Free Play

Tim Gill is one of the UK’s leading writers and thinkers on childhood play. He talks to JUNO about why play has changed and what we can do about it

Why are you concerned about the way children play?

From the moment they are born, children have an appetite for experience. But because of changes in everyday family life, we are frustrating these natural learning impulses. Too many children have an unbalanced diet of play. They are losing touch with Nature and the outdoors. They are starved of risk, challenge and the opportunity to explore. And they grow up disconnected from the communities in which they live. This shrinking of children’s horizons is most dramatic for school-age children. One study showed that in 1971, 80% of 7- and 8-year-olds went to school without their parents. By 1990, this had fallen to just 9%: a nine-fold drop.

Why do you think this has happened?

It’s a complex story. I think our growing dependence on the car is perhaps the biggest cause. As any parent knows, traffic danger is a real threat, and has got worse. The accident statistics show a fall in child pedestrian casualties – but that is largely because there are fewer children out and about these days. What is more, too many children and families experience their neighbourhoods not first-hand, but through a windscreen. This fuels an atomised, insulated outlook that undermines trust and neighbourliness.

Another cause is that parents are working longer hours, so they are not around at home so much, either for play, or simply as a port of call while their children are playing out [see below]. We have also seen the growth of what I call a zero risk mindset, so that we seem unable to tolerate any adverse outcomes around children whatsoever, no matter how trivial or how rare. Being a ‘good’ parent is seen as being a controlling parent, and many parents are fearful of being blamed or shamed as irresponsible. However, the climate is changing, and some parents are speaking out against this prevailing culture.

Do you think technology is to blame?

Screens and gadgets are as much a symptom as a cause. Children’s everyday freedoms have been falling since at least the 1970s – well before the explosion of new technology. One reason there is such a huge market for gadgets and games is that parents are desperate for ways to keep their offspring occupied and amused, but don’t feel they can let them play outside. I am not saying children don’t like new technology. But study after study – including one I recently helped carry out – shows that given the choice, most children would rather be playing outside with their friends than stuck indoors in front of a screen.

Many parents are fearful of new technology. Their fears are amplified because children get to grips with it so easily: they are digital natives, while we grown-ups are largely digital immigrants. To anyone who understands the richness of children’s appetite for experience, this should be no surprise. They love novelty, and the opportunity to explore, create, and work things out. New technology is for many children just more territory to be discovered and played with.

So I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with children watching TV, playing computer games or using other gadgets, as long as it is in moderation. Indeed, the image of the lone child at his console, face lit up by the display, is a misleading stereotype. For many children, games, websites and programmes are part of their social lives, with tricks, tips and plot lines intensively shared, debated and analysed. The real problems start when children spend so long playing in front of screens that they are being starved of real-world experiences. As with so many things in life, a balanced diet is what matters.

As parents, what can we do about it?

There are far too many people out there trying to tell parents how to do their job. I don’t intend to join that group. So the first thing I would argue for is a relaxed approach. Children are pretty resilient, and many of our anxieties about them arise because we underestimate their competences and capacities. That’s a key message of my book No Fear, and it is borne out by research.

I would encourage parents to think about their own childhoods, and remind themselves of the most resonant experiences from when they were young. When I give talks, I ask parents: where were your favourite places to play? What did you do? Who was there with you? Almost without exception, the memories that come back are of outdoor, adventurous, even dangerous places – and also, places where there weren’t any grown-ups around.

I think it’s vital for children to have a taste of freedom: to know what it feels like to take responsibility for themselves, and to have to sort things out without a parent or teacher over their shoulder ready to help them. This doesn’t mean abandoning children to the fates, or ignoring their needs. It’s about learning to untie the apron strings, use your peripheral vision, and hold back from leaping in at the first sign of trouble. It’s what I call benign neglect. It served countless previous generations of parents well, and I think it is in urgent need of a revival.


What do you think of the Playing Out initiative?

Playing Out is an inspirational project: possibly the best idea I’ve come across in 15 years of advocating for children’s play and free time. A lot of my work focuses not on parents, but on politicians and planners: people whose decisions make a huge difference, but who rarely see the world through children’s eyes. It is because of these people that neighbourhood streets, which only a generation or two ago were such important places for children, have become dominated by cars.

It can seem like this is inevitable, and irreversible. The genius of Playing Out is that it shows we can do something about it. We really can open up streets once more for children to play – for a few hours a week. It doesn’t take any money. It doesn’t take any new laws. It doesn’t take much time. All it takes is a little cooperation and good will, and a helping hand from the authorities.

The results are breathtaking. The range and breadth of play is amazing, with children bringing out their toys, skates and bikes out to ride around, organising impromptu games and performances, and playing with children of different ages – quite unlike the rest of their lives. Adults find out the names of children they never knew lived on the street, and get to meet other parents too. This builds up levels of trust and neighbourliness and helps children to feel a real sense that they are part of their community. It is an immensely positive and potentially hugely popular vision.

Tim Gill fell into children’s policy work almost by accident in the mid-90s, when the topic of children’s play and free time got under his skin. The birth of his daughter in 1998 made the issues more personal. He ran the Children’s Play Council (now Play England) for six years before going freelance in 2004. Tim lives and works in North East London with his family.

No Fear: Growing up in a Risk Averse Society by Tim Gill, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation


Playing Out

Playing Out was set up by parents in Bristol who felt that children needed more freedom to ‘play out’ on their own street, without danger from traffic. They came up with the idea of short, after-school road closures, stewarded by residents. Through traffic is diverted and residents are asked to drive in and out very carefully. Children are left to do their own thing – scooting, cycling, chalking, football; the adults just make the space safe and stand back.

Co-founder Alice Ferguson says, “Playing Out is a simple and practical way of saying, ‘Look – children live here and this space belongs to them too!’ Response to the idea has been amazing – many people, not only parents, feel it’s time to reverse the ‘retreat from the streets’ we have seen over the past few decades.” Everyone benefits from a safer, friendlier street and children love having the opportunity to play outside and make new friends right on their doorstep. Neighbours get to know one another and this creates a sense of community and collaboration.

Bristol City Council has responded to enthusiasm for the idea by allowing streets to open for play up to once a week, using a simple Temporary Play Street procedure. Alice says, “We really welcome this step towards unstructured outdoor play becoming a normal part of children’s everyday lives.”

To find out how to activate street play in your neighbourhood visit, email or ring Alice on 07896 957141.