Getting children off their devices and making cities more playful

‘Babies are terrible dancers’:a new initiative on finding room for play

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."

Toilet roll tubes and glitter

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 happiness, 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 encouraged 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.”

‘This should have happened years ago’

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."

‘Everyone loves Beyoncé’

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 did for fun at home? They go to youth clubs and the community centre, Karina said, “but it would be a bit difficult to find places to do things like this”.

“Guards tell you to move on,” said Josh. “They aren’t very happy with us existing.”

“And some older kids burned the playground,” said Karl. “Where will the little kids play?”

Copeland asked what playful things they did at school. “You know the statue in science for showing all the organs and stuff?” said Karl. “I wrapped it in electrical tape and called it ‘my wife’.”

“I’ve just thought of something,” said Megan. “What if everyone doesn’t love Beyoncé?”

“Everyone loves Beyoncé,” said Karl confidently.

‘I’ve been practising my skipping all week’

At one end of Sheriff Street during the Playful Street event, there is a Garda stand at which gardaí are giving out Garda-themed activity books. At the other end, some young men on bicycles hover.

“This is beautiful,” says one man named Dave, as he watches some children playing rounders. “[IT’S] the best thing that’s happened here in ages . . . You don’t see them playing on the street . . . Look at all the girls from the after-schools helping.”

The area has been neglected, he says. “Look at the flowerpots here. Just two. Walk over there and see how many there are. There are loads, because those ones are looked down on from the apartments in the docklands. This street is great but this street needs help.”

“Sheriff Street is the dog’s bollocks!” says a teenager on a bike. His friends laugh.

Dave looks annoyed. “You don’t understand, kid,” he says to him. He points towards the docklands. “We’re overlooked by those big buildings . . . They get all this money but there’s no jobs for you, there’s no jobs for him, there’s no jobs for him.” He points at each teenager. “I’m 33. I’ve been to prison. I missed out on everything.” He sighs. “This whole place should be knocked down and rebuilt.”

People are gathered in their front yards and doorways. "I've been practising my skipping all week," says Joan Walsh (58). "Ah it brings back memories."

“When we all lived in the flats,” says Linda D’Arcy. “We played skipping . . . We played piggy.”

What’s piggy? “‘Piggy-on-the-ground’,” says Catherine McMahon. “Hopscotch.”

"We called it piggy," says Linda Walsh. "Red rover, round towers."

What’s round towers? “Rounders,” says Walsh.

“The flats were brilliant,” says D’Arcy. “Everyone could watch the kids in the courtyard.”

Kids don’t play as much on the streets now, they say. “It’s too dangerous,” says McMahon. “You don’t know who’s going to come out of anywhere. Just two years ago there was a shooting up at the corner near the after-school. You couldn’t leave the kids out in that.”

Will kids keep playing on the street after this? A younger woman interjects. “This won’t continue,” she says. “When you all go it will be back to the drug dealing, back to the police doing nothing . . . Not caring. It’s full of addicts. Full of drug dealers. That’s what it’s usually like. My child is four and I won’t let her out to play because of what the kids see down here.”

Although the majority are having fun, she’s not the only person I meet with such misgivings. Will she be getting involved today? “I will not,” she says, going into her house. “It’s not real.”

Not enough spaces

Copeland, Denker, Ní Bhriain and Murphy are aware of the challenges faced by inner city communities when it comes to facilities for play. They have been working closely with the Early Learning Initiative, the National College of Ireland and all sorts of community groups and activists. They have also sponsored, along with the Ombudsman for Children's office, a street art campaign celebrating the 25th anniversary of the State's ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And, on October 17th, they are running a Design Meets Play conference in the Point Village featuring talks and workshops led by 20 authorities on children, psychology, play, planning and design from around Europe. "It's already been identified that there aren't enough spaces in the city for play," says Copeland. "People often treat play as an afterthought and the right to play is forgotten about. [We want to find out] how you provide a community with the tools to encourage it."

‘Babies are terrible dancers’

At 2pm, a Garda lorry arrives on Sheriff Street. A garda has to get out and use a brush to lift the low-hanging bunting up so it can drive through. Some look on warily. It’s the Garda band. They set up at one end of the street and the crowd gathers around them. They play Money, Money, Money by ABBA and the SpongeBob SquarePants theme. A troupe of toddlers start parading around in a sort of marching formation. A garda gives a girl “a go” of his hat. Some women begin dancing. A handful of maverick infants groove. “Babies are terrible dancers,” says a small girl, accurately. A child conducts the band. Then Mary Reilly sits on her walker and with two batons, not one, energetically conducts the band too.

A young garda is singing Michael Bublé's I Just Haven't Met You Yet when the sky opens and suddenly everyone is running for cover into the reception area of the nearby Little Treasures creche. Once inside, we all stand around dripping wet. "Ah no," says Sylvia Murtagh, the receptionist. "I really wanted to dance with the Bublé garda."

"It brought back a lot of memories," says Josephine Kearns. "Skipping and playing the old games."

“Now we have to go out and take all that stuff down,” says Tina Gannon. “But it was all very good I have to say.”

For more information on A Playful City visit

An immersive conference, including Turner Prize-winning Assemble collective, takes place at the Point Village, Dublin 1 on October 17th. Some of the installations and spaces planned will come to life in Dublin communities in 2018. All welcome. Contact organisers at for reduced ticket rates.

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