It’s been a miserable winter for our monthly play street sessions, with a couple cancelled due to the weather and another when the kids only lasted outdoors for an hour. We also wondered if, weather aside, playing out on our street might be ‘running out of steam’, as one neighbour put it. Those of us who had young kids when it started in earnest four years ago now have kids who have grown out of it, or are just about to. So at the start of this month’s road closure, watching a total of two children taking to the tarmac, we stewards were discussing how to engage a new crop of parents on the street – or whether to carry on at all.
But then more kids started turning up, and the old magic began to happen.
This kid is an impressive train geek. Here we can see the line from Finsbury Park to Hertford North with a branch diverting westwards at Alexander Palace.
Every time, with the same raw materials of chalk, a road, and a few other bits and pieces, the kids find something to do they’ve never done before. The above is an installation created by strategically placing chalk to be crushed by residents’ cars as they are guided in and out of the street. More crushing was administered by a stegosaurus (although other dinosaurs can also be used) and the artist was so miffed about a shower of rain that she tried to protect her creation by doing a plank on top of it.
Meanwhile the Cutester and her friend set up a mobile toy shop, transporting a variety of play street toys by bike, which they sold to anyone who could afford to pay for them (the currency: leaves). Later they set up shop on the pavement and traded successfully in grapes and chocolate mini rolls.
But the absolute pinnacle of the afternoon – or maybe of my entire career as a play street steward – happened 15 minutes before I was due to go on duty at the end of the road. A boy whose name I didn’t know, aged about 9 or 10, came up to me and said, ‘Can you teach me how to ride a bike?’
He didn’t have one and had never ridden before. I put the seat down on the Cutester’s Islabike and instructed him to tie a loose shoelace (‘Ok, back in a minute,’ he said, and darted back into his house). Then we spent the next ten minutes wobbling up and down the road with me helping his balance by ‘scruffing’ the back of his jacket. At 3pm I had to leave him to take up my post,* and a succession of dads took over where I’d left off.
And an hour and a half later, there he goes (burgundy top, back to camera), cycling unaided. Is there a better sight in the whole world than a child mastering a bike for the very first time?
There are many, many reasons why play streets are a good use of everyone’s time – the fact that I was able to make this boy’s acquaintance at all is a great example. But the privilege of getting to unite a child with a bicycle has to be up there as one of the best.
*This month’s prize for Stupid Reasons for Needing to Drive Through the Play Street goes to: ‘I have to drive this coffee to my daughter in the tanning salon at the other end of your street’. (No. You. Do. Not.)