The initiative getting children back playing on the streets of Yorkshire

New research reveals children are playing out less since the pandemic. Louise Hall reports on a campaign to get them back outside.

Sarah Priestley has been running a Play Street in Leeds for six years

Children’s lives have been affected in every way by Covid-19 and the lockdown measures imposed to minimise transmission of the virus.

So far, most of the spotlight has focused on the educational disruption – but with summer holidays coming up, the impact on children’s play is now a hot topic.

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#Summer of Play is a campaign recently launched by Save the Children to highlight the importance of play, with supporters including the NSPCC, Lego Foundation and Leeds City Council.

Alistair Brownlee has fond memoeries of playing out in the streets when he was growiong up in Yorkshire Picture: Danny Lawson/PA Wire.

Play is fundamental to children’s health, wellbeing and happiness. But months of being isolated at home has made it more difficult for kids to be playful.

Leeds is taking an innovative approach to this by inviting residents across the city to take up the opportunity to host a Play Street.

A Play Street offers the chance for kids to enjoy themselves outdoors even if they can’t get to a park or playground. It involves closing a road to traffic for a couple of hours, often once a month, so neighbours can connect and children play together in a traffic-free space.

Organised by residents, Play Streets are free as well as fun, and have been found to increase children’s levels of physical activity. One study found children are five times as active on Play Street days compared to a normal school day.

Organising a Play Street event is quite straight forward

Leeds is a trailblazer for Play Streets, winning a national award in 2018 in recognition of its red-tape snipping system for enabling residents to turn their street into a play zone. Before the pandemic, there were almost 100 active applications for Play Streets in the city. Leeds City Council now plans a big ‘thank you’ for existing Play Streets organisers, as well as running a competition for new applicants, and a project to support residents in priority neighbourhoods to get Play Streets going in their local area.

The idea is that Play Streets are a way for children to experience playing out in the way their parents and grandparents did – something rare in their busy, screen-dominated lives.

Sarah Priestley lives in North Leeds and has been hosting Play Streets for six years.

“The first thing we did was get together as a group of parents and work out when it would make sense for us to do the Play Street.

“I put a slip of paper through all the letterboxes on our street explaining that we planned a monthly Play Street on a Sunday, which meant our neighbours knew what to expect. That took the edge off a bit when I went to talk to them. Speaking to everyone individually really helped – I’m lucky because I live on a really friendly street. I can imagine some people might find it more daunting if they don’t know people or have grumpy neighbours. It might be easier to deal with grumpiness if you can give people some control over what’s happening – for example, there’s someone on our street who sometimes needs urgent healthcare so I was able to reassure her that of course a vehicle would be able to get in if she needed healthcare.”

Sarah says one of the things she has learnt from running Play Streets is the importance of getting into a rhythm.

“Embrace bad weather – don’t let it put you off. Kids will put on wellies and splash around, even if it’s just for half an hour. If you go ahead whatever the weather, you can keep a rhythm going.

“I’ve also discovered something that really surprised me – Play Streets aren’t just for the children. The kids have really enjoyed playing out together, that’s true. But I feel the bigger benefit has been for the adults. Normally when you go out of your front door you don’t have time to chat, so this has been a great way for people to get to know each other. Some of the older people on our street don’t have any family nearby, so coming out to chat for a couple of hours has been really important to them. I can tell you a story about every person on our street, and that’s all thanks to the Play Street.”

TV presenter, journalist and author Jeremy Paxman, 71, grew up in the Leeds area. He says: “Play Streets are self-evidently a good idea. I was lucky enough to grow up in the countryside, with space to play. All children should have the chance to play safely.”

Actress Gaynor Faye, 49, grew up in Leeds and now lives in Pickering. She says: “It was a question I heard every day, after the school bell and at weekends – ‘Are you playing out’…or as we used to say: ‘are you laking?’. We loved marbles, hopscotch, skipping, elastics, hula hooping, roller booting or just hanging out putting the uncomplicated world to rights! Those were treasured times, so many special memories of friends playing in a safe space. My street was a happy street, at a time when there was no social media eating away our youth, excitement and laughter came from playing outside not sat looking at memes on a screen. We were encouraged to play outside, get some fresh air, go and call for our friends. Safe streets and playing out were and still are key to children’s happiness and wellbeing.”

Triathlete, Olympic champion, and Leeds Active Travel ambassador, Alistair Brownlee MBE, 32, grew up in Horsforth, Leeds. He says: “I was lucky enough to live on a dead end road growing up.

“I fondly remember playing large and very competitive football and cricket matches in the street. On the rare occasion a car turned towards our pitch we frantically sprinted to remove the goals or tried to score a sneaky goal.“

More than 30 leading organisations from across the UK are joining forces to invite businesses, charities and the Government to take a #SummerOfPlay pledge and ensure all children get the opportunity to play this summer so as to repair some of the mental and physical damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to research by Oxford Brookes University, more than half (51 per cent) of children say they are playing outside and with friends less than before the pandemic, while a third (34 per cent) of children said they play alone more than they used to. Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of children revealed they’re playing less sport and being less active than they used to be.

To find out about applying for a Play Street in Leeds, see:

The first 10 applicants for a Play Street from June 16 can win a free Play Street Kit Box. To claim the free kit box, email: [email protected] or join the Play Streets Network Leeds group on Facebook, and share your stories and photos using #PlayStreetsLeeds