The Leeds children who are taking back their streets for ‘risky play’

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Are we depriving children of life skills by keeping them too safe? Neil Hudson reports on a play scheme with risk built in...

IT’s a common perception that the children of today do not have the same level of freedom as those of the previous generation. Or perhaps it is the case that the same argument is peddled by each successive set of parents, who look back with collective fondness to the times they ran through fields and mucked about on scrubland, completely unsupervised, returning home only when hungry.

Still, it is at least true that children of today have less opportunity to play out in the streets than their forebears. The rise in the number of cars has taken car of that.

A study by JCB Kids in 2013 found 54 per cent of adults seriously worried their child didn’t spend enough time playing outdoors.

The study of 2,000 parents revealed the average parent spent ten hours and 26 minutes playing outside during the working week when they were children - double the five hours and 32 minutes children head outdoors today.

But one Leeds scheme aims to change all that, giving children a chance to explore woods, run through fields and take back the streets. The Better Leeds Communities Fun First Kids Club is now in its third year and is proving a real hit with children and parents.

It is mostly organised so sessions co-incide with school holidays, giving children the chance to make the most of their free time.

Helen Simpson is play co-ordinator for the project.

She said: “When we started the play sessions a few years ago we had just 10 children but it’s grown steadily since then, with many coming back from previous years. We already have 11 bookings for this year.

“It’s something we are keen to keep going - one thing we’ve recognised from this is there are so many children who want to have a really good, enjoyable summer holiday.

“It’s very much about free play, so to begin with some of the children don’t realise they can pretty much do what they want, although they are supervised. In the woods, it’s all about making rope swings and going through streams and not being afraid to get a bid muddy.

“We think it’s such a worthwhile project, because children get so much out of it. I’ve always been an advocate of summer holiday free play. #

“Times have changed in that parents often don’t have the same amount of time they had in the past, because both will work full time and they may be reluctant to just let their kids play out on the street, because of safety concerns.

“But children need that freedom to explore and when we started this project, it came as a big surprise to me just how many yearn for that.”

Children taking part in the week-long ‘risky play’ session during the school summer holidays can end engaging in various activities but there is a strong emphasis on ‘free play’, or letting them explore places and find things to do for themselves.

“We have some structured activities, so we will play things like capture the flag or get everyone to make flower bombs from paper and cornflower, which they absolutely love.

“There’s a physical side to it, so some kids will make a den or make a dam on a stream. But on the flip side there may be children who just want to go and use some moss to make a fairy house.”

The other aspect to Better Leeds Communities’ school holiday play sessions involves ‘street play’ and this means shutting down roads to motorists, a scheme for which they won National Lottery funding last year.

Helen explained: “The days we have run so far have been really successful and it’s not just the children who love it - most of the parents do too, because they end up coming out of their houses and talking to each other and then we end up with them being involved in helping the kids to do whatever it is they are doing, plus some of the older children join in too.”

The project, which has the backing of Leeds City Council, involves applying for an official road closure. Once that is granted, as it usually is, the road can be blocked to through-traffic between the designated times.

“We have some blow-up cones we use to do help with that but we’ve also used wheeled bins in the past - the kids love doing that, dragging them into the road.

“Occasionally, we get a motorists who is upset because they cannot drive through but once we explain what we are doing to them, they normally go away happy.”

During a recent street play session on Borrowdale Crescent, Bramley, children organised a tug-of-war, made dens and used chalks to play games on the floor.

This year’s street play sessions have been funded by Leeds Federated housing association, which has paid for six sessions in the Bramley area.

Helen added: “In the long run we want to empower people so they can organise their own street closure sessions, because anyone can apply to the council to do that, so if people see what we do and want to have a go at doing it for themselves, we can show them how.”

How do you remember your childhood play times? Were you always outdoors or were you a home body? What adventures did you get up to, or what did you get away with?

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