Children Should Be Playing in the Streets

It makes them healthier, happier humans – but what about those pesky cars?

kids on a skateboard
Kids play on a skateboard.

Inti St Clair / Getty Images

There's an organization in England called Playing Out that is trying to get households, neighborhoods, and cities to send more children outdoors to play. In an ideal world, a child should be able to step outside the front door and enjoy whatever environment he or she encounters. But the unfortunate reality is that many only encounter hazardous car-filled streets. 

Playing Out wants this to change, and its directors invited environmental writer and activist George Monbiot to have a public conversation about how best to tackle such a challenge. The 1.5-hour Zoom conversation was filmed and posted online. What follows are my thoughts on its highlights. These are the points that made the biggest impression on me, as a homeowner, taxpayer, vehicle owner, and, most importantly, a parent.

The Lasting Power of Community

First, we must not underestimate the positive influence of community on a child's wellbeing. It's an essential human need, to feel a part of a community, as well as to feel a sense of belonging in a physical space. 

George Monbiot told his interviewers that he gets this sense from his allotment (garden plot), where being in an outdoor physical location connects him with people from all over the world, who are sharing that space. Where there is common space, people will make "bridging connections" (as opposed to exclusive or bonded networks that tend to exclude others unlike themselves). 

The beauty of living within a community is that the experience never leaves you. You become a "community person." In Monbiot's words, "You almost have a body memory for it. You take that community spirit with you and you can integrate more easily." For children, this has a lasting impact on their lives. But in order to develop that sense of community, neighborhoods need common spaces (ideally, green ones) that allow people to interact. That's where the second major point comes in.

The Problem with Cars

The greatest threat to modern children's outdoor play is the presence of cars. Not only do they drive in ways that endanger children's safety, but they take away physical space that children could otherwise use to play. Streets that were historically diverse have become monocultural wastelands that are not conducive to any uses besides driving and parking cars.

Monbiot describes studies that have examined connections within neighborhoods where there is minimal traffic. The lines linking houses are densely intertwined. "It looks like a tightly woven mesh. It is literally the fabric of society," he says. Compare that to neighborhoods where busy streets bisect neighborhoods and there's hardly any interaction between households. The busy traffic literally cuts through the threads, slashing connections and destroying the society's fabric.

This is grossly unfair because children are members of society and have just as much a right to use land and space as adults do. The problem is that they're young, small, and do not have money; they are not land-owners, home-owners, or taxpayers, so their opinions are not considered when land is being developed. Monbiot says,

"What kind of society is it that completely disregards its own children when deciding how we're going to use this precious resource that is the land?"

Monbiot wants children's voices to be heard. They should be allowed to weigh in on how they want neighborhoods to look. He said, "Children have fantastically creative solutions to problems that adults can't solve." 

Remember Your Childhood Ideals

It might help to do a little mental exercise that Monbiot suggested. Imagine yourself to be an omniscient embryo, still unborn but aware of how society works. Where would you choose to live? What world system would you select to be born into? The sad reality is that our current developed-world system is not an inviting one, particularly for children. Somehow we've ended up with a world that meets very few of the ideals that an omniscient embryo would wish for.

What are those ideals? To begin with, a world where children are held at the center of society, where they'd have freer and richer lives than what they have right now, less subjected to testing, allowed to roam both physically and metaphorically. There would be fewer barriers separating adults, and we'd design our spaces in common – for the good of all, not just for the good of the rich and powerful.

Whether it's streets, parks, rivers, forests, public squares, or apartment courtyards, children need to get out there and fill those spaces with their games, voices, and laughter. Not only will it set them up for greater success in life and make them mentally and physically healthier, but it will teach them to be better citizens, knowing how to interact with others and the natural world. 

We adults need to defend their right to play outdoors safely and regularly. The children can't do it on their own. Their right to play, enshrined in Article 31 of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, must be at the center of all design decisions we make.