As adults we believe we had much more freedom to play in our neighbourhoods and cities than our children do today. We recollect playing in local outdoor spaces in ways that kids today cannot even imagine and we mourn the death of traditional games we played in our childhood. There is almost a universal belief that the reasons for this loss are the cars on the street and the television at home. However, children today are statistically safer than at any point in human history; it is the increasing culture of fear based typically on notions of stranger-danger and traffic that make parental licenses for playing outdoors hard to come by.
When Colin Ward opened his seminal book The Child in the City (1978) with a lament of Sudeshna Chatterjee tells us why it is important to make urban settings accessible to children and shows us how planning provisions have evolved to accept the idea of play as vital to children’s culture and development ‘Paradise [childhood] Lost’ he too recorded his belief that the changing landscapes of cities in material and social terms were impacting children’s experiences of cities and in particular children’s play. The changing patterns of land use that zones – living, work, recreation and leisure – as physically separate from each other affect the relationships between people (the network of kin, friendships, work and neighbourly relationships) and community spaces (the network of streets, houses, corner shops and parks). However, the beautiful photographs by Ann Golzen of children at play in different urban settings in this book illustrate the point that children will play with whatever is available in their environment and wherever they are. This truth resonates in the photo: Don Mammoser / Shutterstock.com findings of Iona and Peter Opie who documented the culture of children’s play through the 1960s. They recorded the spontaneous games played by about 10,000 children (6-12 years) in everyday settings and when out of sight in British cities.
The Opies found – contrary to popular belief about the decline of traditional games – an increase in the kinds of games where children fight on equal terms and the games that adults are least likely to play well or encourage. They also noted a decrease in the popularity of games where specific players were victimised and games that were actively promoted by adults. This pioneering work along with many others confirms what Arvind Bengtsson said about play: “play is a constant happening, a constant act of creation in the mind or in practice.”
Matthew Thomson suggests that the pervading sense of lost freedom of the child in the western world moved from being an individual feeling to a matter of public anxiety and social policy in the decades after the Second World War. According to Tim Gill, the horizons of childhood have also shrunk due to two interlinked phenomena: children growing up too fast or children appearing to be more adult-like, and the erosion of autonomy and the freedom to act on their own due to growing adult control and supervision in their everyday lives. In the context of cities in the global South, which house some of the world’s poorest children, lost freedoms of children are linked to many other complex factors associated with physical hazards such as garbage-filled open spaces, open sewer systems, over-crowded neighbourhoods, fast traffic, poor lighting and congested streets, lack of local safe play areas or cultural facilities.
Yet the importance of play and recreation in the life of every child is acknowledged and reaffirmed by the international community such as in the 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child that the child ‘shall have full opportunity for play and recreation’ and the introduction of an expectation that ‘society and public authorities shall endeavour to promote the enjoyment of this right’; and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which explicitly recognises the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities and free and full participation in cultural and artistic life (Article 31 rights).
How do cities plan for play?The playground tops the list of specially allocated spaces for children’s play in the city. The concept is rooted in sociological ideas that saw playgrounds as the solution to keep children off the dangerous streets and providing them better spaces for safeguarding health, developing good habits and
socialisation skills in the gritty post-industrial city. The first full illustration of an equipped playground, which was conceptualised as a pedagogic space centred on play, was presented by Henry Barnard in a book in 1848. The Recreation Ground Act of 1859 in England allowed for the provisions of ‘playgrounds’ and ‘play streets’. The first playground in the USA was built in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1887. Creation of playgrounds through municipal action across America started in earnest after the founding of the Playground Association of America in 1906. Spaces for children became fewer following World War II as bombed sites were redeveloped into something else and new zoning laws were enforced. The war also saw a movement to more strongly protect children from dangerous environments such as the traffic-filled streets and strengthened the case for specially designed playgrounds for safe play of children. The new playgrounds followed a more standard format and typically comprised metal play equipment, surfacing and fencing. British landscape architect Helen Woolley coined the phrase ‘KFC playgrounds’ to describe such standard spaces which have a kit of equipment, a fence to keep dogs out and children in and some sort of surfacing such as wet pour, tiles or rubber.