Radio National’s Off Track discussed ‘pocket parks’ this week.
Pocket parks are small, open areas of land that provide free access. Off Track looked at these parks in Erskineville, Sydney.
Listening to the program brought back memories of Peter and Iona Opie’s research into play and games. I was delighted to discover, thanks to my journey from pocket parks to the Opies, that there is a Childhoods and Play project underway at the University of Sheffield.
In 2011, a report on Children’s playground games and songs in the new media age noted:
Ever since children’s games, songs, rhymes, rituals and objects of play were first documented in the mid‐19th century, there have been concerns over their vulnerability to a succession of perceived threats.
They have regularly featured as symptoms of what adults imagine as the innocence of childhood, and its supposed fragility. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, perceptions of the disappearance of children’s games led to muscular efforts to revive them.
Research since then has established beyond doubt, however, that this culture is much more robust than is often supposed; and the work of the Opies has been, perhaps, the most visible effort in making the case for this persistence of cultural tradition.
The Off Track program spoke with parents who use the Erskineville pocket parks. One of them observes that playgrounds “create a space for kids to play with other kids and parents to meet with other parents” and creates a sense of community.
This interaction between place, space and community was the focus of a Radio National By Design program last year (22 August 2013). The program discussed in detail Simon Sleight’s study Young People and the Shaping of Public Space in Melbourne, 1870–1914.
In 2013, the City of Sydney doubled the funding to upgrade parks. Research from Perth, Western Australia has indicated how important this investment can be. Jacinta Francis’s research there concluded that it is the quality of suburban parks and open spaces, not their size, has been linked to lower rates of mental distress. A study of 1900 neighbourhood parks over five years found that ‘open spaces with footpaths, playgrounds, water features and well-kept lawns resulted in better mental wellness in residents who lived nearby, regardless of whether they used the park’.
Sydney has 330 pocket parks. One of them in Erskinville is the Kirsova Playground 1, donated to the children of Sydney by the ballerina Helene Kirsova. ‘It has vibrant red seating, climbing nets, recycled railway track and lots of shade.’
I am fascinated by the persistence of the play spirit in urban settings. I see pocket parks as a powerful contribution to neighbourhood play and games and as a focus for local communities.
I grew up playing games in the street and in a local open space and find it hard to imagine any better way to flourish.