How to Get Kids Outside in Your Neighborhood

Readers — This is an incredibly heartening story from England where, about five years ago, Alice Ferguson and her neighbor Amy Rose  petitioned to close off a local street for three hours one evening.  Guardian reporter Sarah Lewis Hammond quotes Ferguson saying:

“It was as if it was something they did every day. The adults started reminiscing about childhood memories of playing out we all said that this should be a normal part of our lives.” The result was not just a day of play, but a whole campaign – Playing Out.

Playing Out was too good an idea not to spread. Across the country, other parents petitioned to close off streets for a chunk of time, and now they’re all over. Kathryn Kay’s city first tried the idea in 2012, As she told the Guardian (boldface mine):

 “We were blown away by what happened. No one even knew there were that many children living on our street. It’s not just the children who have benefited though. The social ripples have carried on and important connections were made between adults.”

A ha! This is exactly what we all want here at Free-Range Kids: A chance for kids to connect, and adults to do the same!

For Ferguson, it has been a justification of all the things she thought about parenting. “I’ve realised other people feel the same about their kids, that other people support the idea that children should be able to be outside in public space and it’s not a neglectful thing to want your children to play out semi-independently.” She talks about how her son now calls on the boy who lives opposite with a wonder that belies the simplicity of the act, and there is a little sadness that in efforts to move away from the cult of constantly scheduled activities, the free play itself has become scheduled….”We’re all overprotective, but we look too much to the risk of children being outside and not enough to them being inside.”

All hail these ladies and the realization that everyone’s happier when the kids are back outside, and not constantly supervised by their parents one-on-one. In my neighborhood, Jackson Heights, Queens, we, too, have a “play street” reclaimed from traffic. This can be done! If you’ve done this or are now ready to try, share your stories! – L

Okay, so your "play street" will not look exactly like this.

Okay, so your “play street” will not look exactly like this.

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12 Responses to How to Get Kids Outside in Your Neighborhood

  1. lsl July 1, 2014 at 11:57 am #

    My neighborhood has 10 mph speed limits, and there are always kids playing in the street.

  2. Julie Mountain July 1, 2014 at 12:08 pm #

    My family and I are lucky enough to live on a cul de sac with a large public green opposite. It is used every day of the year by children who live around it or in the neighbouring streets. One of our neighbours mows a football pitch / cricket square onto it every few weeks (so called ‘austerity’ over here in the UK means councils no longer mow grass!) and my hosepipe and tap are regularly called into action for water fights.

    All of our children learned to ride their bikes on the street and as I write I can hear a netball being bounced and thrown and a couple of teenagers gossiping in the long grass. Sounds like bliss? It is. And not a day goes by when I don’t consider how lucky we are to live somewhere that children play outdoors every day and are trusted to just get on with it. They don’t always play nicely but they do look out for one another whatever the ages of the children playing.

    I wish all children could experience this – and I wish all parents could understand the value of letting your children fall over and pick themselves up ON THEIR OWN…

  3. anonymous mom July 1, 2014 at 12:13 pm #

    I’m not sure that closing off streets is either necessary or really practical in many neighborhoods.

    I was actually thinking about kids playing outside yesterday, when there were tons of kids outside in my neighborhood. Why? It was hot, and most people don’t have central air or any air-conditioning at all. We have two units to keep the bedrooms cool, but no a/c downstairs. On hot days, it gets HOT. It’s often cooler outside, where there’s at least a breeze, plus kids get on your nerves much faster when it’s so warm. By necessity, they end up getting sent outside.

    Again, I’m just thinking how much of the parenting of previous generations was simply out of necessity. I do think you’re still more likely to see “free-range” practices in areas where people don’t have small families, large homes, and always-comfortable temperatures inside. For the most part, we’re all just taking the path of least resistance, and if it’s easier to keep your kids inside all day, you’ll do that. If it’s easier to send them out, then that’s what happens. I honestly don’t know that much real decision-making goes into these choices when we get right down to it.

  4. nina July 1, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    I agree and disagree with anonymous mom. I’m all for the least resistance parenting for the most part. I’ve lived in all kinds of communities since my kids were born. We started out in a poor urban one, moved on to a working class suburban, on to a white color professional. It doesn’t really matter. All our neighbors now have large air conditioned houses and yet sprinkleers come out, kids put on their bathing suits, and fun begins. Kids run from one backyard to another, cutting through properties, but no one really minds. It wasn’t always like this. When we first moved in it was kind of quiet, but my kids don’t really like quiet. So they slowly conditioned the neighborhood kids that it’s ok to come outside and have fun. No need to close off streets. Though I can see how it might be a good idea in an urban setting.

  5. nina July 1, 2014 at 12:46 pm #

    I meant to say white collar. Gotta check auto correct :)

  6. E July 1, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    We’ve lived in 2 houses with small children. The first was a cul-de-sac where our kids played (but they were so little we were out with them) and other kids might come by and “play” (as much as you do as a 2-3 year old). When we moved we lived on a busier street and the school aged kids all go to different schools. Not much playing outside.

    When one of my kids was in middle school, we discovered that one of his friends was in the adjoining neighborhood. An easy walk if he “cut thru” (otherwise it was a drive because we’d have to exit our neighborhood and travel on busy roads with no sidewalks). The one time our child did it one of the people whose yard he “cut thru” yelled at him for doing so. He could never be convinced to do it again (and it was really the only place he could use to cut thru). The kicker? It was someone we knew…and used to carpool with for a soccer team with our older son. So he knew the kid, knew us (and our phone #s and email addresses) and still yelled at him.

    We were talking about this recently — that even “cutting thru yards” isn’t really very common anymore. I probably di it 100s of time when I was a kid.

  7. Dirk July 1, 2014 at 2:45 pm #

    A HOW TO! There it is!

  8. Wendy Constantinoff July 1, 2014 at 2:48 pm #

    The children play out here all the time. As one group grow up another lot take their place.

  9. Dirk July 1, 2014 at 2:55 pm #

    I used to cut through yards as a kid. Specifically 3 that I remember. Two were cool about it. One to get to some woods, one to get two a friends, and the the third…the uncool one…was the house behind mine. The two that were cool with it where near an adjoining “public space” but the lady behind our house was older. Now cutting through her yard cut the trip to my friends house by half. Because otherwise you had to walk around the entire block. It wasn’t a big deal but as a kid you were like…no fence = faster = fun. She raised hell with my parents and after a couple of phone calls my dad was like, just make it easier on my ears and cut around. Thanks. Thinking about it I can’t help but have the nagging feeling that this had to do with age. The lady behind us was older/elderly. Whereas the other two instances I was much younger 9 or so and walking to a little creek at the end of the street and the neighborhood was younger even if there were not a ton of kids around. The other time I was older, a teen, and the space was more urban and the family that lived there was relatively young knew my friend and his friends would cut along the path next to their house to get to his. I feel like there is this tipping point where SOME people frankly get older and want to be shut off from the young and the community. Not all but some. And as a certain community gets older less kids are around and it can become a bit of a cycle…

  10. lollipoplover July 1, 2014 at 3:03 pm #

    “everyone’s happier when the kids are back outside”

    Made me think of this:
    http://www.boredpanda.com/happy-children-playing/

    We live on a cult-de-sac that isn’t so populated during the day…it’s too hot and the majority of the kids around here go to our neighborhood pool. Kids routinely bike over (mine do every day for swim practice) and meet up with friends (ages 12 and up don’t need an adult). Most days my kids can see 10-15 friends from school and have acres of land to decide what to do and play. Thank heavens for public spaces!

    It’s after dinner when the kids gather in our neighborhood. Manhunt is king here and us adults can catch up and socialize while the children run wild all over the neighborhood. Kids are remarkable resourceful at dividing teams up (ages 5-15) and establishing rules. Kids playing outside is happy noise and is a sign of a good neighborhood.

  11. Papilio July 1, 2014 at 3:40 pm #

    Yeah, you don’t need to close off a street completely, and I dislike the idea of doing this kind of thing as a special event for a couple of hours every once in a while, while playing outside is still impossible the rest of the time. That is not a permanent solution to anything. Playing outside shouldn’t be a special event.
    But filtered permeability (like close one end of the street to cars) to keep the through traffic out and give non-motorized traffic advantages over cars can really make a big change for kids (and not just them) in the neighborhood.
    Oh, and so can short-cuts for peds/bikes. Having to cut through other people’s yards to avoid having to take the car because of a lack of sidewalks on the main road – how pervasive can a car culture be…..

  12. JW July 1, 2014 at 11:25 pm #

    We have done something very similar for 3 years now. One of our neighbors drives an ice-cream truck and we asked him if the truck could come to our particular street between 6:00-7:30PM each Thursday during the summer. It was the main attraction to get all kids out of the house at the same time. The parents know when to expect it so everyone is fed dinner and has money ready in hand. The kids rush out right at 6:00 as not to be late, and they would ride bikes or play tag while they waiting for the truck to come. The parent that are free to hang out bring a chair to the curb and talk… the parent that can’t or won’t are comfortable sending their kids out knowing there are lots of kids playing and other parents out keeping an eye on things. Once dusk hits everyone goes home, usually by 8:30PM. Now that it is the 3rd year, the truck is still a big draw but it has taken on a life of it’s own and everyone comes out even if the truck cannot make it.