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Playing Out – A Thing of the Past?


I came across an article on Mail Online, which showcased photographer Robert Frank’s pictures documenting early 1950s London. They’re so striking; I think they’re fantastic. It made me look for further examples of his work and during my Internet travels I came across another photo by a different photographer (Weegee) that also really struck me. This one was from the 1930s and was taken in NYC, but it, and one of Frank’s, did have an element in common: children playing out unsupervised.

Summer, the Lower East Side by Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig)

Summer, the Lower East Side by Weegee (aka Arthur Fellig)




Robert Frank photo from the early 50s showing London children playing out

My mum was horrendously paranoid about, and overprotective of, my brother and I, yet we were still allowed to play out. In my case, this usually consisted of a few of us riding about on our bikes, which, as I lived in Streatham in South-West London, often meant cycling around various blocks of terrace houses. I had to check back every 20 minutes (so probably a bit different from the playing out of my mum’s generation), but despite her anxieties I did get to enjoy this freedom – and loved it.

I do worry about many things relating to the kids, but I know I’m not nearly as anxious as my mum was.  However, after looking at these photos and thinking back to my own childhood, I said to my husband that I couldn’t imagine for a moment letting our eldest play out in the streets. He agreed that it wouldn’t happen. I certainly wouldn’t let her (or my younger two) sit in front of the TV or play on games consoles for hours on end instead, but I can’t foresee ever allowing them to just go out and be left to their own devices. We live in what I’d class as a fairly ‘safe area,’ yet I don’t see other children playing out either, so I know it’s not just us.

It makes me feel a bit sad.


About Author

I’m Fran: wife, mother-of-three and freelance publicist. My love for communicating and writing mirrors my passion for trying to be the best mum I can be. I love good food & wine, Italian culture and football and have a keen interest in personal finance. I also blog over on Epsom & Ewell Families and Habyts, and write sporadically for a number of other sites.


  1. No I would not let any children of my Grandchildren’s generation play out now. Although I believe my eldest 2, aged 12 and 10 are allowed out just around the corner to where they live to play.
    I was allowed to cycle up and down the back of our houses in Salisbury when I was 9/10 and played out in our cul-de-sac in Brockham when I was 5.
    The boys, as I call them, were allowed to play out in the various areas we were living in at the time. Matt did go for a walk about one day and drove us to distraction but when I think back he was only 5/6. Again we lived in a cul-de-sac and his big brother of 10 was out there playing too.
    A difficult decision to know when to let children become more independent. Steve, my eldest, finds it difficult to let Abbie, 12, go into town with her friends whereas her Mum is quite o.k with it.
    I am glad I have no longer these decisions to make and hopefully all my Grand children will enjoy one day growing up with their friends and exploring the big wide world.

    • It’s such a tough one. Ultimately the greatest concern is keeping them safe, but they have to have their independence too. I just can’t imagine mine ever ‘playing out’ unsupervised nor can I imagine their friends doing so.

      • No I think this is best now. Friends can always come to play in your house and garden and likewise with Sofia and the girls when old enough. If they have never experienced playing outside the house then they will not miss it.

  2. How sad to read this article and the comments. I truly hope I won’t fall into the same trap and will let my kids (now 4) play out unsupervised soon. I grew up that way and I think it’s not healthy to wrap the kids in cotton wool. It doesn’t help us or them in the long run. I hope I won’t be seen as an irresponsible parent.

    • I don’t think you’d be seen as an irresponsible at all Katharina. I used to play out on the street myself and I agree that it’s not healthy to wrap them up too much. However, without other children doing the same it’d probably not be much fun in any case. It’s all play dates at home or in the garden now.

  3. Caroline Collom on

    I have distinct memories of playing out in the street in front of our then house at age 4\5 and walking up the road to call on friends, at about 7 walking down (a busy) road to go to the sweetshop with my younger brother. Myself and my brothers have always gone out to play, even when living in a busy town on the corner of two very main roads. I certainly give my older two less freedom than I had, I think things have changed and roads are much busier etc but I think going out to play with their friends is really important. Abbie’s friends mainly live the other side of the estate to us, about a 15 min walk, so she wasn’t allowed over there by herself until the spring/summer of Year 5 (she was 10), although several of her friends who live round the corner from each other were playing out from Year 4. She knows the rules. She is not allowed out without a watch so that she can return on time with no excuses and she knows to allow enough time for the return journey! She knows there are several friends houses she is allowed to go into (close friends of mine as well as hers) but that she is not to go into any other house – we have even rehearsed what she should say if asked! She also knows, if something does happen, which houses to go to for help if she cant get to me (of course she has a phone now so this helps my mind) She knows if I have told her she can only go to certain places that is what I mean, and I will do and have done spot checks – I do not accept excuses. The estate we live on always has children playing out. There are lots of families and lots of little greens dotted amongst the houses. Bearing in mind the gardens of most houses are tiny these greens are invaluable for football and running and letting off steam. Abbie and her friends are on the whole sensible kids and I think the lessons she is learning in being out and exploring the world with them are invaluable. She is old enough for me to have had the conversations with of why exactly she needs to be wary of strangers but she needs to know I trust her and that I think she is sensible enough to be allowed out. She catches a bus to school every day at 7.30, I can’t realistically tell her she cant go out with her friends – but the ground rules have been put in place over several years and she knows I mean what I say and now she knows why the rules are important. When she goes out it is always to meet her friends (about 6 of them) and she has a great time. My brothers and I went to places we knew we shouldn’t have, derelict buildings etc, and I know Abbie and her friends have made little dens in some scrubland and that they go to the local park and climb all over the play equipment, but they are kids, its what they are supposed to do. I do worry about her when she is out, she is my very much loved child, but I want her to be a confident adult and for me & Steve allowing her out by herself is an important part of this process.

    • Sounds like the absolute perfect balance between boundaries and freedom to me. I think by the time Sofia is 10 I might be feeling a bit differently. I suppose there is a lot of difference between a just-turned 6-year-old and a 10 year old. I imagine I’ll be led by what other parents do also. Sofia has a lovely bunch of friends and I’m now friends with their mums. If it’s more of a co-operative like you describe then that sounds a lot more reassuring.

  4. Abbie comes to visit me after school on the odd occasion which is lovely and I feel quite privileged that she feels she can do this. Even now, after quite a few times being here, I feel guilty when I cannot drive her home so I insist on seeing her across our busy road to the bus stop. I even ask her to phone me when she gets home. Even Grand parents feel apprehensive with this growing up business!!!
    As I said before I am glad I have not these huge decisions and responsibilities on my shoulders now.

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