Marc Armitage - Thought Crime

When adult and children's needs clash it's the adults that usually win

When adult and children's needs clash it's the adults that usually win

a \‘shȯrt-rēd’\ piece

It seems to be a truism that when children and young people come into conflict with adults in their local communities it is the adults who invariably win. This is especially true with the allocation of space as can be seen from the vast number of complaints made by adult residents against local playgrounds every year.

This conflict takes many forms,  including the fear that a playground might attract people from ‘outside the area’ and increase crime levels; that a new playspace might reduce house prices (which incidentally it doesn’t’ – the reverse is true); and even that it might spoil the aesthetics of the area. 

Possibly the most high-profile complaint of late has that of a London housing developer in the UK deciding that children living in social housing should be segregated from those living in privately owned homes on the same housing development. That one got a huge amount of coverage.

These conflicts are nothing new. Take the example of Mr Moody, the headteacher of a school in the East Riding Yorkshire who reports in his journal for 1877, “Mr Richardson has forbidden the children to play in the street in front of his house … I have told them to make the yard their playground in future.” [1]

So, a recurring issue in the lives of children and young people with a broad set of conflicting problems. Unsurprisingly, though, chief amongst the complaints raised, is about noise

I have form on this one 

I have been called on many times to mediate in neighbourhood disputes over play spaces in my time and the vast majority of them have been about noise.

Some years ago, for example, I was asked by a local council to produce a report on a local playground that had been subjected to several noise complaints.  It was situated on the edge of a small country town within a well-defined neighbourhood area and my brief was to make an assessment of nuisance and make recommendations on possible nearby locations that the playground could be moved to. The latter point was unusual, and I confess it raised my suspicions of the motives behind this brief. But rent to pay, food to eat, etc. etc.

The first task I preformed was to make a ‘play value’ assessment, in other words an assessment on how popular a playspace might be based on a number of predefined criteria. At first glance it was typical of many local council provided playspaces – a jumble of uncoordinated mixed metal playground features which despite an appearances of ‘quality’ often scores quite low. In other words, looks good but not that good in play terms.

Yet this one was slightly different

Despite being quite small and having few pieces of fixed play equipment with no clear distinction between spaces for ‘younger’ and ‘older’ children it actually scored quite well in terms of play value.

This is not insignificant as those play spaces scoring higher play value tend to receive more use. Yet, in this case the elements increasing the score were not necessarily deliberate design features.

The site was not a plain rectangle, which is the norm, as it had a bit of a bend in it that had clearly been shaped to wrap around a small clump of low growing trees roughly central to the site. These trees, the main branches of which were laying horizontally along the ground, displayed a lot of signs of wear and tear of play use and were therefore clearly popular. There were also lots of collectables around, natural loose parts such as twigs, berries and flowers.

More significantly in terms of usage, though, was the fact that this playspace was in just the right place for its local community. Location is by far the most important factor that determines the popularity of a playground.

I had been asked to provide a written report outlining my recommendations that would be presented to the local recreation committee, but I discovered that if the report was short enough I could deliver a summary of the results verbally in person. So, I ‘accidentally’ forgot to present a draft of the report to the department before attending a committee meeting.

The results

On the day the room was (shock horror) occupied by an exclusively male group of serious-looking suit-wearing councillors and officers. I set up for my allotted ten minutes of talking time, got my set of transparencies for the overhead projector ready (this been before the days of PowerPoint) and launched in.

I pointed out that (literally) all the complaints noted were coming from one strip of homes that ran alongside the playground. These were all bungalows – a form of housing generally occupied by retired and older people (older people and playgrounds rarely mix well).

Then I showed maps of the area and pointed out the relationship of the small playground to the neighbourhood and how it was on a transit route for both the local primary school and high school as well as how close it was to the homes of local children using this space; all points which will increase popularity and average usage rates.

I also pointed out that moving such a playspace was fraught with difficulties which were exacerbated by the current popularity of the space, and yet there was an obvious solution to the issue – one that was at the root of my wish to deliver the report verbally rather than in written form.

I finished with, ‘I note that the row of bungalows from which the current noise complaints are coming from were built quite some time after the construction of the playground. My recommendation, therefore, is move the bungalows.’

I sat down.


No questions asked.

The playground is still there


Marc Armitage

Photo - a photograph of a depressingly common local playground in a British housing estate. This one comes from an assessment project of local playspaces I did for the City of Wakefield in Yorkshire in 2006.  

note [1] This quotation is from 'Mr Moody's Moral Mirror: the logbook of an East Riding school master published by Hutton Press in 1986. 


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