Street-play model copied nationwide

Bristol has more street-play schemes than any other city in the UK, due in part to University research.

Evidence gathered by researchers about the benefits of outdoor physical activity for children has been used by Bristol residents and Bristol City Council to underpin a new intervention to open up their streets for children’s play pioneered by Bristol residents - Playing Out. The city now leads the way in street-play schemes and this model is now promoted nationally. 

Prior to this, only limited research had been carried out investigating the benefits of children’s play and community interventions outside of school settings. This is because children’s play and their use of the neighbourhood covers a wide range of locations and is very variable across the work.

So when Bristol researchers Dr Angie Page and Professor Ashley Cooper wanted to monitor children's daily physical activity, they knew they had to go one step further than previous studies.

New research approach

“While the use of accelerometers is relatively common to measure how active children are, we also wanted to monitor the time and location of that activity,”

“We wanted to take advantage of new technology to objectively measure how active children were in relation to location, i.e. how they moved around their neighbourhood.” - Dr Angie Page

In 2006 they were among the first researchers in the world to combine the use of lightweight personal global positioning system (GPS) receivers with accelerometer data to monitor the level and location of children's daily physical activity in a large sample of children.

They monitored more than 1,300 children from 23 primary schools across Bristol and were able to draw some striking conclusions.

“We found that children were on average more active outdoors than indoors, but we also found that a large proportion of this physical activity was on built surfaces such as roads, car parks and playgrounds.

"While children are more active in green spaces such as parks than in non-green spaces, only a small proportion of children’s time outdoors (less than 11%) is spent in green space. Time spent on built surfaces and streets therefore contributes more to children’s daily physical activity and represents a very important, but previously under-emphasised source of activity.” - Dr Page

Street play

After disseminating the unique to Bristol data, they teamed up with local Bristol residents and Bristol City Council to provide a robust health case why street play was important for physical activity and health. Subsequently, the council made it much easier for residents to close off their streets on a regular basis for street-play.

The council created a new Temporary Street Play Order which allowed regular street closures on the basis of a single, annual application.

“This simple change made a big difference and has been instrumental along with the support of playing out to a boom in street-play initiatives across the city,” said Page.

“Each scheme is free, is based on simple signs and is initiated and stewarded by local residents to close their streets to through-traffic, usually after school (3.30 to 5.30pm).

"This period is crucial as it is seen as a ‘critical window’ to promote activity in children to take advantage of when they come out after school and when it is still light, even in the winter months. It also causes minimal disruption to cars as most car drivers are still at work.”

The Bristol Model

Today there are more than 100 streets across Bristol that are regularly closed for street-play and what has become known as the “Bristol model” has been replicated in other cities in the UK in over 20 local authorities.

Following on from their initial work, the researchers have also shown that these playing out schemes can really make a difference to the level of physical activity of the children involved.

Using combined GPS and accelerometer data, Dr Page and Professor Cooper provided pilot data to demonstrate that a measurable increase in physical activity of approximately 10-15 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity could be obtained during these street closure or ‘playing out’ events.

“But as well as increasing the level of activity in children, resident involvement and regular street closures has also led to wider benefits including improved social cohesion and community connectedness because neighbours are being given the opportunity to meet neighbours they have never really talked to,” said Page.

“I am so pleased that our research led to the development of such a sustainable, effective and low-cost intervention that is making a real difference to communities and to children's health and well-being. This is a small step towards returning the streets shared spaces that serve the needs of both people and cars.”

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