We need to design in opportunities for active child-led outdoor play before it disappears completely

According to the National Trust, since the 1970s the area in which children roam without adults has decreased by almost 90%. Having worked over the past year with communities in densely populated areas of London, it comes as no surprise. It’s an issue that needs dealing with urgently before child-led outdoor play disappears from our streets altogether.

Toward the end of last year, Pop up Parks received the fabulous news that we were one of three finalist of the Knee High Design Challenge to receive investment from Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity. Following months of prototyping, service design and iteration, the opportunity to demonstrate our idea with a full year pilot is both exhilarating and daunting. But it’s a positive unnerving feeling, partly driven by the fact that we feel there is so much to do in 2015!

The new year has kicked off well. Pop up Parks is now a non-for-profit Company Limited by Guarantee, its own entity. We have written our articles to demonstrate that we are now shaped like a charity but able to trade like a company, this will enable us to apply for grants alongside pitching for commissions and project work.

We have appointed programme managers to help with the practical implementation of our full year pilot. We were recently successful with an application to the British Council’s Elevate Startwell Challenge, which is focusing on reimagining play. This will see James Sale travel to Japan in February to an innovation camp where he will work collaboratively to explore ways of developing innovative new concepts to improve early childhood play. It’s only January and Pop up Parks has gone international!

However our key focus for the year ahead will be to challenge this pesky 90% figure. It’s simply unacceptable. We believe two things need to change and these two priorities will inform our year ahead.

First, we believe there needs to be a change in the way we plan outdoor space, particularly around housing and public realm (including streets and pockets of green or urban space). Children need to be drawn out of their homes to play again and they deserve to be delighted by creative and colourful ideas that transform their often grey and unloved environments. We believe the era of the ‘playground’ is a bit 20th Century thinking. The environment needs to foster a child’s imagination and enable them to discover, explore and roam. We don’t think this is easy given the dominance of the car and our risk averse rules make it an uphill battle but small interventions like those from Pop up Parks have demonstrated that rapid transformation and creative ideas can enable change.

Secondly we – adults – need to change the way we behave. Without our support children will remain confined to the narrow silos of life that sees them driven, bussed or trained to and from the services we use. Travel to these transport hubs or shops or nurseries are often hurried activities that involve keeping children strapped in buggies or tightly in hand to get them to the next destination. In order for this to change we need to see through the eyes of a child and relax a little. Their minds see differently and their playfulness, if fostered, has benefits for adults too. Our sedentary lifestyles are harmful so maybe we should think about balancing or hopping along the street too.

Our programme has begun to find solutions to these challenges. All Pop up Park interventions lead to what we refer to as a ‘legacy project’: a permanent transformation to the environments in which we work. This is done alongside input from the communities of children and families. We try to move this beyond tree planting or raised beds, which are obviously beneficial but limited. In addition we want children and families to inject their imagination into these projects like one community in Peckham did when they suggested mowing a children’s maze into an overgrown unused piece of green land at the heart of an estate.

Behaviours are hard to change but we believe that working with a community over a sustained period of time enables trust to be built. Trust leads to communication and genuine stakeholder input. Our ‘Pop up Lock up’ concept is in response to families who believe the fresh pop up approach is an attractive way to build community and cohesion. We believe space needs people and that people are drawn by the unexpected.

We have so much to look forward to in the year ahead. We know we can’t win this battle on our own but we look forward to contributing to the debate and working collaboratively with many new partners to enable children to reimagine outdoor play.

Author: Tom Doust, Pop up Parks