“Now that the evenings are long and bright again, the children are out in force in Dublin’s streets. The hop-scotch courses and home-made swings abound, as the children turn the streets into one big playground. Children have played in the streets since streets began… streets make almost ideal playgrounds, full of things to climb on, pavements to draw on, pedestrians to jeer at, and that constant element of danger that spices all the best-loved children’s games.”
-Maev Kennedy, The Irish Times, 1978
In the 1950’s, the children of inner-city Dublin swung from the lamp-posts on pieces of rope, built box-carts from scraps and raced them down the streets, played marbles in the gutters, and colonized the numerous left-over nooks and crannies of their surrounding built environment. Some playgrounds existed, but children were largely free to select their own play-spaces and played predominantly in the streets and laneways surrounding their houses, exploring in ever-widening circles.
My Masters dissertation analysed historical play in the Liberties and showed ways in which important aspects of ‘free’ play – play necessary for a child’s development– were prevalent in the street play of children in the Liberties in the 1950s and 60s. Yet many elements of the built environment that encouraged this ‘free’ play have been inadvertently lost since then.
Cars have pushed children from the streets and gutters in which they played in previous decades, the sidewalks have become busier and narrower, and children’s radius of mobility has shrunk considerably. Housing is not predominantly configured in tenements or around small courts which were safe places for children to play under the eyes of many adults and neighbours, or in laneways too narrow for cars.
Not only have children’s play environments shrunk considerably, but it can be argued that children are now increasingly being ‘designed out’ of our streets, public spaces and neighbourhoods.
In his recent article for The Guardian, environmental writer George Monbiot describes how children are being “airbrushed from our towns and cities.” His article points out the lack of thought given to the provision of play space for children in the designs of many housing estates.
In the current day, public space is increasingly seen as exclusively the ‘adult realm’, with unaccompanied children in public space often being treated with worry or suspicion, in complete opposite to the mentality of the 1950s in inner-city Dublin, where children were merely seen as part and parcel of the adult’s everyday spaces.
Life in the 1950s and 60s was more difficult than now for many Irish children, especially those living in the poverty-stricken tenement areas of Dublin, yet children in areas such as the Liberties had a strong sense of belonging and countless streets, gutters and nooks to explore and play in, and a variety of scraps to build toys and experiment with.
The past decades have seen advances in medicine, technology, better education, child welfare and nutrition, yet many children today seem to have much worse play opportunities than children 60 years ago – they have less opportunities for meaningful ‘free’ play, less access to outdoor space and less autonomy. There has also been a rise in child psychopathology, which is believed to be linked with the decrease in children’s play time and opportunities.
A recent study ranked children’s mobility in Ireland in 12th place out of 16 countries, and found that only 17% of children surveyed walk to school, compared to 47% in 1981. Increasing numbers of children are “ferried by adults between the ‘urban islands’ of home, school, and playground.” Children are being ‘designed out’ of our public spaces and neighbourhoods and segregated into designated play areas.
This strongly suggests that it is not enough to just build more playgrounds. Alongside building playgrounds, we must design our buildings, streets and roads to allow children to be an integral part of our public realm. There are many other things that could be learned from examining the street play prevalent in previous decades, and possibly applied to the current built environment, in order to counter the shrinking ‘Play-Ground’ of Dublin, as, in the words of George Monbiot: “A community not built around children is no community at all.”
 P Gray, Free to Learn, New York, Basic Books, 2013  Census 2002, Volume 9- Travel to Work, School and College, Dublin, CSO, 2002  M Monbiot, “Children in our towns and cities are being robbed of safe spaces to play” in The Guardian, 2015
http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/06/children-towns-and-cities-robbed-spaces-play H Matthews, M Limbs, M Taylor, “The Streets as Thirdspace” in Children’s Geographies: Playing, Living Learning, S Holloway and G Valentine (eds), London, 2000, p.63  N Hayes, Children’s Rights- Whose Right? A Review of Child Policy Development in Ireland, Dublin, The Policy Institute, Trinity College Dublin, 2002, p.6  K Kearns, Dublin Voices: An Oral History, Dublin, Gill & MacMillan, 1998  P Gray, “The Decline of Play and the Rise of Psychopathology in Children and Adolescents” in American Journal of Play, vol.3, 2011, p.443  B O’Keefe, A O’Beirne, Children’s Independent Mobility on the island of Ireland, Limerick, 2015  Central Statistics Office, Census 2011 Results, Dublin 2012  H Zeiher, “Shaping Daily Life in Urban Environments” in S Holloway & G Valentine (eds) Children’s Geographies: Paying, Living, Learning, London, Routledge, 2000  M Monbiot, “Children in our towns and cities are being robbed of safe spaces to play” in The Guardian, 2015