Play is how children exercise. Our flats are overcrowded and pavements are small, so we must take back the streets, writes Professor Alison Stenning and Dr Wendy Russell
During the unfolding COVID-19 crisis, there has been a necessary focus on essential activities – work, shopping, caring for each other, and exercise. But exercise for children looks very different from exercise for adults – it looks a lot like play.
As a result, there have been stories of children and young people being cautioned by police or told off by other adults. Yet, for children, play is an essential activity, and the benefits of outdoor play are both physical and emotional.
Play helps children cope with boredom and anxiety. In their play, they will take aspects of their everyday life and turn them upside down to create new worlds that are less boring or less scary. This is more than indulgence; it is the basis of good mental health and wellbeing.
Play is how children exercise. Though some older children and teenagers may enjoy running, cycling or (currently disallowed) team sports, children mostly get their exercise through play – scooting, chasing, inventing and exploring, stopping and starting, jumping, kicking balls, climbing on walls.
The NHS recommends that all children get at least an hour of physical activity daily. The government acknowledges this in their guidance on children’s and young people’s mental health during the outbreak. In addition to suggestions for indoor games, the guidance recommends: “Plan time outside if you can do so safely”.
“Play is more than indulgence; it is the basis of good mental health and wellbeing”
Playgrounds were one of the first categories of public sites to be closed, even before the lockdown was introduced. Concerns that playgrounds offered meeting points for large numbers of people, including children, and that playground equipment would not be cleaned regularly were exacerbated by research which claimed that the novel coronavirus could remain viable for up to 2-3 days on steel and plastic, the typical materials of a standard urban playground.
In recent days, concerns have arisen about the use of public parks. A number of London parks closed or threatened to close in response to concerns being raised by police, local government and social media about some visitors not abiding by the physical distancing and “stay at home” guidance. Similar concerns arose nationally, in parks, on beaches and walking trails.
Although Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, reassured the public that access to parks would be maintained, the closure of parks raised equity issues and the need for access to public space, especially for families living in cramped conditions without access to private outdoor space.
In the social housing sector, 13% of family units are living in overcrowded accommodation, and in London, 16% of families are overcrowded, according to the Resolution Foundation; altogether amounting to over 1.8 million families. These indoor pressures and outdoor limits are exacerbated still further for thousands of homeless families living in temporary B&B accommodation and vulnerable families rehoused in ‘permitted developments’ with low space norms and restricted natural light.
Rental properties are less likely to have access to private outdoor space than owner-occupied homes. The National Housing Survey in 2018 reported that 44% of social housing and 37% of private-rental properties are flats, and that over nine million people in the UK live in flats. According to a 2008 report, 15% of dwellings in the UK had no access to any kind of private outdoor plot. Only 25% of flats had private outdoor space, and “dwellings located in the most deprived areas were the least likely to have any private outdoor space”.
“Whilst our streets appear generally quieter than normal, they are still not safe; pedestrians do not have priority and risks from car traffic remain”
Some residents are using road space, either to exercise (cycling, scooting, running) or practise physical distancing during essential trips. The lockdown and “stay at home” measures have led to a marked decline in road traffic. The Guardian reported that indicators showed “road travel plummeting by as much as 73%, to levels not seen since 1955”. In 1955, with car ownership and traffic levels as they were, the routine use of street space by walkers, cyclists, and children was commonplace and widely accepted. We are also witnessing big drops in air pollution, both of nitrous dioxide and particulate matter, in most UK cities, according to the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, and there have been similar reports of declining noise pollution.
For these reasons, our streets are currently safer than they normally are. Since most UK pavements are less than 2m wide, sometimes considerably, there is not the space for the required physical distancing, and even less so for those with buggies and wheelchairs. This, together with the decline in road traffic, has meant that residents are often forced to informally use road space for their everyday activities.
Yet, there is – perhaps encouraged by the reduction in traffic – also evidence of speeding and of police leniency towards speeding drivers. There is some evidence of a slight rise in car traffic in more recent days, following the earlier-documented fall.
Whilst our streets appear generally quieter than normal, they are still not safe; pedestrians do not have priority and risks from car traffic remain. They are even less safe for children, who are less alert to the threats from road traffic and less likely to be moving about in an orderly fashion.
“Street space is proving critical for the development and maintenance of community support and wellbeing in difficult times”
Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence across the country of the informal remaking of street space in the context of the coronavirus, as residents are spending more time on their streets, and are connecting to their neighbours in new ways.
This has taken ephemeral and playful forms, such as physically-distanced coffee mornings, driveway dances, rainbow trails in windows and on pavements, and the weekly #clapforNHS, but also more substantive forms, through the emergence of neighbourhood mutual aid groups and informal support networks for vulnerable neighbours. We’ve also seen evidence of residents learning more about their immediate natural environments, such as one street where the names of trees were chalked on the street.
Anecdotal accounts from across the country suggest some children are managing to play out and get some exercise on their streets – scooting, kicking a ball with their siblings, exploring their streets. Remaining in family groups, coordinating formally or informally with neighbours, and sticking to the space directly outside their homes means that these children and their families are, almost invariably, following guidelines for physical distancing whilst reclaiming street space.
These are all important examples of how street space is proving critical for the development and maintenance of community support and wellbeing in difficult times.
Every day we see more and more examples of cities across the world taking measures to secure children’s, pedestrians’ and cyclists’ safety in their neighbourhoods. Dr Tabitha Combs of the University of North Carolina has been collating examples such as closing vehicle lanes to create room for walking and cycling, closing streets to vehicle traffic altogether, and reducing speed limits.
Transport for London, Hackney, Brighton and Hove, and Manchester are looking to make street space safer during the crisis period
This crowdsourced database lists 48 examples of such actions. In Berlin, for example, city authorities have reassigned road lanes for cyclists. In Denver, certain streets have been closed to motor traffic and the intention is to expand this scheme; In New Zealand, the Transport Minister is inviting cities to bid for funding to temporarily widen pavements and install cycle lanes.
Meanwhile, in the UK, a letter co-signed by many UK academics and activists, coordinated by Rachel Aldred, University of Westminster, called “on decision makers to protect the right to walk and cycle safely (from risk of infection and traffic injury) for those who are not symptomatic.” Campaign groups, such as Living Streets and Cycling UK, have produced guidance which encourages walking and cycling for exercise but which emphasises the necessity for the 2-metre distance and the requirement to stay close to home. The group 20’s Plenty, who advocate for 20mph speed limits on most roads, are supporting the campaign to ‘lower the baseline’ of NHS demand by calling for an immediate 20mph speed limit on all roads to reduce road traffic accidents.
There are growing calls on social media, on blogs and in publications for a renewed approach to urban public space and for a full consideration of some of the measures developed elsewhere. These moves have been motivated by a number of different goals: reducing the likelihood of road accidents to relieve pressure on hospitals and police forces; creating more space for residents to undertake essential trips and engage in exercise whilst maintaining physical distancing norms; and creating more safe public space, in particular, for those without access to private outdoor space. Most recently, Transport for London, the borough of Hackney, Brighton and Hove, and Manchester are looking into making street space safer during the crisis period.
Streets make up approximately 80% of urban space – far more than public parks, golf courses or playing fields
Moreover, and importantly, very few of these calls focus on the needs of children in outdoor space. The promotion of spaces for walking, cycling and running rarely seem to imagine children, perhaps occasionally in buggies, but not in their multiple and diverse ways, and not playing. The focus on movement and mobility, on passing through, underplays the value of streets as also places of dwelling and connection, even in times of physical distancing. Children’s needs must be included in all debates around the reallocation of street space during the coronavirus crisis.
It is generally acknowledged that streets make up approximately 80% of urban space – far more than public parks, golf courses or playing fields. This space is moreover on our doorsteps – this means it is both familiar and accessible, in every sense of the word. Streets are vast spaces that could be used to ease the pressure on public parks and other popular outdoor sites. Prior experiences across the UK and beyond, and the measures being implemented elsewhere, suggest that we have the means to make our streets safer for children to use whilst also maintaining physical distance.
The measures introduced to aid the country’s fight against COVID-19 must be sustainable to be successful; concerns about ‘lockdown fatigue’ have recurred as these measures are debated by decision-makers, the media and the public.
These concerns will become still more intense as the lockdown continues and children face weeks or months of restricted movement. Evidence from Italy and Spain, where the lockdown was introduced earlier and where, in the case of Spain, children have not been permitted to leave their homes at all, suggests that it is difficult to maintain stringent measures without the increasing use of police powers and anecdotal evidence suggests that families with children in small living spaces are particularly struggling. Play allows children to cope with what life throws at them; it is the responsibility of adults to ensure that they can play safely, indoors and outdoors.
We recognise the very real need to maintain physical distancing and to stay at home in order to fight COVID-19 successfully, and the need for consistent public guidance on these key requirements.
The following measures will enable physical distancing and the lockdown to be sustained, while also ensuring safe space for children to play outside, with all the attendant benefits to their wellbeing and resilience, and that of their families and communities:
Implementing such measures to enable safe neighbourhood space might potentially mitigate against the very real pressures felt by children and their families, whilst also contributing to reducing pressure on other green spaces, on the NHS, and on our children’s well-being.
The measures we implement now indicate how we see children’s place in our public spaces and their rights to space to play. Professor Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, said during his briefing on 15th April: “Anything that can be done to encourage people and to allow people to take exercise is clearly a good thing”. For children – as well as adults – opening up street space for safe and physically-distanced play is perhaps one of the most important moves we can make to enable them to be physically active.
As well as responding to an immediate need in this time of crisis, a rethinking of these spaces and moves to make them safer may serve our children well in the future too.
This piece was developed alongside collaborative work to advocate for space for children’s outdoor play. A distilled version of this case has been submitted to relevant government departments, to local authorities, and to partner organisations. The views expressed are ours, but we could have not written this without ongoing conversations with and contributions from Adrian Voce, Tim Gill, Alice Ferguson, Ingrid Skeels, Ben Tawil, and Mike Barclay.