Let the children play!

When we assume that police keep us safe and accordingly we completely hand authority for the production of our safety – at neighbourhood level – over to hard working uniformed officers, we are unintentionally creating a prison for ourselves and our children. Not the kind with cells and bars; the invisible kind that looks just like the house and neighbourhood where we live.

No ball gamesRecently police sent flyers to families in a neighbourhood in England warning them ‘it was a crime for children to play football and go on skateboards in the street‘.

It worked, within 24 hours the street looked like an opening scene from a Spaghetti Western; with nobody on it, all that was missing was the rolling tumble weed and background music. Children were literally afraid to play outside their homes.

To be fair apologies did issue from the police following a slew of complaints from parents. But for 24 hours it must have been heaven for the few in the neighbourhood who don’t like skateboarding or football on the streets. But as Mark Twain once said ”I’ll take heaven for the climate and hell for the company.”

In the apology police explained they wanted to remind parents of their ‘legal and social responsibilities’ about their children playing games in the road. This had been a particular feature in the flyer which also reminded parents that to flout their legal and social responsibility may lead to arrest or some other sanction: ‘Ignore the law and you may be liable to prosecution.’

This raises quite a few questions that go well beyond the capacity of one blog to hold. Questions not just for police but for us all, including the people who felt the only way they could produce ‘peace and quiet’ for themselves was to lobby the police to threaten to arrest their neighbours’ children en masse.

So here are a few more salient questions that come to the front of my mind:

1. Who are the primary producers, investors and recipients of safety at neighbourhood level?

The answer I think is obvious: local residents who live in that neighbourhood. Increased police presence does not lead to enhanced safety and security in the same way that a connected community can .

2. Even if police could unilaterally produce safety is it desirable for servants of the state to do so?

Well they can’t except in a specific set of circumstances where a police state has been declared for a period of time in response to a state emergency or where the police state never ends as in a totalitarian regime, North Korea being a case in point. I don’t imagine too many children play freely on the streets of Pyongyang.

We shouldn’t be too smug, because increasingly our children can’t play freely on the streets where they live either. Of course we don’t live in a totalitarian regime and I’m not implying otherwise in this blog.

But…. What if the best measure of a growing democracy is the extent to which our children can play freely with one another in their own neighbourhood and associate with their neighbours across the life course?

The foundation stones of all democracies include freedom of expression and free association. These are not just fundamental to democracy, they are fundamental to freedom.

When we inhibit children’s free play on the streets where they live we also shut down nature’s classroom where the most formative lessons in citizenship are taught. This shutdown sets in train a range of unintended consequences as follows:

A) Children’s relationship with the built and natural environments becomes passive; they are no longer co-authors of it as the climbers of trees, the builders of dens, the chalkers of streets. Certainly in westernised urban neighbourhoods, excepting for Halloween, they are perpetual tourists. They pass through the neighbourhood on their way to somewhere else. A ‘play date’ in a classmates house or on their way to an adult led activity sometimes in their own neighbourhoods but more often not. More often than not they are chaperoned by a parent. The message is clear – the space beyond the boundaries of your home and the houses and families we deem ok, are fundamentally hostile, unsafe places for a child to be. Children know your boundaries. So all interaction with civic life is structured, non-spontaneous, supervised, or mediated by a screen, often has a cost attached, and happens outside of the neighbourhood and away from the child’s neighbours.

Rousseau once observed ‘we walk willingly into our chains‘; are we these days more inclined to drive ourselves and our children into the chains of disconnectedness and separation? Have our neighbourhood become elementalised? The perfect breeding grounds for loneliness at every age and stage? From first time mothers to people ageing with dementia, to the children who now no longer play around them.

B) Projecting forward, it is my observation that if we continue as we are, our homes and our children’s lives will become disconnected islands, and our lives more disjointed than our human nature can tolerate. As a consequence of poor urban design, the ubiquitous presence of cars, our fear of each other, and our inactivity in turning strangers into friends on the street where we live, we are slowly ripping the social fabric that for millennia has been intricately woven into a blanket of care and freedom that was wrapped around most children.

Those who share my vintage or beyond know that the adage it takes a village to raise a child is true. They lived in a time when bunking off school was infinitely more challenging than it is now, as a kid for me to get a free day I have to negotiate the omnipresent eyes of Mrs. Newsome, and a hundred others. With that I had a sense of security, and accountability, and my parents had a sense of that too, they trusted those neighbours to share the raising of me. That was what made our street safe for me and those who played together with me. Not so for my children. “…without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present” (pg 21).

The root issues of neighbourhood safety have nothing substantively to do with the extent to which unsupervised football and skateboarding is played in the street by children; and everything to do with the lack of connectivity between our children and their neighbours. Making it a crime for children to play football and go on skateboards in the street is a sure way to decrease public safety. And additionally for good measure to increase obesity; loneliness; consumerism; and damage to the environment.

The real solution lies in community building not in turning our houses into fortresses or prisons. We need to start the occupy movement much younger and closer to our door steps. This is how democracies get made.

So for everyone’s sake, let the children reclaim their streets; let them play!

Happy Halloween.

Cormac Russell

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  • I grew up in Australia. I didn’t experience the playing on the street culture, and as a result I don’t understand it. We got that letter (my son was 1 at the time) and quite frankly I didn’t have a problem with it. Our street had become a frightening place to be, with threatening unsupervised teenagers and children being infuenced by them.

    I find it frustrating. Where we live, on a busy road, we have a several safe cycle paths, parks and plenty of green space, yet they choose the street, where people have babies, there are elderly people, cars. It’s unsafe.

    Maybe its me, but I feel sad when I see the parks and playgrounds empty and children playing with balls around cars instead.

    November 1, 2013 at 9:24 am
  • The sight and sound of children playing in the street is the sight and sound of a safe community because they wont play in an unsafe place. When children play in the street in school holidays there is a significant decline in burglary and theft. All coppers know this but they can be subject to disproportionate influence from certain sectors in teh community. In my experience, the very people who complain about children playing in the street tend to commit crime (Public Nuisance and Public Disorder Offences) when they confront the children in the street.

    November 1, 2013 at 8:50 pm
  • You say “Of course we don’t live in a totalitarian regime and I’m not implying otherwise in this blog.”

    Not yet, but if the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill being rushed through parliament with little or no opposition from Labour becomes law, children as young as ten can have an Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance slapped on them on the basis of behaviour ‘capable of causing nuisance or annoyance’ rather than the existing ‘likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress’ test for an ASBO. Worse still, the burden of proof will be on the civil ‘ balance of probabilities as’ opposed to the current criminal ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ test.
    And to cap it all, the injunction can compel a person to do anything or refrain from doing anything specified.
    It is disputed who defined the perfect totalitarian state as one where ‘if it is not forbidden, it is compulsory’ but they would recognise this appalling Bill as a dangerous precedent likely to spread into other areas of civil and criminal law.

    November 2, 2013 at 12:17 pm
    • David Aynsley

      Good point. The public nuisance offence with its power of arrest has been available to police for many years and prior to ASBO legislation was (in my experience) used by police with discretion to deal with the top end of nuisance offences. When local authorities took over the ASBO process they applied their own threshold to “likely to cause harrassment alarm or distress” lowering it in practice to something like what is being proposed. So in one sense nothing much will change because the damage has already been done. In another sense this just goes to reinforce the terrible practice that is put in place by local authorities in the name of a partnership approach with the police. This may be counter intuitive, but if you want legislation to be used on a way that was intended by the legislators it is sometimes best to leave it in the hands of the police and as far away as possible from officials in local authorities. Either way I agree that this legislation is both unnecessary and ill thought out and probably totalitarian in design.

      November 2, 2013 at 2:11 pm
  • We recently started a vegie garden on the nature strip of our house (in Newcastle, Australia) for kids in the street (http://sustainingcommunity.wordpress.com/2013/08/17/vegies-on-the-verge-update/). It is been great to see the impact it has had on people in the street. In particular some primary school aged girls are playing heaps more together (they went to 5 or 6 different schools) and there is a lot more interaction between adults too. One interesting thing is that we are now not always sure where our 10 year old is. She will be at somebody’s house in the street – we just aren’t sure which one!

    They don’t play on the road much as we have fairly wide nature strips, they play handball in our drive etc., but it certainly has increased the sense of safety as we know each other so much better.

    November 23, 2013 at 10:11 pm

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