society is wiping out play

As someone who loves his kids and loves clubbing too, I should be all over the concept of a “baby rave” – where actual DJs in actual clubs play tunes, but with a fun daytime vibe for kids under 10 and their elders to safely party together. Weirdly though, eight years into parenthood, I still haven’t had the urge to combine these two worlds. This isn’t because I’m haunted by the Halloween party I took my daughter to last October, when aged seven, she locked herself in a cubicle and sneakily “did all the sweets” with her best mate. It’s perhaps more to do with a picture I once saw of a young Liz Truss and her left-wing parents protesting against nuclear weapons in the early Eighties – an incredible image that feeds my worry that, if you push your kids one way, innate bloody-mindedness will make them snap back the other. Anyway, I’ve been invited to a family rave in a few weeks and I might actually do it, because I’m starting to worry the end of fun is nigh, for adults and worse still for kids.



We all know that music helps adults play, be it at a club or a gig, drunk or sober. Doing silly things in reaction to music is something that binds people across cultures, ages and worlds. While the reality of being grown-up is often drab and serious, we use music, dancing and celebrating as a way to play, a way to connect. Except, somehow, we also live in an age when it’s getting almost dangerously hard to find places to dance, be silly and have fun. Take the most universal party scenario in the world: a wedding. The cost of getting married is becoming an actual joke in the UK. The average venue hire for a UK wedding is a staggering £8,400. No wonder the concept of the “micro wedding” is trending so much at the moment. It’s also no wonder that fewer people are getting married. What makes it a joke though is that an endless plank of core conservative (both with a big and little C) values has been that humans are better off in married units. We’re unsubtly incentivised to get married via tax breaks, yet never once has a politician also considered subsidising the actual, prohibitively expensive wedding part. If you wanted to incentivise marriage, you’d build 100 new civic halls across the country and have them available all year round at a tenth of the going rate.

Beyond weddings, we know that the UK is haemorrhaging live music venues and nightclubs at the moment, in part because councils are so inclined to curtail them after just a few noise complaints from local residents. Yes, it sucks to be disturbed by a noisy venue nearby, but very often the bigger picture – that music venues provide huge amounts of joy to communities – is lost on councillors and ignored higher up the political food chain. All of this sucks, but it’s not news. From the Criminal Justice Bill of 1994 onwards, it’s been a pretty constant narrative of “the man” stifling “ravers” in the UK, to placate a small-but-influential socially conservative heartland.

What I never, ever saw coming was that the exact same heavy-handedness would be applied… to children.

Last week, police visited houses on a cul-de-sac in Hull and issued a letter outlining complaints about children playing football outside. The property managers, Places for People, stated that “any ball games that are played persistently… can be classified as anti-social behaviour”. Signs saying “No Ball Games” are to be erected. The kids – aged as young as three years old – use the space to have fun on bikes, trikes and roller skates, as well as play with balls, according to residents. “I can’t believe someone has called the police out over kids having fun,” one told the Hull Daily Mail.

Adults finding it hard to play is bad, but curtailing a child’s ability to play is cruel, unforgivable and almost an act of abuse. I fear a dark legacy of the pandemic will be that some people got a bit too used to kids being indoors, including cash-strapped councils who are neglecting playgrounds at an alarming rate currently. Recent analysis says that spending on them has dropped by £350m since 2011, while expertise in creating kids’ play has been allowed to wither too, as play-focused roles are cut.

Playgrounds are one thing, but there’s an almost Roald Dahl-esque sinisterness about children being told not to play right outside where they live. A recent report by Play England states that almost 40 per cent of parents felt that their neighbours disapprove of children playing outside. I’ve seen it up-close lately in London’s Tower Hamlets, where the council leader ran on such a calculatedly divisive pro-car ticket that the borough’s School Streets schemes (designed to keep toxic car fumes away from young lungs) are being torn up all over the place and traffic calming measures ended. In a year, there’s been a palpable shift in power and authority: from the kids who live there to the passing cars that now dominate.

Screens for sport: the rise of technology means that many children do their playing while stationary (Getty)

Screens for sport: the rise of technology means that many children do their playing while stationary (Getty)

It’s the nightmarish endgame of a rights-based society, where – as I’ve witnessed multiple times in my own community – older, more entitled residents feel they have “the right” not to hear kids playing outside or a ball bash against a fence during the day. No matter that their generation perhaps tormented their elders with constant street play in an era before modern home entertainment (also maybe with cap guns and those old clacky football rattles, depending how far back you’re going). Either way, it reeks of generational privilege, especially when you consider that a 2013 study found that 82 per cent of adults played out in the streets as children compared to just 12 per cent today. Want a solution to the rights of children not getting upheld? Give pre-teenage kids the vote. I’d go with 10 years old, others say as young as six. Not letting people vote until they’re 18 while still expecting them to obey laws and societal values they can’t have a say over is patently unfair. My view is that if a politician can’t explain their agenda to a 10-year old, they don’t deserve to be in office. In his 2021 book Give Children the Vote, academic and ethicist John Wall writes that extending the vote to the quarter of the country who currently don’t get a say is “vital to making contemporary societies more democratic… It is not the answer to everything. But it must be part of the solution.”

The UK is a patently playful and silly place. We do festivals better than anyone. We’re the only country where Timmy Mallet, Keith Chegwin and Pat Sharp could have become nationwide stars. Our Parliament sits next to a giant phallic tower known as Big Ben. Not that I’m obsessed with the early lives of politicians, but we seem to be in a cycle of being ruled by people who are not just serious but appear to have had no childhood at all, let alone a childhood full of play (or the odd baby rave). William Hague famously gave a speech at a Tory conference aged 16, while Jacob Rees Mogg acted as a city trader aged 12. I can live with adult fun being curtailed, but the idea that the police are getting involved to stop kids playing is too worrying to ignore. Who will stick up for the ability to play in the UK?

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