John Quigley has been pushing his son Ollie on the swing in Harold’s Cross Park for more than ten minutes.
“He just wants to swing all day. I’m on the clock to keep him moving,” he said.
Ollie’s almost two, and he’s not a big talker, says Quigley. “I think he just likes the excitement of it.”
It’s Tuesday morning, and all around the playground kids run, climb, and slide as childminders and parents watch on and chat.
Ollie and one of his parents come to the playground in Harold’s Cross Park almost every day. The swings and slides are on the small side – perfect for the next few years.
But after that, Quigley isn’t sure where Ollie will play outside, he says. They live on a busy road and more traffic calming is needed on side streets before Ollie could play out there without supervision.
It’s those kinds of issues that come up to tackle in Dublin City Council’s draft Pollinating Play Strategy 2021–2025, to make sure play is considered as the city evolves and that there’s more space – and more than playgrounds – to do it in.
One aim mentioned is to work with kids in their neighbourhoods to find out what is needed to better their opportunities for play.
Debbie Reynolds, the play officer for Dublin City Council, says she’s excited to have a concrete document within the council, saying what is needed for kids in the city.
It’s still a draft but should be finalised later this year, she said. “The aim is that the strategy, like any other strategy, would be adopted within other departments.”
The strategy adopts a “play sufficiency” approach – where regular reviews are made of the reality of play in the city, and action plans to tackle it are created in response.
It’s a good first step, say those advocating for a more playful city. But they’ll be keeping an eye on whether the resources are put in to back it up.
What’s in the Strategy?
The draft strategy says the city’s play facilities, services and more informal everyday opportunities for play would be audited.
Following what’s been done in Wales, this would be done with an eye to “play sufficiency” – whether there are secure and sufficient opportunities for play for children and young people.
The assessment would begin on existing play spaces, then moving on to children’s local environments, including research on their use of outdoor space and “if and how this can be supported”, the strategy says.
Kids would be interviewed through on-street conversations, pop-up play in parks and green spaces, workshops, surveys and “Walk n Chalk” events in neighbourhoods.
Later, a full audit would be done of the current support for play and the rationale for further improvements and support would be outlined, based on analysis of local needs and the wider community, it says.
All this information would feed into the strategy’s “action plan”, which includes everything from publishing booklets extolling the importance of play, to introducing a pilot programme for opening school grounds for public play.
At the moment, Dublin City Council has 121 playgrounds, in city parks and housing complexes. A new playground costs between €50,000 and €200,000, says the draft strategy.
A Positive Reaction
“It definitely acknowledges the importance of children and children’s environments, especially outside their own homes, as being really fundamental to play,” says Aaron Copeland, from A Playful City, a non-profit that works to put children at the forefront of changes to the city.
Says Tim Gill, researcher and author of the book Urban Playground: “It’s really encouraging to see the city council taking play seriously, and it’s a pretty thorough report.”
“The proof of the pudding will be in whether it leads to real improvements for kids, he says. “Making it easier for children to walk and cycle around their neighbourhoods as well.”
This means resources should be devoted, and not just to play facilities but also making neighbourhoods more child-friendly, he says.
“I think it’s actually a really great kind of comprehensive piece of work,” says Ekaterina Tikhoniouk, who is a researcher for children’s play and focuses on Dublin between the 1930s and 1980s, when children could play more freely.
“It doesn’t just look at playground provisions,” she says. “They’re also looking at emphasising children’s freedom of choice, because children often don’t have a lot of choice in where they can play.”
A lot of people are nostalgic for times when play was freer, she says, although it had dangers.
“That world just has changed. So I feel like the strategy maybe isn’t trying to bring it back to that idealism, but more looking at the issues and the opportunities that are there for play right now,” she says.
Tikhoniouk is most supportive of the action in the play strategy to look at the benefits of risk, not just avoiding it altogether.
Children should be able to satisfy their urge to engage in wild, deep and risky play activities, appropriate to their age and abilities, says strategy. “The design of play spaces should include elements that support and extend risky play.”
“Risk assessment is very important to a risk-averse society,” says Tikhoniouk. “If a child hurts themselves there’s often the idea that we need to find who is to blame.”
Risk-benefit assessment looks at how to design play spaces to include elements of risk, she says.
Kids are more anxious when they aren’t exposed to risky play, she says. “They don’t really know how to deal with uncertainty or to manage risk as much as they used to.”
“Although many playgrounds have been built in Dublin they are only one form of solution,” says the draft strategy.
Says Gill: “The best place for children to be able to play outside the house is to be within shouting distance of your parents.”
There should be small areas of neighbourhoods, such as at the ends of roads or in green spaces, where kids can play about, he says.
Fiona Whelan, making leaf pizzas with her nephew Aidan at the toy kitchen in Harold’s Cross playground, has the same idea.
“It’d be great to have more little areas that you could wander to closer to home,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be, you know, super fancy, but just more green space.”
“If play is to be properly protected and respected as a human right, children and young people should be visible and accepted within and throughout their cities and local communities when they are playing,” says the strategy.
Increased traffic may have contributed to children retreating indoors to play on devices instead of exploring outdoors, it says.
Therefore, the council has to support street design that is safe for kids to be out playing, it says.
Not many parents would consider letting their kids play out on the road around busy traffic, says Gill.
Elsewhere in Harold’s Cross playground, Maeve Sheridan is alternately pushing Zoe and Ruben on swings.
She goes all around the Dublin 8 area for playgrounds every day, she says.
She would like to let the kids play out on the street. “But our street is just too busy. I see it on other streets and it’s lovely to see.”
Quigley follows Ollie as he stumbles through the playground and lands at the gate, wrapping his hands around the metal bars, looking like he wants to leave.
They live on Harold’s Cross Road, on which traffic passes the park on either side, in and out of the city.
Since it’s an arterial route, he couldn’t imagine it changing to adapt to kids, says Quigley.
“Traffic should go where it’s sensible for traffic to go and kids should play where it’s sensible for kids to play,” he says. “We’re not going to get to an idyllic public transport system where we don’t have any cars.”
Gill says that “Any city that really takes seriously children’s right to play has to tackle traffic.”
Quigley says: “You’d like to see it – how practical it is, in these kinds of areas, I don’t know,” as serious traffic changes may be needed in side streets.
Making cities playful isn’t just building more playgrounds, says Gill, it’s about children being able to freely play close to where they live.
“Making it easier for kids to get around their neighbours is probably, I’d say, the single most important way that councils can expand children’s play choices,” he says.
Copeland, from A Playful City, said the strategy is “a really good step in the right direction”. But he says that he’d like, among other things, to see more definitive metrics on how the strategy will define its successes.
“What’s informing all of these guidelines? What’s their strategy, and what are the metrics and the measurements? Are we talking about girls or boys?” he says. “Are we talking about the same thing that applies for every young person? I’d have more questions than anything else.”
Janet Horner, a Green Party councillor, says that the strategy’s outcomes should be more clearly outlined.
“It should be brought into the planning process. I think it should be visible in the development plan process so that it becomes an obligation as well, in terms of the higher-up management,” she said.
The council needs to demonstrate that they’re delivering in relation to play, Horner says, “because it is very low down the list of priorities at the moment and that is concerning”.
Copeland says detailed assessments may be out of the scope of the play policy, since the council has just one play officer. “There’s a lot of people relying on that one person.”
Says Gill: “It’s better than having no play officers, lots of cities don’t have any dedicated champion for play.
“A single officer can achieve change. It may take time and it will almost certainly take political support,” he says.
“These are political choices. They’re choices about budgets, they’re choices about who has the priority in a neighbourhood, who has a priority in streets. Those are political questions, and moral questions actually,” he said.
“There isn’t a budget attached to the strategy itself,” says Reynolds, the play officer.
“Like everything, a high percentage of it is funding, but there’s also a change in attitudes and approach and understanding, in terms of accepting children in public space,” she says.
Another part of it will be identifying places that are important to children and support that rather than building over it, where possible, she says. “We have to be realistic about it.”
“It would also tie into traffic in terms of traffic enforcement, speed limits, design and planning in terms of allowing open space for children to play,” says Reynolds.
The draft strategy was presented at a recent meeting of the council’s arts committee, where councillors were largely supportive. It still has to go before local area committees.
The maintenance and building of playgrounds had an annual budget of €600,000 for 2021, and the play officer has a budget to hold and promote play events. Two playgrounds in the city get upgraded every year, she says.
Horner says play should be highly prioritised in budgets and by individual council departments.
“It should be something that is recognised that it is a right that has not been delivered for people who live in the city, and particularly in the inner-city,” she says.
Obligations towards including a minimum of play space in rezoning or future developments should also be included, says Horner.
“I just don’t see the strategy as having the teeth necessary to ensure that when plans are being made or considered, that this is one of the key things that is scrutinised is whether there is sufficient play space provided, and what those play spaces look like,” she says.
Reynolds, the council’s play officer, says that the key thing is that playgrounds become more accessible and inclusive.
And that society supports children’s play and understands its importance, she says. “Play is how children participate in society.”