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“All the kids used to play in the street everywhere here,” says Fino Fusco, standing behind the counter of his cafe, Fusco’s, on Meath Street Saturday.
He points towards the street outside. “They used to hang around out here, in the playground there. But now you don’t see any of them at all.”
The playground he’s talking about is behind the Liberty Market. “There’s still one there, but it’s empty all the time,” says Fusco. “They have a pitch there, but no one plays there anymore. People are too busy with the Xbox and all those gadgets now.”
Technology is one culprit keeping kids indoors these days, but according to Ekaterina Tikhoniouk, a researcher on children’s play in Dublin, it’s not the only thing.
The city has changed in ways that make it less likely that Fusco will see groups of kids playing together in the street. And parents have become much more risk-averse, putting types of play common in decades past off limits today.
Anthony O’Brien Freeman, who grew up nearby, in the Oliver Bond flats, says he can’t imagine his son doing a lot of the things he used to do. “I’d have a stroke,” he says.
But Dublin City Council is working on safer, more modern ways to make the city a bit better for kids to play in. There’s a new Dublin City Play Strategy in the works, set to be published in the coming months.
The Golden Age of Play
“The last 30 years have been completely different to the [previous] 100,” says Tikhoniouk, who studied the history of play in the Liberties as part of her MA in architecture at UCD.
Technology is one issue, but there are societal changes at play, too, she says. Families are smaller, so there are fewer children to play with.
There used to be more kids of all ages playing on the streets, which taught skills like restraint and dispute resolution, she says. “You were learning independence and negotiating complex social relationships” with other kids.
Older children would look after younger children, creating a “scaffolding effect” where younger kids learnt from older kids, and older kids learnt patience and nurturing, she says.
Back then, it wasn’t unusual for kids to talk to adults, and there were “more eyes on the street” – neighbours looking out for, and giving out to, neighbourhood children, she says.
“Everyone talks about this golden age of play,” Tikhoniouk says. “And it’s not just nostalgia. There are very tangible benefits of this type of street play.”
In the past, kids had more opportunities for risky play, Tikhoniouk says.
O’Brien Freeman, who grew up in the Oliver Bond flats, remembers those days.
“When I was growing up, that’s where we played – in the abandoned buildings,” he says.
He tells a story of jumping off a balcony and breaking nearly all of his teeth when he was about 10.
“I thought I could jump like a fireman onto the lamppost and slide down. I just caught hold of the lamppost and my legs kept spinning until I hit the ground,” he says.
There were so many games, which he lists. Beat the Letter. Kick the Can. There was Heads and Volleys, also known as Keepy Uppies in some areas.
Other Dubliners mention tying a rope to a lamppost and swinging from it. Putting a small ball into the leg of a pair of tights and bashing it from side to side, against the wall. Using a tin of polish for hopscotch.
Tikhoniouk talks about the work of American psychologist Peter Gray, and the concept of “free play” – and it sounds a lot like what O’Brien Freeman and these others are recalling.
Free play is “any activity that’s freely chosen by the child and directed by the child, and the main thing is it’s undertaken for its own sake”, Tikhoniouk says. Kids decide between themselves when the play starts and stops, and what the rules are.
“These types of play are very important for kids’ development, especially if it has elements of risk,” Tikhoniouk says. “Risky play is actually quite important because kids need to be exposed to real risks.”
“They need to learn to confidently respond to challenging situations, certain situations where it’s a little bit negative. They develop resilience and independence through risky play and risk management,” she says.
But risky play is, well, risky – and parents, and society in general, are much less tolerant of kids taking risks these days.
Back in the day, O’Brien Freeman’s favourite thing, he says, was scutting, or jumping onto the back of a truck and seeing where it took you.
“It was a common thing when we were growing up. If I think of my son doing it now, I’d have a heart attack,” he says.
A Lack of Places to Play
O’Brien Freeman walks down Meath Street and ducks into the grotto behind St. Catherine’s Church. He points out a gate at the far end.
He used to play soccer here with his friends, but the pitch is blocked off now.
Says Tikhoniouk: “All the little in-between spaces have just been taken away.”
What’s happening is an “overprescribing of space”, she says. “In terms of architecture and planning, everything is zoned, and there are less in-between, informal spaces.”
While these in-between places disappear, in the Liberties, precious few spaces have been added in to replace them, as places for kids to play.
“We’re not exactly tripping up over green spaces and play areas in the Dublin 8 area in general,” says Councillor Tina MacVeigh, of People Before Profit.
Weaver Park is pretty much the only option, says O’Brien Freeman. “Other than that, they’re stuck to where they live,” he says. “And there’s a lot of busy roads now. Whereas roads weren’t as busy back then.”
Cars are definitely a big issue too, Tikhoniouk says. In the Liberties, Cork Street runs straight through the neighbourhood.
“Physically, the biggest enemy of children’s street play would have to be the car. It would have pushed children from the streets,” Tikhoniouk says.
O’Brien Freeman says it might sound like he was brought up in the 1920s, but it was really the ’80s and ’90s.
“It really was totally different. It’s hard to explain to people the change,” he says.
Efforts at Improvement
All kinds of people have over the years pushed for changes in the city, to make it better for children to play in. Among these, is MacVeigh.
A while back, her son got knocked down by a car in the Bulfin Estate, where he’d been playing on a cul-de-sac, she says.
He was okay, but it prompted her to go to the Council and ask for “play” signs to be put up in the estate. She says she learned “it would have cost an absolute fortune”.
So she started a campaign in the community to turn a pitch into a play area. There was lots of support for the plan, she says, and the council came back with a proposed design.
Then the financial crash happened. “We were told the plans were off the table.”
McVeigh says it’s “unbelievably difficult” to get playgrounds up and running, but she hasn’t forgotten about the plan.
“Unless we’re making it easy and attractive to play outdoors, we’re going to see even more obesity and mental-health issues,” she says.
In addition to such ad hoc, local campaigns, Dublin City Council has been working on a comprehensive, city-wide strategy.
The council’s play development officer, Deborah Clarke, says the Dublin City Play Strategy is set to be published in the first quarter of 2020.
Clarke says the strategy “places children and young people at the heart of the city regarding the concept and meaning of ‘play’ and its importance in their lives”.
The play strategy adopts a play-led approach in addressing the concerns raised by the city’s young people, and “supports their access to rich, challenging and high quality play experiences”, she said, by email.
The plan is to keep engaging with children and young people “in the creation, design and re-imagining of playgrounds, local streets, green spaces and public space in general as places and spaces for play that will support their overall health and well-being”.
The Dublin City Play Strategy is a landmark for the council, she says. It’s the council’s response to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) – focusing on Article 31 in supporting and enabling children and young people to play more and play better, Clarke says.
“There’s a lot you can do,” says Tikhoniouk, to improve things for kids.
Spaces can be designed with children in mind, she says. “It’s not about segregating children’s play behind a barrier.”
If public spaces are designed for children, it benefits everyone, she says.
If you grew up in the Dublin region and would like to contribute to Ekaterina’s research about children’s play between 1920 and 1980, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.