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Knock, knock can you come out to play?

From the 1960's onwards concerns about children’s safety started to become more publicised. A report by Josie Gleave in 2010 highlighted issues such as an increase in road traffic, crime, paedophiles, children annoying the neighbours and adults fearing being labelled as bad parents for letting their children play outside as some of the reasons that street play was not allowed. Since housing demands have increased and large estates have developed there has been a resulting loss of quality space for street play. Consequently, often the only opportunity for today’s children is in the domestic garden or supervised in the park.   

Street play is often not catered for in housing developments, where space is at a premium. So, few play parks for supervised younger children are available and there is often nothing for the older children who would benefit from having the freedom I experienced when I was growing up.  Lacey, 2007 quotes a Department for Transport and the Office for National Statistics report from 2004 which found that 85% of adults agreed that street play was of great importance to children but they were unwilling to park their cars further away to facilitate this.

Our parents grew up in world where there was a large community spirit and you would know your neighbours and their children. This has diminished over time and has added to the reluctance of parents to let their children play freely.

So why is street play important for children?

Firstly, children have the right to play.  Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states “that every child has the right to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child” - street play essentially meets with this right in every respect and should be embraced by parents and planners alike. 

Children need to play in order to develop mentally, socially, emotionally and physically.  Children are becoming more isolated as more indoor play is encouraged. By going outside with other children they learn valuable life skills interacting with children across different age groups and those that attend different schools.  They gain confidence in meeting new people and making friends with them – a game of football can bring together the most diverse range of children so that they all learn to play together.  It encourages inclusivity as the children all want to play so they learn to adapt the game to ensure that everybody gets a turn.  Emotionally, children can learn to be considerate of others.  Being outside is multi-sensory, it can be a relaxed environment as they can be fidgety, loud, slow, fast and experience activity that you can’t in the confines of 4 walls. 

Children in the 1960's would run home to mum looking for sympathy if they were losing at a game or if there was a disagreement. They would get very little sympathy as she knew it would ‘blow over’ and so within 10 minutes they were back out playing again.  Children learn to lose in a face-to-face environment and they learn how to cope with the associated emotions. They do not learn these skills using a computer game when you can just ‘start again’ if you lose.  They can learn to bring comfort to other children when they are in the losing position and experience empathy which cannot be gained from a screen. They can also experience the elation of winning either by acting on their own or as part of a larger group. 

I recently took part in a health debate at the NDNA conference in July 2016. Children’s health and well-being is at the forefront of concern  at a time when computers, TV’s and mobile phones form part of everyday life. The physical benefits of outdoor play can be a ‘breath of fresh air’, literally.  The children get valuable exercise from their outdoor play that is often missing as cars are readily available and children rarely walk anywhere. The National Travel to School Survey in 2014 found that 46% of 5-10 year olds walked to school but this dropped dramatically to 23% for 11-16 year olds. For primary school children their average walk was only 13 minutes.  The act of running, skipping, hopping, dancing etc. outside can help fulfil this exercise gap when concerns regarding child obesity are increasing.  I have seen the change in children after they have had time outside playing, they are invigorated and motivated to try new experiences. When they are outside they are the kings of their games, they are in control and it gives them time to diminish any negativity that they have experienced.

Children will learn to take risks, as Roald Dahl was quoted as saying “the more risks you allow your children to make, the better they learn to look after themselves”.  In my experience allowing children to take part in risky play the most common ‘injury’ is a trip or fall, which did not result in a trip to casualty - just some good old fashioned TLC.  We cannot have a risk adverse society, children need to learn to manage their own risks and learn to take responsibility for their actions, they cannot be wrapped in cotton wool.  We want children to know that the outside is not a dangerous place – we want them to climb trees, create games and enjoy the environment.  When teaching Forest School I tell students that we want children to use the environment as the third educator – I want them to find sticks that would be great to use to stir, a rock that they can use to write on the pavement and mud that they can use to make a marvellous sculpture. 

Children need to able to use the streets to play due to the lack of parks and appropriate spaces that are available to them.  Gardens are getting smaller, parks for older children are few and far between and cannot accommodate ‘large’ activities such as ball games and there is also a reluctance to invite children into your home to play if you do not know the parents. Using the street allows children to have the valuable space they need without worry of having ‘unknown’ children in your home.   

The street allows the child’s imagination to flow, there are no set ‘rules’: pavement’s can be 'base', they can be something to jump off from, kerbs become a beam to balance on and of course shirts can be goal posts!  A street has no equipment such as swings, it is an environment that fosters imagination.  The environment is ever changing – the hedges will grow, trees will drop leaves, flowers will appear and each of these natural occurrences encourage imaginative challenging play.  

Allowing your children to start playing in the street initially (even if you are taking part) may encourage others to do the same.  Once one parent sees children playing outside and children ask to join in it can break the ‘taboo’ that you are a bad parent letting your child play outside. Pus they will be reminded of how much fun can be had outside and how much fun they had at their children’s ages.  I am a firm believer that by re-educating parents so they remember the times they spent outside, the creative play they took part in and the friendships made, parents will want their children to experience this wonderful opportunity to play.

In a time where we cannot remove all of parents' fears about street play children do not need to be totally free of supervision. For the child to reap the benefits am I not recommending or advocating that children are allowed to roam freely or play on busy roads, but there can be compromises made. Children can be made to  feel like they have the independence to play freely while the play is ‘supervised’.  Parents can take the opportunity to do ‘outdoor’ jobs while keeping an eye on the children or look through a window at them.  Children will feel they are being grown up and out on their own but in reality they are being watched over.  If street play is not agreeable to parents there are many local initiatives such as those by Sustrans that provide outdoor play opportunities in a ‘controlled environment’. 

There are so many games that children can play and you can foster your inner child – it would be such a shame to see activities such ‘kick the can’, ‘hide and seek’, ‘kerby’, ‘can we cross your golden river’, skipping ropes tied to lamp posts, marble season and conker season become a distant memory because the streets are not used for play.  How sad that children stay in these days and miss out on the fun we had.


Lauren Lacey, July 2007, Street Play A literature review

Department for Transport, 2014, National Travel Survery – travel to school

Josie Gleave, August 2010, Making it our place: Community views on children’s play

Roald Dahl, 1993, My Year

Article 31, UN Convention of the Right of the Child, Resolution 44/25 November 1989

Public Health for England, 2014, Child Obesity Survey


John Blaney
John is the pioneer of Forest School. He is an inspirational teacher with a passionate and firm belief in the benefits of Forest School and outdoor learning.

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