Monday, 28 June 2010


Iona Opie, childrens folklorist

We wore old clothes in the garden – ‘rumbling’ clothes we called them – and spent long hours out of sight of the adult world, climbing trees, baking mud pies, borrowing an old saucepan from the cook and making toffee on a bonfire.

Extract taken from Playground Memories, edited by Nick Gammage


Tony Blair

When I was a child I enjoyed playing in some grounds near Durham Cathedral which had woods and the River Weir. This was a good place to run around in, especially during the long days of summer.

Extract taken from Playground Memories, edited by Nick Gammage


Sir Terry Pratchett, author

My favourite play area was – it still IS – called Roundhead Wood, although it has fewer trees and more barbed wire now. And here four or five of us roared around like some screaming, multi-legged animal, building camps, riding bikes around the little chalk pit in the middle and growing up a little bit more everyday.

Extract taken from Playground Memories, edited by Nick Gammage


Sir Ranulph Fiennes, explorer

In 1952 when I was eight, I became a boarder at Eastern province preparatory school. I enjoyed the weekly official game of ‘skop die blijk’ or ‘kick the can’, in which two large teams attacked each other inside a forest adjacent to the school.

Extract taken from Playground Memories, edited by Nick Gammage


When I was young I used to climb on to the thin garden walls in front of peoples homes. I used to pretend the walls were tightropes. With hindsight it was quite dangerous, because I was only young, and the wall seemed quite high.

I did fall a couple of times but only scraped myself, and I did not suffer any bad injuries. I did love the danger factor, even at such a young age.

Extract taken from Playground Memories, edited by Nick Gammage


Ken Dodd, comedian

"I had a wonderful childhood as, adjacent to my home in Knotty Ash, there were about 250 acres of fields. Myself and the Knotty Ash band of outlaws ran wild.

I was brilliant at digging holes, setting fire to my coat and falling out of trees – a fabulous time of my life."

Extract taken from Playground Memories, edited by Nick Gammage

Friday, 18 June 2010


Russell Brand

“Over the road from where I grew up there was a disused chalkpit and an overgrown and abandoned army barracks. I would go there – losing days at a time – to retrieve newts.

It was amazing that bit of wasteground. Obviously now, through the nostalgic haze of my adult perspective, it seems impossible that this place could ever have existed.

There were these concrete bunkers – utterly featureless, like Stonehenge, but all overgrown with brambles and moss. They were linked by underground tunnels, in which you’d have to completely trust yourself – walking into absolute, terrifying darkness, within which anything could lurk.

The whole place had a mythical; air about it and – informed by reading C.S Lewis and Enid Blyton at a very early age – it felt like a magical kingdom. I was lucky to have a place where my fantasy life could manifest itself.”

Extract from his autobiography, My Booky Wook


John Lennon

"In those days, children roamed freely out of doors for hours on end without their families feeling the least anxiety. And Woolton and its environs offered many inviting places for John and his friends to explore.

Their games were fuelled by make-believe, demanding vigorous activity rather than the modern child’s sedentary trance. The favourite of all was cowboys and Indians, with the participants shooting each other and falling down ‘dead’ with no conception of pain, and Native Americans cast as villains in obedience to Hollywood mythology.

But John’s version was different. ‘He always wanted to be the Indian,’ Mimi recalled. ‘That was typical John, to support the underdog. And because he was leader of his little group, the Indians always won.’"

Extract from John Lennon: The Life by Philip Norman


Jonathan Ross

"We do molly-coddle our children - no two ways about it. Compared to when we were kids. When you were a kid you were allowed out all the time on your own.

Some people say 'let your kids out' and they're right probably. But you read the papers, you're terrified there's a man with a beard and glasses lurking around every bush wanting to take them away. And you worry about the traffic, you worry about the violence... So you don't let them out so much.

In my day we would leave the house on a Saturday morning on our Choppers, they wouldn't see us again for 36 or sometimes even 72 hours, we'd return starving, dirty, with a bag of comics gathered from far parts of East London with tales to tell. Come back, drink a pint of milk and straight to bed."

Speaking on his Radio 2 show on Saturday 12th June 2010

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Just in case you haven't met Norm yet...

(Click on the cartoon to see it full size)

If you’d like to receive London Play's magazine through the post as soon as it is published(featuring Norm) just become a London Play member or supporter. There is no charge, all the details are here:

Here's one we made earlier

Street Play event template

Before the party You will have already advertised the date and time of your party a few weeks before the day with posters on trees and lamposts (your local authority, as part of their street closure process, may well have advertised the road closure in the local paper).

Your poster will ask all neighbours with cars to move them from the Street Party area in the morning. Most people are happy to do this and you will then have a street ready and clear to stage your event.

1:00pm Setting up Decorate the street, blow up balloons, hang bunting from upstairs windows diagonaly from house to house all the way up the street (if people aren't out yet this will do it).

Chairs and garden tables are brought out from back gardens and set out in the road.

Barbecues are clustered together in a quiet corner of the road and lit. A tea urn is filled.

A soft play area for toddlers is created with a sofa, a roll of carpet, lino, paddling pool, sandpit, or playmats.

2:00pm Street Lunch Everyone makes a dish to share, creating a communal dining table with lots of delicious choices.

Activities (some run by volunteers): Face-painting, mask-making, street chalk drawing, kite workshop, puppet show etc.

Best dressed wheelie bin competition (to be paraded and judged later).

3:00pm Handmade go-carts activity (a two hour workshop run by the Handmade Go-Kart club who will be bring Go-Karts for the children to try out on a circuit on the street.*

Beachball Volleyball, basketball, skittles, sack race, den building.

Front garden Swap Shops (bring stuff you don’t need anymore and trade it for something you do).

3:15pm Homemade Cake and Cookie competition. Entries are displayed and judged. Wheelie Bin parade.

3:30pm Raffle with proceeds going to a local charity (prizes obtained from local businesses)

4:00pm Neighbour's Tea party (Competition cakes and cookies eaten). Tug of war (odd numbers vs. even, children vs. adults, boys vs. girls, etc)

5:00pm Party winds up. Everyone joins in the clear up. Cars returned to their spaces. Everyone looks forward to doing it again next year.

Paul Hocker

* visit for more information).

A few days after this entry was posted I recieved an email containing a happy recollection from Play England's National Practice Manager, the mighty Mick Conway.

"A brilliant thing to do is to ask locals to bring out bathroom scales to weigh the contestants. The idea is that the combined weight on each side should be roughly the same - a few stones/kilos here or there doesn't matter. The children inevitably win, because their traction with several times more feet on their side gives them a huge advantage - not many people know this!

We did this 30 years ago in Bermondsey, with the deal being that the adults had to donate £1 each to the playground if they lost. The adults were thrashed, even though they cheated first by tying their end of the rope to a fence - which disintegrated. We called foul, started again and this time the bad losers tied their end to a thirty-foot tree that started to come out of the ground. We got £50 off them in the end."

Monday, 7 June 2010

Play Streets: Timeline

Taverner Miller, MP for Colchester, tells the House of Common’s the plight of 12-year-old George Dunn who was sent to prison for five days under the Police Act for playing rounders in the street. Miller explains that George was singled out from the other children as the others, ‘were old enough and their legs were long enough to run away; but the little one, with the shortest legs, was captured.’

The New York Times runs the headline ‘Plan [for] Safe Streets for Children’s Play’ in response to city officials addressing childrens use of the streets for play.

Lord Lamington tells the House of Lords, ‘[Children] have not many recreation grounds in London and it is only natural that they should play in the streets’.

The New York Times tells its readers, ‘Children must play, and children, if they live in the cities, must play in the streets.’New York City’s Police Commissioner closes 29 city blocks to serve as playgrounds, prohibiting traffic in the afternoons, every day during summer except Sunday (the Police Athletic League charity takes over the running of the Play Streets summer programme in 1936).

An NYC police officer, in defense of Play Streets, tells the New York Times, ‘It is only natural that children should want to play and if the city refuses to provide playgrounds for them, they are going to play in the streets.’

1924 to 1933
In England and Wales over 12,000 children aged under fifteen years are killed by motor vehicles.

Nancy Astor tells the House of Commons, ‘There is no more pitiable sight in life than a child which has been arrested for playing in the street. Of all the pitiable sights that I have seen that is the most pitiable. Though these children may be fined, we stand convicted.’

Leslie Hore-Belisha’s becomes the UK’s Minister of Transport. With a lack of inner-city playgrounds combined with rising numbers of child trafficrelated fatalities, he looks to the USA for inspiration and imports the Play Street model.

According to criminal statistics of the time, over 2,000 young people under the age of seventeen are prosecuted for playing in the streets.

A limited Play Street experiment in the Metropolitan boroughs of Southwark and Paddington is deemed successful by Hore-Belisha.

Ahead of UK-wide legislation, a private bill enables 200 Play Streets in Manchester and Salford.

The Street Playgrounds bill receives Royal Assent in July. It allows Local Authorities to designate roads as Play Streets. Their powers include restricting traffic between certain hours or prohibiting it completely. The bill also makes allowances for ‘reasonable access to premises situated on or adjacent to the road’.

The average residential street in London has 5 parked cars on it.

17 Local Authorities create Play Streets under the 1938 Act with 8 more under consideration by the Minister for Transport (including Bethnal Green and Holborn Metropolitan Borough). In London, Play Streets are up and running in;

  • Chelsea Metropolitan Borough (amalgamated in 1965 with Kensington Royal Borough)
  • Hampstead Metropolitan Borough (amalgamated in 1965 with Holborn and St Pancras boroughs to form the London borough of Camden)
  • Shoreditch Metropolitan Borough (amalgamated in 1965 with Hackney and Stoke Newington boroughs to form the London borough of Hackney)
  • Metropolitan Borough of Westminster (amalgamated in 1965 with the Metropolitan Borough of Paddington and the Metropolitan Borough of St Marylebone to form the City of London).

Play Streets in England and Wales total 750. As car ownership booms, Ernest Marples, Minister for Transport comments that he is receiving growing complaints about the number of parked cars on Play Streets.

The average residential street in London has 20 parked cars on it.

The Bishop of Stepney, Trevor Huddlestone tells The Times that Britain prefers motor cars to children and shows it ‘by cluttering up Play Streets with parked cars.’

New York’s Play Streets continue to thrive. Streets around the prestigious Rockefeller Centre are transformed into a Play Street for the city’s children.

Play Streets are all but forgotten. A number of streets retain the signage and accompanying traffic restrictions but resident’s parked cars leave no space for play. In contrast, the number of New York’s Play Streets closed to traffic each summer increases during this decade.

By the end of the century there are 21-million cars in the UK compared to the start of the century when there were 8,000. The Department for Transport forecasts that car ownership will increase by 46% between 1996 and 2031.

Farley Bank, a cul-de-sac in Hastings is designated as a Play Street giving children traffic-free space for play between 8am and sunset.

The Manchester Evening News reports that a new housing development is incorporating ‘family orientated “Play Streets”’ into the overall design.

Play Streets feature in a new housing development in Redditch in the midlands.

London Play begins 3-year Street Play project funded by the Big Lottery. A forum is established to look at road safety issues arising from its Lottery funded Street Play Parties and looks at reestablishing Play Streets in the capital. Play Streets in New York continue to be an important part of city life.

Paul Hocker

Russell Brand and the lost slipper

In Russell Brand’s 2007 biography My Booky Wook, the comedian describes playing out as child in an ‘overgrown and abandoned army barracks’ where the burnt out car, brambles and moss, underground tunnels and concrete bunkers ‘felt like a magical kingdom’.

Now, whatever way you take your comedy, there can be little doubt that having the opportunity to play out is no joke. Like Brand and others of his generation (and generations before) playing outside the home, in all weathers with other local children was a daily, ever-changing, fun activity. As waves of recent statistics indicate, we are in danger of raising a generation whose play experiences are increasingly isolated and limited to the home.

In a sense, London Play’s Street Play project is less of an innovation and more a revival, returning children and their families back to a time when their street was not simply a strip of tarmac for cars to whizz down. Bunting and flags, rugs and furniture, street games, barbecues, nutty spontaneous games, chalk drawing and the rest can turn tarmac into a colourful, welcoming space.

The benefits of play are often taken for granted but it's worth restating. What other activity can counter childhood obesity, encourage risk management, nurture imagination, and develop social and cooperative skills all in one go?

But Street Play has its own distinct benefits not just for the individual but for the wider community. Having organised an event on my own street in Walthamstow (see previous blog entry), I have seen a shift in neighbourly manners with people now saying “Good morning” to each other and a surge in chatting over the garden fence. It's not paradise (I found a slipper in my window box the other day) but its heading in the right direction.

The road back to children being able to play safely on their doorstep may be a long one. Playing out was a freedom denied to the last generation, and it may take a further generation to regain. However, London Play’s Street Play project is one step towards children regaining that freedom to play out. Not a brand new idea but certainly one worth reviving.

Paul Hocker

SPOILER ALERT! Contains grumpy neighbours

Here's my account from 2008 when I put my Street Play advocacy where my mouth was and put a party on in my own street in East London.

Monday 7 July
The first meeting with neighbours. I spent an hour yesterday leafleting the 90 houses on my street. I wait outside my front door at 6:30pm as stated in the leaflet but no one’s about. It’s drizzling so I can’t pretend to read the handout of questions I’ve prepared. I just stand there in the wet. Then two neighbours appear under umbrellas. I’m elated. We introduce ourselves and begin to talk about our street and what our event may look like. A few more neighbours join us and soon there are eight of us. Eight people who all want a play party for kids. I volunteer to write to the council’s highways people to request a street closure permit. The drizzle stops. We agree a date. I write August 24 on my fridge door.

Tuesday 15 July
The second meeting. Again it’s drizzling and again just eight neighbours show up (only it’s not the same eight from the last meeting and one of them is asleep in a pushchair). Someone says we’ll need gazebos. Shirley, from No.12, thinks she heard ASBOs. People drift off when the drizzle is upgraded to a shower.

Wednesday 16 July
Yesterday’s poor turnout has left me anxious. I can’t help thinking I am closing my street off to traffic and hanging bunting for a party that no one wants. Chris Gittens from Streets Alive, a street party veteran, tells me this is normal at this point in the planning and not to worry. I came home to find a letter from an elderly neighbour. ‘I can’t see the sense of holding a party when no one here speaks English?’ she writes and demands that I guarantee her window box won’t be stolen.

Saturday 2 August
No volunteers turn up to do the crucial door-to-door neighbour consultation so I take it on alone. Most neighbours I find home are very nice and all apologise for not getting to the previous meetings. Most are looking forward to the event. A minority are indifferent and one is demonic, the woman inside No. 37 who screams at me through drawn curtains: “Get away from my door”, a command she decorates with every expletive imaginable plus a few original ones of her own.

Monday 4 August
No one has responded to the ‘What I want to do on the day’ questionnaire I gave out during Saturday’s door-to-door chats. It’s disappointing but Chris from Streets Alive appears in my mind like a ghostly Yoda reminding me “not to worry”. Our street does not have a tradition for community activities so the Street Play event invites neighbours to break cover and meet each other, a big deal for some people that just want to shut the door on busy, noisy, knifey London.

Saturday 16 August
Final meeting. Again, we achieve the magic number of eight but this time, with a week to go there is lots of energy. Everyone’s got a gazebo. Prizes for the raffle are offered - a bottle of champagne, a voucher for a beauty salon, a professionally decorated cake in the shape of our road. Despite now having consulted and invited almost everyone on the street I am worried that next week’s party will have the same eight people turn up while everyone else leaves their cars in place in protest. There we’ll be hemmed in by parked cars tending a few sad sausages on a tiny barbecue as tumbleweeds roll by in a whistling wind.

Sunday 24 August
The day of the party. I meet up with a few neighbours hauling 200 metres of bunting in a black bag behind me. We divide up and start knocking on doors to ask if our neighbours are happy to hang bunting from their upstairs windows. Everyone is willing and a nice diagonal network of bunting begins to criss-cross the street. Then I realise a key house in the bunting scheme is No.37: home of the unseen swearing maniac. I approach her house bracing myself for rabid abuse. Her gate whines as I open it and immediately I can hear furniture tumbling and then, “Don’t even think about it”. I back out the gate and decide to use a nearby tree to anchor the bunting instead.

By midday the street looks great with almost all the cars having parked elsewhere. The only problem is no one’s out. I go back to my house to fetch my barbecue and return ten minutes later to see the street transformed. Neighbours are putting up trestle tables, wandering up with Tupperware goodies and stringing a badminton net across the street to play street volley ball. Similar to the scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when legions of children pour out of manholes and windows in the royal palace, the street’s children are bursting out of front doors and bringing the party to life. Beautiful chalk drawings appear, faces are painted, go-carts rattle down the road, music, cake, sausages, sunshine. It suddenly seemed so inevitable, it was magical. I stop worrying.

Monday 25 August
‘How about a German Christmas fair?’ emails one neighbour. Why not I think? I live on a street where anything’s possible.

Paul Hocker

Street Lingo

We recently collected up some quotes from folk who have already held Street Play events during the project's first two years.

Below is a selection of edited excerpts (including the winner of Street Play's Awesome Quote award, 2010). Thank you to all of you that took time to put finger to key, and please do keep them coming - we love hearing from you.

"Grannies, Grandpas, old, young, grumpy, jolly alike crept out of their homes with a dish and a chair, talking to unlikely neighbours, sharing extraordinary dishes [...] New neighbours said ‘how do you do’ and old neighbours reminded us all of what it used to be like. Tut tutting on this and that, then loving the new things." Emma, Hammersmith & Fulham

"The kids keep asking to be able to close the road again so they can all slide down the hill on their bikes and scooters and 'crash into the wall' (the massive wall of cardboard packing boxes we built across the road). They want to build go carts next time. They ask for a street party again and again." Lalitha, Croydon

"It was great to see the street transformed and to have a proper chat with neighbours. We often just say hi or have a really brief conversation in passing. But the party gave us a great excuse to stand and chat for while and really get to know each other better." Nancy, Waltham Forest

"Our Halloween Street Party was a great success for adults and children of all ages. My kids still talk about “the day we closed the road and played games with all our friends, without any cars coming “and cannot wait until the next time we do it. It was a real team effort and the residents and children embraced the day with real energy and imagination. We had a ball." Tina, Camden

"We got to speak to everyone, dance, sing, eat and play. People of all ages and backgrounds participated. It was something everyone felt included in and could add to in whatever way they could manage. We still talk about it nearly a year later." Yana, Haringey

And the winner is...
"Once you've done it once it's not so daunting. All you have to do is get the road closed down and a road without any traffic is enough to put everyone in a party mood. Especially the kids - within 5 minutes of putting those signs up they were cycling and skateboarding around as if they had been released from confinement." Jenny, Lambeth


For a free full colour copy of this A2 size poster email with your name and address (only two posters per request)

How the UK's children lost their Play Streets

Painting the town apple green

In the summer of 1903, George Harwood, Member of Parliament for Bolton, got to his feet in the House of Commons. The new-fangled motor car was playing on his mind, in particular the speeds they could reach. He told of the sensational result of a recent experiment he had performed while being driven to an appointment. With an elegant fob watch in hand, Harwood timed the speed of the car he was travelling in and was alarmed to discover it going at over 30 miles an hour. “Car after car was racing along the same road palpitating, throbbing, turning the whole of the thoroughfare into chaos and confusion,” the former preacher thundered.

Today it is hard to imagine that the speed Jeremy Clarkson backs his Ferrari into his garage could cause such alarm. But back at the start of the last century the motor car was viewed in some quarters as a menace that needed restraining. In 1912 Lord Lamington - to this day a household name in Australia for the sponge cake named after him - demanded a 15mph speed limit inside London. Within the same speech to the House of Lords he identified that children “have not many recreation grounds in London and it is only natural that they should play in the streets”.

This was perhaps the beginning of what would become the greatest gift to London’s children you’ve probably never heard of: the Play Street. Urban playgrounds Play Streets began in the USA at the start of the last century. The New York Times of May 7 1909, under the headline ‘Plan Safe Streets for Children’s Play’ explained the proposal to readers. With 25 children recently killed playing on streets where traffic was peaking at ‘25 automobiles an hour’ the time had come to take action. Within a few years New York’s officials established 100 Play Streets across the city, creating in an instant new urban playgrounds while appeasing drivers who would no longer have to dodge children trying to play stickball or Shinny - the street versions of baseball and hockey respectively - or Potsy, a variant of Hopscotch.

It would take twenty years for the New York model to be replicated in Britain. However, by 1936 Salford and Manchester had created 200 Play Streets with a dramatic fall in child fatalities and accidents, a fact central government could not ignore. A politician with vision was needed to roll out Play Streets across the country. Fortunately the Minister for Transport in the mid-thirties was not short on vision. In just three years, Leslie Hore-Belisha was busy planting thousands of blinking orange road crossing beacons across the UK, devising the driving test and overseeing a thorough rewrite of the Highway Code; each innovation saving countless lives.

Following a limited experiment in Southwark and Paddington, Belisha was confident enough to draft a bill to make Play Streets a permanent feature in inner cities nationwide. But before the bill became law - before Kick the Can and Hopscotch could be played in safety - he had to convince both Houses of Parliament to back the idea. One negative response came from Bermondsey MP Benjamin Smith. Unsurprisingly, this former taxi driver thought streets were not appropriate places for play.

Over in the House of Lords there was cross-party support for the bill although some peers had their own peculiar motivations. Labour’s Lord Strabolgi said he supported the bill if only to end what he described as the “terrifying sight” of seeing “young boys on roller skates on the public roads”. Another peer, Lord Eltisley, was appalled to discover that during 1935 over 2,000 children were found guilty of playing in the streets: “What an offence!” he mocked. After bouncing back and forth between the Commons and the Lords, the bill was finally passed and was given Royal Assent in July 1938.

By 1950 London’s Play Streets, with their apple green kerb stripes, were up and running in the old Metropolitan boroughs of Chelsea, Hampstead, Kensington, Shoreditch and Westminster. This would prove to be the ‘golden age’ of the Play Street but meanwhile the motorcar had been multiplying and it wanted the tarmac back. And there was a loophole in the 1938 bill wide enough to drive a bus (or any other vehicle) through. The bill allowed for ‘reasonable access to premises situated on, or adjacent to, the road’.

At the time of the bill’s entry into English law, car ownership was still relatively rare, so presumably ‘reasonable access’ was a consideration for milk carts and coal deliveries. But as car ownership increased in the fifties and sixties, Play Street space was being swallowed up by residents’ parking. By the early sixties, with 750 Play Streets in England and Wales, the Minister for Transport was receiving ominous complaints about the growing number of parked cars on Play Streets.

Where once an average London street in 1950 might have had five cars parked on it, by 1970 there were 20 vehicles with more to come. In 1976, Trevor Huddleston, the then Bishop of Stepney, observed in an interview with The Times that “Britain preferred motor cars to children and showed it by cluttering up Play Streets with parked cars”. By the 1980s the Play Street was no more than a vague memory with little hope of resurrection in the face of escalating car ownership. But a good idea is hard to kill off. In 2002 Farley Bank, a quiet cul-de-sac in Hastings, was designated a Play Street. The Manchester Evening News reported in 2005 that a few housing development was incorporating ‘family orientated play streets’ into the overall design, a planning feature replicated in 2007 at a similar development in Redditch, in the Midlands.

London Play is working on bringing Play Streets back to the capital, filling in the gaps where children are desperate for space to play. It might be incautious to suggest but perhaps we may at last be witnessing the Play Street’s apple green shoots of recovery.

Paul Hocker