.
And of course if you don't have a front yard, or yours is just not suitable for kids to play in, you can still build the playbourhood by playing out the front at family, friends and neighbours. See you in the playbourhood!