We want to play in the streets!

Despite all the fears of parents in the 21st century, it is urgent to reclaim idle spaces to free the creativity of our children.

When was the last time you saw a group of unaccompanied 12 y.o. (or younger) kids on a street? We live in a country with the perfect weather to enjoy open spaces, with cost-free options to amuse ourselves and the only thing we need is a playmate. So, why kids don’t play on the streets?

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Let’s investigate some possible reasons starting with the obvious: low birth rate. In 50 years we went from huge families to a single-child family.

Technology is the next suspect. Adults complain about children addiction to “alienating” TV shows and videogames, while they remember the times when they were kids and played hide-and-seek, freez-tag or any other outdoor play. Maybe this thought that before everything was better is ingrained in our DNA; but which real alternative to technology our children have in indoor spaces?

There’s a new culprit: urban planning, particularly, the lack of accessible spaces on neighborhoods. Children face cities organized for the automobile. Where can they go by themselves or without the need for parental supervision, fearing something might happen?

Let’s call it il capo di tutti capi: the fear and its accomplice, safety. A friend of mine told me that she gave a book Costras (scabs) for a 5-years old boy who had never seen a scab. How is that possible? I remember the scratches, scars and bruises competition we did, we all wanted to have a plaster cast full of drawings. Afeter all, wounds are our play trophies, that teach how to loose our fear, overcome conflicts or even to discover that those bruises are not the end of the world. Fighting and making peace, facing challenges and responsibilities… that’s what give us self confidence. As much as every parent wants to protect his kids, we cannot forget that overprotection breeds insecurity and dependence.

I also got surprised when I discovered that some schools banished not only ‘queimado’ and ‘churro’ (outdoor games that involve a lot of running, pushing and throwing), but also rope-jumping. The churro was practiced in Egypt and Ancient Rome. Ball playing, tug war, hide-and-seek, tag are a few of the games children played in Greece. Queimado (a variation of crack up) also has an amazing past, sometimes deadly. More than 200 years ago, queimado was used to join tribes and also keep them away from enemy tribes. It would be an interesting method, except for the fact that instead of balls, they used rocks to protect their partners and attack the others. That was scary!

Parental fear and security obsession involve the need of planning and controlling children’s time. So, it is very common that kids spend almost all of their time busy with extracurricular activities, another guilty part that needs to be exposed.

We became guardians of our children entertainement. We forge their time to play with specific activities which, apparently, provide a good educational content. Moralizing books, pedagogical toys… are all perfect to shape future citizens.

How bad are those moments when “nothing gets done”! We should not forget that the only goal of free play is play. The very moment we impose or set a goal, the fun ends.

So, how can we get the street back to our children? The School Path initiative is a good example of how we can regain the child’s autonomy by reclaiming public spaces. To enable the kids to go alone to school, safer routes are traced, reducing traffic, detecting everyday problems and opportunities and involving community: parents, teachers, city officials, transportation companies and, as main helpers, businesses people along the route. The ideia of School Path comes from the 70’s, in the danish city of Odense. In Spain it began at San Sebastián, Madri, Barcelona, Sevilha, Terrassa, Segovia, Getafe or Torrelodones.

Neighborhood projects like those enable the fortuitous meeting among children to form small groups, and they go out alone looking after each other. There would be time for children to play and free time for parents knowing their kids are fine.

Children need their own space. In Europe, during the war, unsafe areas as open fields created by bombing, for example, became improvised area of recreation that would inspire the future playing parks for children. Free spaces where children of all ages could recreate games without rules and, from their own constructions, develop knowledge and skills.

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It seems it is not a matter of resources, but of will and planning. Concerning traditional games, very litlle is necessary to convert public spaces into a place for spontaneous meetings where children can develop freely their own games, experiment, transform, destroy, rebuild or simply meet and interact.

Let’s resume playing? On the streets!

This article was originally published in spanish at El Pais by Maria Pascual in March 26th, 2016.

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