Can we have our playgrounds back please?

This was a post that I was planning to write for some time, and is one that is now all the more poignant with events in London, which have unfortunately escalated since last night’s post.

In the early 1990s – around the time I was moving from primary school to secondary school, us kids had open access to the school playgrounds during out of hours times. Those playgrounds were very well used. There were no adults around – just us – playing football, rollerblading or just hanging around but not hurting or harming anyone. On a good night you would get over 50 people there. During the long hot summer of 1990, parents got together to run playschemes which were little more than parents keeping an eye on all of us. No sign-in or sign-out lists. People just turned up.

In the grounds of one of the colleges there, we also used to play football on their playing fields, walking through the orchards to get there. Other residents would walk their dogs in the grounds. It was a ‘live and let live’ environment.

Fast forward to today and the two colleges have put up big metal gates with signs saying that the land is private and that trespassing on land is a criminal offence. The school playgrounds has signs saying likewise, invoking an Education Act just to re-enforce the point.

At what point did we as a community decide to fence of our playgrounds from our children? Don’t they belong to them? Isn’t this a massive false economy – especially with problems of childhood obesity? Isn’t it better for our children to be out and about using those facilities that we as taxpayers have paid for?

This article asks how we got from where we were with our school playgrounds to where we are now, and what if anything we can do to re-open our playgrounds for our communities. There is no ‘magic wand’ solution – what may work in rural England may not be the same for inner city London for example. What are the institutional, legal and cultural barriers that are stopping us from opening up our playgrounds and playing fields?

This article doesn’t seek to highlight this as a cause for the rioting that we’ve seen today. It’s heartbreaking to see the human impact that this is having on local communities. My own take is that the London Assembly needs to lead a far-reaching inquiry into the underlying causes of what has happened in London over the past few days. No doubt the Home Affairs Select Committee will want to look into the policing aspects. Trying to understand the causes of what happened does not at all try to excuse the violence and looting. There is no excuse for burning people out of their homes and livelihoods.

As someone on Twitter tweeted: “Happy communities don’t riot”

5 thoughts on “Can we have our playgrounds back please?

  1. As someone who works in a school I would say 2 things – firstly that the subject of insurance and who would be liable in the event of accidents is a subject that would frighten schools and county councils away from this idea, and also we do get people coming onto the school grounds in the holidays unauthorised and the issue we have is with vandalism. I might also add that we are in a rural area, and our field is no more than a field with no interesting play items, amongst many other fields and open common land,and near a public park with swings etc, so it may not be such an issue for us anyway.

  2. There’s a primary school near where I live, where the grounds are sometimes open but more often than not, especially in the evening, locked behind six-foot-plus iron fences. I have noticed that there is a group – I would hate to call it a gang – of teenage boys that use the grounds none-the-less: they scale the fence with ease. (I couldn’t.)

    Having suffered in the past from gangs of teenage boys who, lacking anything more interesting to do, occupied themselves by attacking adults or each other, I have absolutely no intention of drawing the attention of the authorities to this unlawful access: as far as I can tell, mostly they play football.

    But it has occurred to me more than once that if anything bad were to happen – if a boy were to be injured, or if they were joined over the fence by an adult predator – the fact of the gates being locked and the fence being unclimbable unless you’re a teenager or very athletic, puts these kids at more risk, not less. I would guess they like the ability to congregate without adults telling them to move along: they must like having a football ground free of broken glass or dogshit: and they probably like the feeling that it’s their own space, safe for them.

    There are semi-public gardens about half an hour’s walk from where I live, where rich people can rent a key for a year for a price that none of these boys or their parents could afford. Letting neighbouring families have a key to these grounds would seem the sensible solution to the risks in this situation, but I feel pretty sure it’s the last thing that would occur to the local council if they found out that these boys were using primary school grounds without permission.

  3. Here in Stratford, East London, our shopping centre is open all night – even when the shops are shut, all the lights are switched on and it acts as a through-way for people walking from the station into town. My favourite thing about it is that each evening groups of young people gather in there to do different activities; usually whatever is fashionable at the time. Presently many of them are in rollerskates learning to dance, but there are also break-dancers, skateboarders, or people singing in acapella groups. They use the windows as mirrors so they can practice co-ordinated moves. Among the young people are also many homeless people sitting on the benches – or lying under them – either watching or sleeping, knowing that they are warm and reasonably safe.

    I don’t know if there’s a ‘kick-out’ time when the security guards (who regularly patrol) give in and make everyone leave but it’s certainly not before midnight.

    My biggest fear about the Olympics is that this sort of behaviour won’t be accepted. That someone will interpret it as intimidating (which it isn’t), or bringing down the area (which it isn’t), or – even worse – being a health and safety threat (when it seems to be quite the opposite). The problem is anything put in its place will be like what you’ve described above – a programme that costs money, or only happens at certain hours and has adults barking over the top of the young people. All people really need is space to just be and they will accomplish great things.

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