Playing Out in SE14

Road closed for play street

Mary King is a London National Park City Ranger who has set up a play street. Here she shares her experience and insights.

Last year my husband took me to the theatre to see These Hills are Ours, which is a piece of music and performance by Daniel Bye and Boff Whalley (of band Chumbawumba!), inspired by the Kinder Scout mass trespass and protests that resulted in the “right to roam” over parts of the countryside. As I listened, I realised that the play street I’ve started in New Cross is important to me for exactly the same reasons as those 1930s protests: it’s about access to space, and wanting space to be shared better, more fairly, within society. 

Our streets aren’t fenced off by individuals like the hills of the Peak District used to be; instead it’s the car-centric culture that we’ve allowed to develop that keeps vast spaces off limits to our children. I’ve observed so many times the absolute terror parents feel at the threat from traffic and the way that it causes us to shout and scream and ruin our children’s experience of playing, running and riding their bikes. We have good reason to fear the roads: every week, on average, a child is killed in a road traffic accident in the UK.

Enter the play street! The application process is daunting, since it requires you to leaflet every house on the street and hold a public meeting, but both Playing Out and Lewisham Council provide guides to all the steps and template documents, so I felt pretty supported with that. I held my public meeting in the small park nearby in August at the end of a sweltering day and it was attended by 7 people, which I was happy with.

A major source of motivation for me was the idea that play streets should not just be for leafy, suburban streets of semi detached houses; my road is mainly blocks of flats with a housing association landlord and about half of properties in the “social rent” category. Being in New Cross, we struggle with littering, vandalism, graffiti and a whole host of general social problems linked to a deprived area, so I thought it was even more important to push ahead so that the children of Reaston Street could benefit from play street time, too.

And when we set up our barriers and open up the road space, it’s so fascinating to stand in my “traffic marshall” spot and watch the play unfold. I have tried to keep our events low key and resist the temptation to organise activities, as the ethos of Playing Out is about child-led play. Between the organising committee and the play equipment I borrow from my kids’ primary school, we usually bring out hula hoops, small cones and markers, skipping ropes, foam balls, ride-on cars, a few balance bikes and lots and lots of pavement chalks; then we see what happens. All the children (and adults) who come along really just revel in the unaccustomed safe space that opens up when you can walk in the road without needing to be hyper vigilant. Everyone is busy and active for the two hour slot but I often find it hard to pin down what they’re actually doing!

My daughter and her friend, who are in our oldest age bracket (7-8), like to bring their roller skates out and spend their time skating on the pavement, separated from the others by the row of parked cars. I’m not sure what they do back there but it’s some kind of complicated imaginative game. The younger children sometimes fight over the ride-on cars but often find a way to play on them together. There might be scooting or tag and there always seems to be a child who’s learning to ride a bike and spends the time riding up and down, brow furrowed in concentration with the help of their parent. Some children bring out doll’s pushchairs to push around and at the last one my son spent a whole hour bouncing up and down on a neighbour’s small space hopper. I thought ball games would be popular and that we’d be worrying about damage to cars, but actually the children who come out focus on different types of play. Chalk drawing is a lot more engrossing than I realised and lots of adults and children spend time doing that. It has the advantage of making the street look more colourful and festive, so adds to the holiday atmosphere.

Our road leads to a small and incredibly valuable park called Eckington Gardens (sadly overlooked on our London National Park City map of London parks!!). We chose to close the East section of our street with the intention that children’s play could “free flow” between the road and the park, but in fact no one has ever shown interest in doing this. The novelty of street space is such that the playground has no allure whatsoever. I have had one passer-by comment that the play street is unnecessary as “the kids can just play in the park”. But why should they? These roads are ours.

Ending the event is the moment I feel most dangerous: there always seems to be a driver arriving just as we’re trying to move the big toys out of the road and communicate the message that everyone needs to be on the pavement now. After two hours of relaxed roaming over metres of unaccustomed free area, we’re all vulnerable if motorists suddenly start tearing down the road. We slowly adjust back to our usual London “stay away from the edge!” “Wait for an adult to help you cross the street!” reality.

There’s lots of work still to be done on participation in our play street event. We’ve had a good turn out, and meeting and building relationships with neighbours has helped motivate me to keep the project going, but I’m very aware that we’re generally getting the more privileged neighbours on the street and that lots of families who I would like to welcome are NOT coming out to play. We’re going to keep working on our messaging, produce Spanish language posters, and try to reach all the different groups around us as we move forward into 2023.

If you are interested in setting up a play street, there are lots of resources here:

More info

Scroll to Top