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Is play a cure for loneliness?

The necessity for social distancing means that playing out with our neighbours is not possible, writes Alison Stenning. But when life resumes, findings are clear, communities that play together support each other 

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Kids playing out on the street. Getty Images
Kids playing out on the street. Getty Images

The timing of this report in the context of the current coronavirus pandemic is in many ways tricky; the necessity for social distancing means that playing out with our neighbours is clearly not currently possible. But the relevance of these findings for the future, when some semblance of normality returns, is also clear – communities that connect through play are well-placed to know and support each other in times of crisis, large and small.


Indeed, we can identify numerous examples of how play streets across the country have mobilised support networks in the last couple of weeks and also of how playful activities on our streets, such as painting rainbows and singing from balconies are signs of our communities and their resilience.


In the government’s 2018 strategy, A Connected Society, loneliness was identified as a “growing social injustice which sits alongside childhood obesity and mental wellbeing as one of the greatest public health challenges of our time”. The public health impacts of loneliness are seen to be equivalent to the negative impacts of smoking and obesity.


In recent years, loneliness has been the focus not only of government strategies but also campaigns by charities and other organisations, such as the Campaign to End Loneliness and the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, and a whole range of initiatives from chatty buses and friendly benches to talking campaigns such as #BeMoreUs.


Communities that connect through play are well-placed to support each other in crises, large and small


Although the government’s strategy argues that “loneliness doesn’t discriminate”, there is evidence that particular populations are more at risk, such as those with disabilities, special needs, or poor physical or mental health (and their families), new parents, carers, and those who have recently moved home (especially if in the context of bereavement or separation). There is also evidence of loneliness amongst children and young people. Many of these are also groups that have been particularly hard-hit by cuts to benefits and to statutory services and for whom access to spaces to meet and find support are likely to have diminished in the context of austerity.


Playing Out has been growing in popularity across Britain
Playing Out has been growing in popularity across Britain


Playing Out is a UK-wide grassroots movement aimed at restoring children’s freedom to play out in their neighbourhoods. At the heart of this movement is a model, developed originally by neighbours on one street in Bristol, which promotes temporary, resident-led residential street closures to enable children to play and neighbours to meet. This model is often referred to as ‘resident-led temporary play streets’ or just ‘play streets’ or, by many residents, as ‘playing out’. In this report, we use both ‘playing out’ and ‘play streets’. Over 1,000 streets in nearly 80 UK local authority areas have used this model to play out in their communities. The government’s strategy and supporting evidence draw attention to a number of approaches for tackling loneliness, including physical activity, community sharing, and befriending, all of which are integral to this model.


Play has long been identified as an activity that facilitates connections between people, young and old. Most children make friends through play, of various kinds, and play-like activities (hanging out, chatting, sharing hobbies and interests, for example) are also important sites for friendships and relationships for adults.


In our report Tackling Loneliness with Resident-led Play Streets, we conducted research that incorporated a survey distributed by Playing Out to all known street organisers and activators, cascaded to neighbours, and promoted on a number of Playing Out Facebook groups, locally and nationally. This resulted in 61 responses, which include not just answers that could be quantified but also extensive narrative comments. In an attempt to explore the experiences of residents who live on streets that play out but who do not participate in playing out sessions, a small-scale survey was distributed to every house on 4 ‘playing out’ streets in North Tyneside; this elicited 8 responses which present a helpful if limited perspective. The questionnaire research was followed up by phone interviews with 10 respondents from 8 UK local authorities; all were active organisers and participants of playing out on their own streets and, in some cases, in their wider communities.


Residents said they knew more people because of playing out (95%), their street felt friendlier and safer (86.7%), and they felt they belonged more (91.7%)


The desire to build an evidence base around playing out sessions and loneliness and to identify strategies to develop playing out sessions in particular ways that might alleviate loneliness is at the heart of this research. We do not argue that the primary purpose of playing out sessions is to tackle loneliness nor that it be seen as the solution to neighbourhood loneliness, but that the evidence presented here might highlight the value of everyday, neighbourhood connections and the place of play in connecting communities.


As we discuss in more detail in the report, research respondents were reluctant to talk explicitly about loneliness and, particularly, to identify their neighbours as lonely, but they engaged in many ways and in considerable depth with related ideas of connection, belonging and community. For this reason, we explore all these aspects of the developing relationships between neighbours that connect to the experience of playing out.


An overwhelming majority of respondents agreed that they knew more people because of playing out sessions (95%), that their street felt friendlier and safer (86.7%), that their children had made new friends (71.7%), and that they felt they belonged more on their street (91.7%). 96.6% of respondents reported saying hello to their neighbours more frequently since their street started playing out and 77.6% also recorded an increase in stopping to chat to their neighbours.


60-70% of respondents reported that since they started participating in playing out sessions, they had at least one or two more neighbours who they would trust to hold spare keys, lend/borrow tools and equipment, feed pets, and look after their children. Few (just 8.6%, 5 respondents) disagreed with the statement “Playing out on my street has helped to alleviate loneliness” but more were undecided (46.6%) than in agreement (44.8%).


Road closures are part of the activism embedded in the Playing Out movement
Road closures are part of the activism embedded in the Playing Out movement

A number of respondents also suggested that new relationships with their neighbours meant that the street felt safer as they talked to each other about crimes in their neighbourhood.

There seemed to be a strong recognition of the intergenerational nature of these new relationships, not only between children and parents but also between children, other adults, and older neighbours.


The types of streets involved in playing out sessions are as varied as Britain’s urban landscapes in terms of built form and social context: all these features – and many more – shape the scale, scope and nature of connections built between neighbours. For some streets, the presence of other social infrastructures, such as parks, allotments, halls, and green spaces, facilitated connections between playing out sessions. The street spaces were complemented in many instances by online spaces such as Facebook and WhatsApp groups which often expanded well beyond their initial function and beyond the families that regularly play out. More than a third of respondents reported that playing out sessions had led them and their neighbours to get involved in other community activities.


The ‘core’ of playing out participants was largely made up of families with children under 10. Almost all respondents reported the presence of children between 3 and 10 years. Most streets see between 10 and 30 children playing out at each session. Asked whether those attending street play sessions were representative of their neighbourhood in terms of age, ethnicity and gender, most (around 80% for each category) agreed, at least to some extent. Children of different ages and attending different schools met and played together

as their streets played out. These new friendships extended beyond playing out sessions and supported a number of wider connections in their everyday lives (e.g. at school, in clubs).


All those who had lived on their street for less than 2 years felt that playing out had helped them meet neighbours


Some respondents also reported cases of children on their streets who did not seem to be allowed to play out. A handful of respondents noted the relative absence of men, including fathers. There was a preponderance of women amongst respondents and street organisers. This possibly reflected, amongst other things, the continuing dominance of women as primary carers for young children, gendered working patterns, and gendered cultures. Some respondents noted the particular value of playing out sessions for fathers who often had weaker local connections.


For single parents or those often home alone, the presence of known neighbours was often seen as very important. For new parents, the proximity and familiarity of neighbours to hang out with seemed to make meeting new friends feel easier and safer. Of those respondents who had lived on their street for less than 2 years, all felt that playing out sessions had helped them meet their neighbours.


59% of respondents reported that adult neighbours without children do join in, often taking on stewarding roles or in special sessions. Adults in the 35-54 age category were reported to attend by almost all respondents, with significant numbers also reporting those between 18 and 34 and 55 to 74. Just 7 (11.7%) of respondents reported that those over 75 normally took part. Respondents gave examples of older neighbours who had been regular and active supporters and participants.


A handful of respondents noted the relative absence of men, including fathers


Many recognised the barriers to participation for older people; for this reason, many respondents try hard to encourage older people to join. Some respondents reported that the participation of older people was sometimes facilitated by visits from grandchildren.


When asked directly in the questionnaire what the barriers to participation might be, respondents reiterated many of the same points: for example, that playing out is seen as something for children, that neighbours are wary of and/or daunted by coming out to meet strangers, that some are unaware of the events happening as a result of issues with communication, that for some there may be additional cultural and/or language barriers, and that some residents are house-bound, ill, or struggle with mobility.


For a few, the issue of stigma and fear around adults without children was identified as a barrier to participation. Some neighbours simply don’t want to participate. Some respondents highlighted examples where residents’ non-participation reflected an apparent desire to maintain a level of privacy and a distance from their neighbours.


A number of respondents, especially in interview, stressed quite how much work was involved in setting up playing out sessions on a street and keeping it going. Parents and children are at times too busy with other activities to participate. The Playing Out/play streets model requires adults to be present and responsible for their children and it relies on volunteer stewards to secure the Road Closed barriers. These two features in particular mean that the model encourages adult presence and adult connections too. Most (65.5%) playing out streets organise frequent and regular sessions, either monthly or fortnightly. This means that participating neighbours meet and play together regularly, much more than, for example, one-off street parties.


Government and national funding bodies must recognise the contribution of this movement in tackling loneliness


In the light of this research, it is possible to identify a number of recommendations to different actors in the field of resident-led play streets, including the government, local authorities, community groups, the Playing Out movement and residents.


Firstly, government and national funding bodies must recognise and value the contribution of this bottom-up, resident-led movement in tackling loneliness, isolation and disconnection in neighbourhoods and to provide policy and financial support to local authorities to enable them to better support resident-led play streets/playing out sessions. Local authorities must similarly recognise and value the contribution of playing out sessions and to follow best practice in implementing resident-friendly play street policies.


Seeing children play out the window can alleviate anxiety. Getty Images
Seeing children play out the window can alleviate anxiety. Getty Images


Local authorities, housing associations and other local or community groups must allocate resources (financial and otherwise) to provide the empowering, hands-on support needed for residents to initiate, develop and sustain playing out sessions on their streets or estates. They must also particularly target support to more mixed neighbourhoods (with more socially and ethnically diverse communities) and those living with material disadvantage, where organising play streets may be more demanding and more time-consuming, but all-the- more necessary.


The Playing Out movement must likewise communicate to the public and to stakeholders that ‘playing out’ is not just about play and not just for children by highlighting how promoting play on streets is directly associated with an increase in neighbourliness, a sense of belonging, and safer, friendlier streets. Playing Out must lobby local authorities to offer street activators more support in establishing and maintaining playing out sessions on their streets and create a list of ‘top tips’ for residents to support them in overcoming barriers to participation on their streets.


As for researchers and the Playing Out movement, they must work to build a stronger evidence base around playing out and men; playing out and single parents; playing out and mixed communities; and playing out and social housing. And local residents should identify other ‘add-on’ activities, such as litter picking, book swaps, plant sales and gardening, that might give neighbours without young children a greater incentive to join.


We must communicate to the public that ‘playing out’ is not just about play and not just for children


The responses and discussions presented here offer strong evidence that playing out sessions create new and important connections between neighbours of all ages. These connections support everyday contact and conviviality, friendships between adults and children, the exchange of help of all kinds, and a range of other neighbourhood activities.


These new relationships connect a diverse array of neighbours, including young children and their families, adults without young children, older adults, those who have lived on the street for a long time, and those who have recently moved in. Connections are made through playing out sessions that have not been made before, including between those who have been neighbours for years, such that it is possible to argue that these connections would not have happened without playing out. Street activators and organisers go to considerable lengths to invite and encourage neighbours to join playing out sessions, or otherwise to make the most of the associated infrastructures (such as social media groups).


These new connections enable and are reinforced by a proliferation of contact between neighbours outside of street play sessions. Neighbours lend and borrow equipment, ingredients, and occasionally money. They look out for each other and each other’s homes, pets and, sometimes, children. They play and spend time together between sessions, on the street and in each other’s homes. The new connections feed into lives beyond the street too, facilitating connections for children at school, for example.


These new relationships connect neighbours in vulnerable situations, whether with ill-health, or elderly, or recently separated. Through the connections made in playing out sessions, neighbours learn each other’s names and much more about their everyday lives, including their struggles.


Residents feel less isolated in their homes when neighbours are visible on the street, even if not everyone joins in


The connections made are intergenerational and develop between children of different ages. Teenagers befriend small children; those in different school years play and hang out together on the street; children and adults get to know, respect and trust each other; older adults and children share stories, experiences, games and skills.


Above and beyond the individual connections made, neighbours say that they feel increasingly at home on their streets and increasingly secure, since they have started playing out. Some of evidence suggests that residents feel less isolated and less vulnerable in their homes as their neighbours are more visible and more present on the street, even if not everyone joins in with playing out sessions.


Play and playing out are important in shaping these new connections, because of the particular nature and format of the activities that take place. Even though new connections often spill over into other activities, the potential of play to enable new connections seems to be critical, not just for children but also for adults. The looseness of play, the playful atmosphere created, the unexpected pleasure of skipping again or joining in a water fight, the regularity of street play sessions, and the remaking of the street itself for people having fun, rather than cars, all feed an environment that enables connections to be made and pursued.


Play and playing out can, of course, also exclude neighbours, as we have explored above. Many feel that it is “not for them”; some of these neighbours appear still to be very supportive of the initiative but a small minority seem to experience playing out sessions as an unwelcome intrusion and as a disruptive remaking of their residential space.


Importantly, as we have suggested, the Playing Out model for temporary road closures is part of a wider campaign for children’s freedom to play. The organised closures are seen as a stepping stone to the (re)creation of an environment in which children playing on streets and in other spaces close to where they live is possible and ordinary. Playing Out envisages a virtuous circle through which playing out sessions enable changes within residential communities which in turn enable much more general, every day playing out.


Playing Out’s temporary road closures are part of a wider campaign for children’s freedom to play


In terms of our discussions of loneliness, this virtuous circle could be seen to include the kinds of connections that we have evidenced here and appear to part and parcel of the development of playable streets; more play creates more connections which create the space for more play and more connections. This explicit connection between play and social space echoes historical research into play streets by Krista Cowman who concluded that “mothers ... saw play street orders as the best means to preserve [streets] as a safe social space for themselves and their children”.


It is difficult to conclude that playing out sessions alleviate loneliness, for it is difficult to map loneliness and its alleviation for a whole variety of reasons. But we can undoubtedly conclude that playing out sessions very effectively build connections on streets. Play streets transform the streets where neighbours play out; not a single respondent suggested in any answer that playing out had changed nothing on their street.


For these reasons, there is a strong case for support for resident-led play streets from government, local authorities and campaign groups. Much of what the government’s strategy for tackling loneliness seeks happens on playing out streets. Evidence from the ONS and other research is clear that people want to know their neighbours and that knowing your neighbours is associated with lower levels of reported loneliness. The evidence presented here is clear that playing out sessions facilitate regular and multi-stranded connections between neighbours. It is a powerful initiative.


Yet, it is not, of course, a magical solution to loneliness. The value of playing out sessions can not be reduced to making connections, powerful though this is. Much of the movement’s value lies in promoting play, children’s rights to public space, and the importance of physical and creative activity. Moreover, so much of the work of playing out sessions rests on the efforts and energy of small groups of neighbours and hardworking activists locally, and also nationally within Playing Out itself, and these groups can not be expected to bear the burden of combatting loneliness when its roots lie in structural and political inequalities and disadvantages and, importantly, in the cuts to public and community budgets and infrastructures enacted in austerity.


Read the full report



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