Somehow, we find ourselves living in a world where children playing on the street are considered a nuisance, and where parents feel timid about letting their children outdoors.
More than a quarter of the 1,000 United Kingdom parents polled in a recent survey -- 28 percent -- said they feared letting their kids play outside because of “intolerant attitudes” displayed by their neighbors.
The survey was commissioned by a group called Playday, which encourages kids getting outside to have active fun around the UK. It revealed that significant numbers of parents were concerned about neighbors being disturbed by their children’s outdoor play. More than a third were worried neighbors would disapprove if children "made a noise outside"; 32 percent thought that ball games might offend. Twenty-eight percent thought that the folks in the neighborhood would disapprove of them if they let their kids play outdoors.
But fear of traffic was parents' top reason for keeping their kids in the house, with 53 percent naming it as an issue. "Stranger danger," or fear of abduction, was another concern. All these things are connected – the prevalence of cars, the distrust of strangers, the intolerance of normal childish behavior. And the Playday survey results gave some insight into the psychological vicious circle that keeps kids indoors in many neighborhoods around the world.
While 59 percent of parents polled said they felt more comfortable letting their kids play outside if there were other children doing the same, 25 percent said they thought that children "hanging out in groups" could be a problem for the neighbors. "Lack of community spirit" was cited as a barrier to children’s play by 23 percent of parents, yet at the same time, 41 percent felt that kids playing outdoors could improve community spirit.
The pattern plays out over and over again, and the link between fear of traffic and fear of strangers is very real. Car traffic makes streets unpleasant and unsafe, driving people indoors and disconnecting them from their neighbors. With fewer people outside, the fear of "stranger danger" increases; a 1998 survey in the UK found that 76 percent of parents were concerned about the threat posed by “other people” to their children, a feeling the researcher attributed to an "erosion of adult solidarity" in urban communities [PDF]. As the streets empty out, more parents drive their kids to organized play events such as league sports or indoor play centers, in ever-larger and more threatening vehicles. And the cycle continues.
On a recent trip to Coral Gables, Florida, one of the first things I noticed was the absence of children on the street. This is one of the most pedestrian-friendly suburban-style communities you could imagine, with shaded sidewalks and pleasant yards. Yet despite census figures that show nearly 25 percent of the households there have children, I saw almost no kids outside playing. Perhaps they were all in the SUVs whizzing by on their way to play under controlled conditions. If I lived there, I might be hesitant to let my son play outside, too, on these relatively deserted streets. Who would he be playing with, anyway?
Groups like Playday are working to change societal attitudes with one-day events such as a national "Playday," linked to a public relations campaign asserting truths that should be self-evident, such as "Children should feel welcomed where they live and feel part of their communities” and “Parents want their children to be able to play outside."
Theirs is a worthy effort, but play is not a one-day event. It's a lifetime of relationship to the people around you. Yet in neighborhoods around the world, the way we design our streets sends another message, and it is very clear: Cars, and not children, are the things we value the most.