Play it again Mak­ing our ci­ties more play­ful places to get chil­dren off their de­vices

A new ini­tia­tive aims to make our ci­ties more play­ful and get chil­dren off their de­vices, writes Pa­trick Freyne

The Irish Times Magazine - - NEWS -

On a Wed­nes­day in Septem­ber, Sher­iff Street is closed to traf­fic and fes­tooned with colour­ful bunting. There are hop­scotch squares chalked on the ground. There are huge over­sized Lego bricks, bal­loons and long foam tubes which some small boys are us­ing to hit each other. Peo­ple of all ages are skip­ping and chant­ing rhymes.

Il­lus­tra­tor Philip Kennedy is draw­ing on the ground and writ­ing in­struc­tions. “Bark like a dog!” “Jump!” “Touch your toes!” “Roar.” Some­one’s Jack Rus­sell wan­ders up and down the street.

There are stu­dents from Marino col­lege with clip­boards ask­ing lo­cals about “play”. Chil­dren from Lit­tle Trea­sures Com­mu­nity Creche are play­ing in a sort of mobile sand pit. A tod­dler stares up at me sus­pi­ciously as they throw sand on my shoes. “Come on, loads of puff,” says a garda to a lady who is blow­ing up a bal­loon.

This is A Play­ful Street, an event run by A Play­ful City, the brain child of Marisa Denker and Naomi Mur­phy from Con­nect the Dots, a com­mu­nity- fo­cused events com­pany, and Neasa Ní Bhri­ain and Aaron Copeland from Upon a Tree, an or­gan­i­sa­tion con­cerned with cre­at­ing sus­tain­able play spa­ces. With overuse of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy and height­ened safety fears, chil­dren don’t play enough any­more, they say ( the ev­i­dence backs this up) and they hope to make Dublin “the most play­ful and child- friendly city in the world.” The Sher­iff Street event is just a start.

“This is about bring­ing all the kids back out on the street,” says Lisa Pur­cell, a co- or­di­na­tor at the creche. “It’s im­por­tant that they’re not just in­doors with their iPhones and Playsta­tions. And it’s about the old games, the whole com­mu­nity com­ing out to­gether . . . I used to live in the flats that were here and we were put out in the morn­ing when we got our break­fast and then called back for our din­ner.” She re­cites a skip­ping rhyme: “The billy bowler bisker baker Bally­bough and Balls­bridge.” She laughs. “We made our own fun.” A few months ear­lier, in a room on Tara Street, de­sign­ers, ar­chi­tects, artists, chil­dren’s right ac­tivists and peo­ple from Unicef, IBM, Ac­cen­ture, Bank of Ire­land, the Sci­ence Gallery and else­where, played with card­board, toi­let roll tubes and glit­ter.

It was A Play­ful City’s launch and the walls were dot­ted with il­lus­tra­tions and pho­to­graphs of colour­ful in­stal­la­tions and in­ter­ven­tions that took place in other ci­ties. There were he­lium bal­loons clus­tered on the ceil­ing. A man was walk­ing around hand­ing out pots of what looked like soil but which were ac­tu­ally choco­late and some il­lus­tra­tors were at­tempt­ing to sketch it all.

It was ba­si­cally a big brain­storm­ing ses­sion. Af­ter some talk about the im­por­tance of play to child de­vel­op­ment and happi- ness, ev­ery­one was put de­sign­ing in­ter­ven­tions and pro­to­typ­ing ideas. Ev­ery time a klaxon sounded they were as­signed new tasks. Fa­cil­i­ta­tors at ev­ery ta­ble asked ques­tions: “Do you like where you live? How would you make it bet­ter?” “Where do you go as a fam­ily?” “What does fun sound like?” “How do grown- ups play?”

One of their goals, said Ní Bhri­ain, was to come up with ideas for a pop- up in­stal­la­tion, “the very tech­ni­cally named, Seán Har­ring­ton’s play­ful con­sul­ta­tion thinga­ma­jigy”.

Har­ring­ton, an ar­chi­tect, had form with projects such as this. He pre­vi­ously de­signed an am­phithe­atre made from pal­lets for Granby Park, a pop- up park cre­ated by the Up­start art col­lec­tive four years ago ( Copeland was a mem­ber of that col­lec­tive). “This in­stal­la­tion will then go to pub­lic places en­gag­ing with chil­dren so we can find out more about what they want from pub­lic places.” The best parts of any city, he said, “are the most friendly to chil­dren”.

Two small girls showed me their in­stal­la­tion pro­to­type made with card­board and play­dough and glit­ter.

“That’s a lad­der up to a tele­scope,” ex­plained one girl.

“And what’s that thing on top of the tele­scope?” I asked, point­ing to a big bit of stringy play­dough.

“That’s a pur­ple mous­tache,” said the other girl.

At an­other ta­ble, Miriam Brady from the tour de­part­ment of Dublin Bus was test­ing out the idea of a pub­lic play area where adults aren’t al­lowed. “There could be a cof­fee dock for [ par­ents] at the edge.”

The group dis­cussed the health and safety im­pli­ca­tions of this. “There could be a gi­ant fun­nel they could look in and check on kids if they’re wor­ried,” said some­one else.

At the end of the evening, all the ideas were col­lected and peo­ple were also en-

They hope to make Dublin “the most play­ful and child- friendly city in the world” ... The Sher­iff Street event is just a start

couraged to write ways they could con­trib­ute on cards tied to he­lium bal­loons. Copeland spent a bit of time in a joke shop ear­lier ask­ing ques­tions about he­lium, he said. He laughed. “I lit­er­ally got thrills, see­ing the fake poo.”

At the Play­ful Street event, sev­eral months later, Har­ring­ton and a col­league named Gavin Smyth are look­ing at the “mobile con­sul­ta­tion play­ground” they cre­ated. It can be trans­formed into a cart for easy mo­bil­ity, can be adapted to its en­vi­ron­ment and fea­tures toy boxes and black­boards for ideas and draw­ings. “This is a bit of a test,” says Har­ring­ton ner­vously as his cre­ation is clam­bered over by small chil­dren.

“It’s al­ways a bit nerve- rack­ing see­ing how in­de­struc­tible things need to be,” says Smyth. “But that’s all part of the fun . . . It might need some patch­ing up af­ter­wards.”

Ce­line McCann, Lisa Pur­cell and some other women are skip­ping with a bunch of girls in school uni­forms. “This should have hap­pened years ago,” says an on­looker, Phyl­lis Doody. “The mar­bles and skip­ping. Bril­liant for the chil­dren.”

What else did they do as kids? “We would pick up bits of bro­ken delph and share them and sell them to the other kids,” says Doody. “It was a pre­tend shop.”

“Nowa­days, they have clubs to go to and they play in the park,” says her friend Mary Reilly. “But oth­er­wise they’re in­doors.”

The skip­pers are singing a rhyme I can’t make out. “It’s a bit of non­sense,” Reilly says. “But you put in the next girl’s name into the rhyme and she has to start skip­ping. So,” she sings: “The ripbo, the ropbo, the sailors on the sea, Phyl­lis Barr is af­ter me.”

“That’s my maiden name,” says Doody with sur­prise. “That’s go­ing back.”

Af­ter a while a priest jumps into the skip­ping cir­cle be­tween McCann and Pur­cell. They’re chant­ing. “I wish I had the teacher I had last year – she never gave me slaps since Jan­uary, Fe­bru­ary, March, April . . .”

They go through all the months of the year. A woman says some­thing to the priest as he skips and he laughs. “You’re putting me off, Bernie!” he says.

Fr Robert Col­clough has been in the par­ish two years. “You have to be go­ing out and do­ing stuff,” he says. “Foot­ball, a pint, any­thing. Part of be­ing a priest around here is just be­ing here and talk­ing to any­one about any­thing. They make you part of the com­mu­nity.”

“Hi Fa­ther,” says a girl in a school uni­form. Her name is Bil­lie O’Brien. “Still goal­keep­ing?” asks Fr Col­clough. “We won 7- 0 two weeks ago and I saved a peno shot and all,” says O’Brien.

“Good stuff,” says Fr Col­cough. “She’s a very good goal­keeper,” he says to me.

“I love this,” says O’Brien. “I like the idea of all the lit­tle ba­bies be­ing able to play out on the street.”

A small boy sends a hula hoop rolling by

us. Do they play th­ese games in school? They do, says O’Brien’s friend Jen­nifer Flana­gan. “But our class is more in­ter­ested in do­ing the skip­ping than the hula hoop.”

Over the course of the months since the inau­gu­ral meet­ing, A Play­ful City has held many con­sul­ta­tion events. A month be­fore the meet­ing in Tara Street, in an up­stairs room in the Na­tional Col­lege of Ire­land in the IFSC, I joined Copeland and Mur­phy as they spoke to a group of 14- year- old sec­ondary school stu­dents en­gaged in the col­lege’s ac­cess pro­gramme.

The stu­dents had been split by the pro­gramme fa­cil­i­ta­tor into ri­val busi­nesses to sell lemon­ade to thirsty IFSC work­ers, Dragons’ Den style, and Copeland and Mur­phy were sit­ting with each group en­cour­ag­ing them to be as play­ful as pos­si­ble.

The group Copeland was with had plans for a Beyoncé- themed lemon­ade stand, ref­er­enc­ing her lat­est al­bum. “What will that look like?” asked Copeland.

“Eye- catch­ing!” said Karl, who also lives in Bal­ly­mun. “And we’ll be play­ing the mu­sic from Lemon­ade at the stall.”

“We’ll have foot­steps in chalk lead­ing up

to it,” said Karina from Drum­con­dra.

“We’re go­ing to have a lemon­ade called ‘ Blue Ivy’ made with food colour­ing,” said Me­gan from Bally­bough.

“And what will keep them at your stall?” asked Copeland. “My amaz­ing dance moves,” said Karl. “If they beat him in a dance- off they get a free lemon­ade,” said Josh,

“Any­one here own one­sies?” asked Karl. “I have a one­sie. I might wear my one­sie.”

“This is go­ing to be the most in­ter­est­ing lemon­ade stand I’ve ever seen,” said Copeland.

“Any­one own Beyoncé’s per­fume?” asked Karl.

“I’ve got an empty bot­tle of David Beck­ham’s I could just scrib­ble ‘ Beyoncé’ over ‘ Beck­ham’,” said Josh.

“We could make peo­ple do the Sin­gle Ladies dance be­fore we give them lemon­ade,” said Karl.

“One of the things about play that’s tricky is that it should be freely cho­sen,” said Copeland. “You can’t force peo­ple to play.”

“You could put wheels on the stall so if the cus­tomer walks away you can fol­low them,” said Josh.

“Or we could put you on skates,” said Copeland. “Don’t put me on skates,” said Karl. What will peo­ple make of their stall? “At first it might be a bit weird, it won’t feel right, but then you’ll get used to it,” said Josh. At one point I asked them what they

Shanna Lee Cur­tis ( 6) ( left) Har­low Whee­lan ( 8) Layla Byrne ( 5) dur­ing the Play­ful Street event held in Sher­rif Street Dublin. PHO­TO­GRAPH: AI­DAN CRAW­LEY

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