Researching playfulness on the streets during lockdown

By Alison Stenning and Wendy Russell

A bit of background

This research is part of a larger project that Alison was working on, funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship, focused on how organised street play sessions using the Playing Out model were remaking relationships between people and places on the street. Fieldwork on this project was just about to begin as Covid-19 emerged and as the first lockdown was announced in the UK, meaning playing out sessions swiftly vanished as did Alison’s fieldwork sites.

Yet just as swiftly, we witnessed the flourishing of all kinds of other activities that connected play, neighbours and streets: mutual support networks emerged; traffic levels dropped; residents took to the streets. We saw the emergence of all sorts of playful acts – rainbows in windows and Thursday night claps to thank NHS and key workers, teddy bear trails, and the proliferation of pavement chalking. These emergent spaces seemed all the more important in the face of the closure of other public spaces of play and connection, including playgrounds.

With the restrictions on movement, debates emerged around access to public space, especially for children, and particularly for those without private gardens. Pressure on public parks led to threats of closure and the media reverberated with testy discussions about what were legitimate reasons to be outside. Within these debates, children’s right to play outdoors was challenged at times by police and by vigilant neighbours, and families expressed anxieties about the safety of outdoor play.

The research study

In this context, together we worked with other play activists and researchers to present a case for outdoor play on streets, arguing that this was a space which needed protection and advocacy. But we also wanted to do some research to get a better sense of what was going on in terms of play and playfulness on streets. We wanted detail: to get at the ‘granular’ connections people were making with their streets in lockdown.

We developed a qualitative survey to gather data about playful activities, and changes in the material environment and feel of the street. The survey was circulated through social media and networks of community groups, play organisations and beyond. We received 78 responses from across England, Scotland and Wales. Reflecting the limits of online research and of our own networks, the majority of respondents were White, well-educated owner-occupiers. More than three-quarters of the respondents were women and two-thirds were aged 35-54, but more than a quarter of respondents did not have children under 18 living with them. We followed up the survey with 13 online video interviews. In these interviews, we explored participants’ survey responses in more detail but also explored the sites of play through drawing maps, using Google Maps on-screen, and sharing photos and videos. We also invited respondents’ children to participate and in 5 of the interviews a total of 12 children aged between 4 and 11 years joined for all or part of the conversation.

It is relevant to note that playworkers and community activists were disproportionately represented amongst our respondents; in part, this reflects our recruitment strategy but also, we feel, reflects the desire and willingness of such people to recognise and engage in playful acts in their communities.

What we present here in terms of ‘findings’ are very much preliminary, as we are still analysing the detail of the rich data we gathered, and we have focused on what might be of particular interest to a playwork readership.

Time, space and permission to play

We know that if conditions are right, children will play; these interdependent conditions have been categorised as time, space and permission, and as a matter of spatial justice. One thing that most children did have during lockdown was time, given that most stopped attending schools and other organised activities. Nationally, although time spent outdoors did not appear to change significantly for primary aged children, socialising was of course greatly reduced. In our research, not all parents had extra time, but several respondents did comment on the time available to spend chatting, at a distance, with neighbours. Many talked of spending more time with their children, and of children spending more time playing with their siblings if they had them, more time exploring and playing in local streets and green spaces, more time inventing their own ways to play.

Time, space and permission to play intermingled in various and sometimes contradictory ways. All had witnessed a number of changes on their streets, the most common being less traffic and more people walking in the road, reflecting widespread narratives of street life during lockdown. More people were using their street for walking, running or cycling, or to linger in front gardens, yards and pavements. This suggests a real shift in the presence of people on streets, with a sense of much more connecting with neighbours.

Just over half felt their streets were quieter during lockdown, both in terms of activity on the street (particularly traffic) and noise. Only 12% reported that traffic was slower whereas over a quarter reported seeing speeding vehicles, reflecting what has been reported elsewhere. Many also noted that the reduced traffic levels were short-lived, lasting only until lockdown started to be relaxed.

Although 60% reported that they had seen chalking on roads and pavements, a clear sign of the presence of children on streets (even if at times it was adults chalking), just 35% saw more children playing on the street. Additional responses suggested a mixed picture: on streets where children ordinarily played out, some reported that there was a reduction when lockdown started, as families followed government guidance to “stay at home”:

“I have really missed the sound of children playing … during lockdown. At first I found this eerie and sad.”

Others suggested that children were playing out more of the time as they weren’t at school. On streets where children ordinarily rarely played out, some saw no change, but some did witness a significant increase:

“For the first couple of weeks, there was no traffic at all and we could see children playing on the street corners – this has never happened before”.  

There was a temporality to all these patterns – as there was for much of what was reported – with a peak lockdown period (from 23 March to 13 May) marked generally by higher levels of street activity, but in some instances lower levels of children’s presence as parental anxieties and unclear rules restricted children’s access to outdoor space.

The kinds of activities respondents reported, in addition to simply seeing and talking to more neighbours more of the time (something significant in itself), included bingo, doorstep discos, music (live and recorded), dancing, singing, sports (including street marathons for charity), cycling and scooting, chalking, nerf wars, chalk trails and hopscotch, nature trails and bug hunts, rock snakes, rainbow trails, teddy bear trails and tea parties, toy and book swaps, football, kerby, hula-hooping, and more.

In some instances, play was animated or curated by activists, working from home or furloughed, and shifting their professional playful and community practices to their streets. In each of these instances, these playworkers and community workers opened up spaces for other neighbours, of all ages, to engage in a process of play, stepping back, in the tradition of playworking, to enable children and their families to occupy the playful environments created, but often linking this to other forms of support for those who needed it.

These diverse forms of play were experienced in all sorts of ways but a few common themes emerged. Some talked of a simple joy in seeing children playing:

“the sound of laughter and general buzz really does lift the spirits … It has been nice to see the street come alive again.”

This seemed to resonate with hope in the context of the pandemic and also the opening up more spaces for neighbours to connect:

“Seeing kids playing with each other, despite the situation, brings a smile to my face. The children may be aware of what’s going on, but being able to play without any inhibitions brings back memories of playing when I was young too. It makes the street inviting for families and brings more children out to play.”

This sense of playfulness creating a space for connection appeared in a number of responses:

“I love it. We can connect. I love the creativity, the generosity, the community spirit that it engenders. The opportunity it offers for us as older neighbours to be playful with the children/families nearby.”

For some, especially those more vulnerable and shielding, this was translated into an increased sense of security and comfort:

“They mean so much to me. I feel safer knowing my neighbours.”

“Being creative and playful felt comforting”

Much of this was connected directly to changes in the materialities and atmospheres of the street itself, created by these playful acts, such as chalking and planting, which shifted not only these respondents’ relationships to their street, but more broadly.

“Planting in the street makes me feel hopeful. And I felt really proud, sharing footage with friends and family to show them what a great street I live in! And how a sense of community can be fostered.”

Of course, these experiences were not all joyful; the pandemic and the rules of lockdown encroached on street life and on playfulness in sometimes difficult and painful ways. Respondents were aware of diverse attitudes to the rules, sometimes unsure of what was and wasn’t permitted, wary of upsetting their neighbours but also anxious that their own attempts to be playful might be watched and shamed from a neighbouring window or doorstep. Others, including those shielding or with vulnerable family members, oscillated between the comfort and security offered by seeing their neighbours animating the street and the fear that too many connections might exacerbate the pandemic and extend the lockdown. One interviewee noted how, as time went on, the rainbow pictures were still up in windows, but they had faded: she felt this was a kind of dystopian image and that the NHS, where she worked, had been forgotten, adding “they all clapped, but they broke the rules”.

Maps and materialities

A changed relationship with their most local environments was a recurring theme in our follow-up interviews where respondents described and mapped in different ways their playful practices through lockdown. Through this process, the very detailed material geography of streets – and its remaking during the weeks of lockdown – came to the fore, showing how differently streetscapes are experienced by children, and the ways they perceive the possibilities for playing.

One 8-year-old talked about how all the parked cars meant she couldn’t balance along the kerb; her 11-year-old brother marked his map with the section of the street where the kerb was particularly high, making it good to jump off on bikes and scooters. A 7-year-old talked about there being lots of rocks in the street – there was brick paving and many of the bricks were loose. A 9-year old recalled dancing across the street with her friend, from facing pavements that allowed them keep a two-metre distance.

Many people talked about staying hyperlocal. The maps reflected this, for example, showing the small spaces of the local park, discovered and explored during lockdown, and the route there through snickets, alleyways and side roads, peopled by neighbours with rainbows in their windows, hammocks in their front gardens, and chalk on their pavements. Others talked of playing in the nearby woods because they felt less watched over. One mother of a 4-year-old talked about how, because the playground was closed, her daughter “learned how to be in the woods. Now she will make up her own games, do more self-directed play”. “Sticks,” the daughter informed us, “are not toys, they’re animals”.

The importance of play and street geography

In many ways, lockdown opened up spaces for play and connection for our respondents and remade streets and neighbourhoods in multiple and positive ways, but these playful transformations took place in the shadow of Covid-19. This meant that play on streets was also at times restrained and restricted, conditions potentially antithetical to play. As official guidance on outdoor play and children socialising remains opaque and contradictory and as we face more lockdowns over the autumn and winter, the need to advocate for and make space for play on our streets and in our communities continues.

This is especially the case for those children for whom conditions for play are more restricted than for our comparatively privileged and fortunate respondents, including those in overcrowded, temporary or sub-standard accommodation and those whose access to outdoor space is limited. These are perhaps the children more likely to be those that use open access playwork services, suggesting there is a need for further research in this area and perhaps for a broader think about playwork in the community.

Alison Stenning and Wendy Russell

2 thoughts on “Researching playfulness on the streets during lockdown

  1. donnebuck says:

    Great report, thanks. We live in a cul-de-sac where families from several nationalities live. All have small gardens but their only substantial outdoor space is the street, yet we seldom see any children there and when we do they are mostly using bikes because of the restrictions to other forms of play are vehicles. Car owners all have drives and garages for their vehicles but many choose to park on the road outside their homes, often half on and half off the pavement, preventing much safe group play. The sooner the government passes the promised law banning pavement parking the better!

  2. Jackie Boldon says:

    I loved taking part in this research. Recollecting the 4pm daily walks to the park, the different games, activities and challenges we played in the park, the quick “walks with dog around 5he block” – but varying our definition of “the block”, explorations down the cinder track to the old allotments (picking raspberries, gooseberries and wild flowers), cycle rides through the Dene and to the woods and very occasionally walking to the ghost village centre (formally the local shopping centre). Jacob (12) and Katie (10) now have a much bigger and more familiar local neighbourhood thanks to lockdown. More people to say hello to or chat with and more familiar dogs to stroke. But sadly not many more play mates.
    In May Jacob commented “When will it be legal to have friends again.” It is often down to the roll of the dice – are there other kids of roughly the same age on the street, are there kids on the street who like playing things you like playing, are there kids who go to your school ?

    The added challenges of neurodiversity can mean that it is harder to make friends with kids on your street because of poor social skills or anxiety and overwhelm might unexpectedly overcome you. It often doesn’t feel safe to play out for reasons other than traffic, stranger danger and scared older kids or bullies. Let’s broaden our thinking around play to encompass not just inclusion but neurodiversity.
    Very interested in what is meant by the “need for a broader think about Playwork in the community”.
    Also interested in the idea of the 30 minute neighbourhood.
    Thanks Alison and Wendy for the preview – really looking forward to reading the full report.

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