The Changing Nature of Play, Leisure and Public Space for Children and Young People

Robert Doyle and Lisa Whittaker

On 23rd March 2016 YouthLink Scotland and Play Scotland will bring together leaders in youth and play work to discuss the play needs of children and young people aged 8-18 years. The (Re)Imagining Youth team will give a keynote presentation at this event discussing findings from the Glasgow fieldsite. The following blog highlights some of the key themes to be  be covered in the presentation, but is written from the perspective of one of our research participants, Robert Doyle, a former playworker. Robert’s reflections on practice are linked to some of our core research findings, contributed by Lisa Whittaker, research assistant on the project.

In his influential new book, Policy for Play, Adrian Voce (former playworker and government advisor on the 2008 Play Strategy) describes, in fantastic detail, children and young people playing in the street. Children skipping, playing hopscotch, running around randomly and noisily, “screaming with delight”, much as we (the authors) did when we were younger (and as readers might have too).  But as Voce acknowledges, this scene is no longer an everday occurance for children and young people. He offers many reasons for this including the increase in cars on the roads, the commercialisation of public spaces, and the need for adults to supervise and facilitate children’s play and structured activities.

Scratch football

Figure 1: Playing in the street in 1950s suburbia (Source)

A recent summary by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights the social value of public spaces , but recognises that ‘the concept of what “public spaces” are changes over time. This is something we discovered in (Re)Imagining Youth, where we set out to explore what ‘leisure’ means to young people living in Glasgow today, the kind of leisure opportunities available to them, and the ways that youth leisure changed since the 1960s. Nowadays many leisure activities, like playing a game of football, cost money. The commercial function of many public spaces favours those with money and excludes others. Young people in (Re)Imagining Youth told us that there are  increasingly few free public spaces available to them and little opportunities for unregulated leisure that doesn’t involve consumption.

Figures 2,3&5: Leisure spaces in contemporary Glasgow (Photos by R. Doyle)

Many urban areas of the UK have undergone significant regeneration in recent years. This is often led by privatisation and commercialisation. We focus here on the changes that have occurred in Glasgow, one of the (Re)Imagining Youth research sites, and the city in which Robert has worked. In Glasgow de-industrialisation and the shift to a service-based economy has resulted in unemployment, urban decay, welfare dependency and poor health for many people. There have been repeated efforts to ‘regenerate’ public spaces, most notably in the East End of the city in preparation to host the 2014 Commonwealth Games. The result has been the demolition of many community facilities to make way for car parks and sports venues which are too expensive for local young people to use.

Glasgow also became one of the first cities in Europe to reach a population of one million. The city now has 35 million cars licensed for use on the roads.  This is an incredible increase from 5 million in 1960.  The number of cars travelling on our roads and parked in our streets has undoubtedly had an effect on the way that children and young people interact with the spaces around them.  For many youngsters street play is only permitted – and safe – on specific days where barriers are erected to keep cars out and adults in hi-vis jackets are on hand to supervise.

Figures 5&6: Leisure spaces in contemporary Glasgow (Photos by R. Doyle)

These changes in the nature of public spaces and play and free time are illustrated in  the following interview extract from (Re)Imagining Youth. Lisa interviewed Eddie, a father in his 50s, his 24 year old daughter, Denise, and 16 year old son, Alan, as they walked around their local neighnourhood in Glasgow. This walking interview revealed several differences in Eddie’s experiences of childhood play compared to Denise and Alan’s experiences. For example, Eddie said ‘They (Denise and Alan) had a lot of structured play. We just made up our own games and done our own thing’. In another discussion Eddie described the type of play he and his friends engaged in as youngsters:

Eddie: aye you would do things like jumping off dykes n that, see who could jump off the biggest dyke, then you would get things like you would put a pole on in and you would have the high jump so you were jumping on to this mattress on the other side and then we had the hop, skip and jump or the triple jump but we called it the hop, skip and jump and then you’d mark it.

But Denise and Alan explained that things have changed:

Denise: you couldne do that nooadays, you’d need adults there to try and facilitate that…I suppose its because weans nowadays are used to having adults there and they need to be organised

Alan: even then people would still go tae ma Da and say is this right? For the reassurance and the rules

It is often said that a number of children and young people living in our society today have lower levels of resilience than the generations who have gone before them. This may be because children and young people nowadays are less likely to take ‘healthy’ risks such as climbing a tree, building a den or jumping the dykes.  Several studies have revealed that more children today tend to play inside rather than outside, so are less adept at managing different forms of risk in their everyday lives. While working as a Play Ranger in the East End of Glasgow, Robert developed open-access play sessions in a number of communities across the East End. The focus of these play sessions was ‘free play’, which meant that the sessions were unstructured and the activities were all child led.  Participation in free play is incredibly important to children and young people’s personal development.  Access to their local environment and the opportunity to engage with it is essential for the development of children and young people’s wellbeing.   Similarly, the opportunity to play with loose parts and experiment freely increases children and young people’s levels of creativity and ingenuity.  It is during free play that many key life skills such as decision making, risk assessment, communication skills and common sense are gained.  Giving a child agency to play organically and explore their physical and social environment at an early age goes a long way towards equipping them with the skills required to navigate more difficult terrain as they approach their teenage years and adulthood.

It has been argued that the changing nature of children’s play and free time is not only effecting individuals, but also but society as a whole. Resilience is not only important to children and young people’s transition into adulthood from an individual perspective, but is also crucial to the cohesion communities and society as a whole. The opportunities for children and young people to play, explore, belong and express themselves in their early years no doubt help shape the citizen that they become.  We cannot exclude children and young people from their communities. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 31) which establishes the right to play for all children and young people up to the age of 18. We have to make sure there are activities and opportunities that they can get involved in.  Early intervention through play should be an integral part of this process. Communities need tangible leisure activities for children and young people that are consistent, reliable and accessible to all.

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