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Play Streets: Assets or Liabilities?
EY! Take those boxes outa there!" yelled the truck driver to a num
ber of youngsters romping on a play street. He raced his engine and honked his horn, nosing his gigantic produce truck dangerously near an improvised barricade of packing boxes piled across the entrance to a side street leading from one of the main New York arteries.
By WILLIAM M. WENER
Home Thrift Association Settlement
Do play streets defeat the
"Wadaya mean, 'take dem boxes away'?" retorted the leader, "You can't come in here. Dis is a play street, ain't it?"
Quite true! This was a play street-and a supervised play street, at that-on Friday. But today is Saturday! And on Saturday it isn't a play street. In fact, the small movable sign on the stanchion post has been rolled away. But the youngsters aren't old enough to understand the why and wherefore of city ordinances. On some days they are allowed, even encouraged "by de guys wot run it," to play at will on the street. But at other times they find their games disturbed by passing traffic. The inconsistency of a plan which rules playing children on and off a street, according to scheduled plans formulated in some main administration office, fails at the outset to accomplish its initial purpose-that of making streets as safe as possible for play.
Every day is play day for a child-Saturday and Sunday not excepted! And, naturally enough, on the days when the streets are not supervised children expect the same freedom in the streets that they have on other days. On supervised days they are taught to help keep traffic off the street. In some places they select monitors who wear armbands and whose office it is to warn off invading traffic and turn it aside. Upon occasions they have seen their elders pile boxes from the neighborhood grocery store across the street entrance as a reminder to grown-ups who can't remember that this is their play street. The child mind argues quite logically that on days when there is no supervision, the packing boxes are needed more than ever!
Thus, the play street, inaugurated by well-meaning people who perhaps understand little of the working of the child's mind, defeats its own main purpose by teaching children a wrong behavior pattern.
"Keep the children off the city streets" has been the continual plea of the public the command to social workers. And then these same wellmeaning optimists proceed blithely to promote a movement toward making the street safe, and succeed only in making it more attractive for children to use as a playground! For the streets segregated on certain days for play are marked off with white paint to provide courts for paddle tennis, shuffleboard, quoits and various other low organization games. In addition, leaders are sent to help the children organize their games, for which balls, bats, racquets, marbles and tops are supplied.
In other words, the play streets are accomplishing exactly the opposite of what they were originally intended to do. They are accustoming the children to playing on the streets. They are teaching them to consider the street their habitual, natural even preferred-playground. Here is a deliberate effort to organize street playing. Thousands of dollars are spent annually in maintaining the equipment, upkeep and personnel of the play streets, only to defeat blatantly the original purpose for which they were intended.
Asset or liability? Which?
In many districts of the city a seemingly unexplained paradox exists. Well-equipped playgrounds appear to be sparsely attended while nearby play streets are teeming with children. Some critics of organized playgrounds contend that this phenomena is due to a lack of sufficiently well-trained personnel in attendance at the organized playgrounds to interest the children in worth while programs of activity. If this is so, why not utilize the play street leaders-those now conducting play streets-to increase the personnel of existing playgrounds? Why not bend the same
PLAY STREETS: ASSETS OR LIABILITIES?
effort and spend the same amount of money in augmenting the number of existing playgrounds?
The street gang, long the bugaboo of the socially conscious citizen, is merely the abnormal outgrowth of a very normal instinct, modern psychologists point out. "Ganging up" will go on wherever children gather together for play activity. Just as in school, there will always be cliques who naturally gravitate toward their individual leaders. All humanity tends to band itself together in groups under differentiated leadership, adult as well as adolescent. The so-called underprivileged child is no exception. His fraternity may not wear a pearl and sapphire studded pin to denote membership. The members may win their bids by fists and pledge allegiance in a trading quota of "G-Men" cards, instead of initiation by beer and pretzels. But social consciousness and social distinctions are quite as keen in the "ganging up" of the boys and girls of the city streets as they are in the more elective and "tapping" systems among the collegiate or polo-playing fraternity.
On any city street, five or six boys will unconsciously gang up with a leader. It may be the smallest lad-or the "dumbest." It is not always physical or mental prowess that makes a leader, but rather some inborn instinct for leadership which emerges to express itself in that certain child when he is with those of similar age and class. He may not even know he has it. At first the others may not realize he is a leader. Or conversely, they will not even know they are being led. But let an adult come into the group and suggest forming a "club." All boys are natural joiners and an idea of a club hits them right between the eyes. Well, that's the lad they will pick for their president every time.
That the play street fosters the growth of the vicious street gang is a statement highly unfair, perhaps, in bare statement of fact. But, that it tends to bring back the very thing for which it was organized to combat, is not an impossible conception. For who is to "supervise" the children's play on the days when the play street has ceased to be a play street and becomes, once more, just another ordinary busy traffic lane?
How about the streets which have been abandoned as play streets? A certain percentage each year are run for a short period and then, for one of a number of reasons, closed again to children's play.
How about the probability of the play streets setting a mistaken example of play behavior for children who are not fortunate enough to live on a play street?
The obvious argument, promulgated by those who consider play streets efficacious, that children will play on the streets anyway, so why not make the street play safer and more pleasant-is, after all, a hedging attitude to take. Very obviously the play street is "safer" only in degree-not in fact. "Penny wise and pound foolish," it is like spending money to patch and repatch an old pair of pants when a slightly larger investment, taken from funds set aside for a clothing allotment, would buy a new pair! For the child is encouraged in a false set of values, a distorted, instead of an increased, community esprit de corps is fostered. A deceptive sense of security becomes a real hazard to the child's safety and life when he duplicates his play activity on ordinary, unregulated streets.
All thoroughfares cannot be play streets all the time. If they were, then they would be playgrounds! And some streets can never be play streets. What effect is this going to have on the observing child?
For instance, Johnny lives on a congested street that is never a play street. But he knows that Tommy, three blocks away, plays out in front of his house. If Tommy can play in front of his own house and have a play street, why can't Johnny?
The adult may argue, "why doesn't Johnny go and play on Tommy's street?" The adult who says this doesn't know the habits of street chil
The subject of play streets is a contro-
dren. There may be a line drawn between Tommy's street and Johnny's streeta line drawn in barriers that no adult, no play street supervisor, no child can break, nor would want to break.
There may be a dozen reasons, all silly to an adult, why Johnny isn't welcome to play in Tommy's block. The two boys may easily attend the same public school. But this doesn't nec
PLAY STREETS: ASSETS OR LIABILITIES?
essarily mean they will choose to spend their play hours together. It may be a rivalry no adult may comprehend, but it will preclude the mixing of play hours for Johnny and Tommy on a play
In one New York neighborhood recently such a situation arose. A gang from a neighboring street who didn't have a play street decided to take advantage of their rivals' good luck. They arrived at the entrance-half a dozen youngsters, ranging from nine to six years of age. They were warned off. The play street gang held their ground. That was their street and there were plenty of boys and girls in the block who were welcome. The invaders left, but not for long. They returned, this time their numbers doubled. They came, hauling their improvised roller-skate carts. For the second time they were repulsed. But this time they had come prepared. From the soap-boxes mounted on wheels appeared sticks and stones and a few milk bottles. Brave artillery in a brave cause! When milk and pop bottles are redeemable at any grocery store for two, three and five cents! Many a stick of candy or chew of gum was sacrificed that day in a battle for a play street!
It didn't take the play street gang long to get the idea. Leaving some of their number on guard, others went home. They came back with their wooden pistols, crudely fashioned of two sticks and a spool. By this time the girls had decided it wasn't just a man's fight. Ammunition gone, the invaders retreated, only to return again with loaded carts and increased boy power.
At this stage the play street gang had organized. They had scattered and hidden in doorways and behind ash cans along the route. They had slingshots this time-and some coal. Again they beat off the intruders. And this time the interlopers didn't return. Calm reigned on the play street once more! Ordinarily there was a supervisor on that play street. But this particular day wasn't a "supervised" day!
Once more the play street had proved its inefficacy in defeating one of the evils for which it was introduced. In fact, it had inspired the very combative spirit of anti-social ganging up which it was so hopefully inaugurated to dispel. For the original idea of the play street was to give the children in districts where there was no available public playground a safe, supervised play areaa play area at their own doorsteps where they might be under the parental eye.
The play street fosters a wrong behavior pattern in the child's mind. He takes no heed of passing traffic. Haven't the "cops" closed off the street for his special benefit? Hasn't he been given priority right to play there? Hasn't the gang been told it may play there without intervention? Hasn't it been encouraged and pursuaded to take part in the competitive tournaments and handicraft classes organized in the streets and on the sidewalks? The child gets used to thinking of his street as a closed street.
Of course it is impossible to bar all traffic. When the play streets were first opened, a brave attempt was made. A few summons were given in a desultory fashion. Even a few fines were handed out to those who ignored the play street signs. But there are the residents in the block who have cars. Their guests who drive, from a distance perhaps, are unfamiliar with the provisions made for the children. There are business men who must have deliveries made. There are very few congested streets that do not have their small stores in the block. The residents certainly cannot be deprived of the privilege of parking their own cars before their own doors! Or could they be, if the job of providing safe play streets were really well done? They do it in England by renting from property owners at the play street entrances permission to run a chain across the street. But the majority of English towns and cities have their delivery alleys at the rear. In New York City it is a question whether modern business methods would permit of that without a great clamor of "hindering business" or many other similar objections being raised. And who could say that they would not be entirely within their rights to make a demand for uninterrupted and unrestricted trade?
Children get accustomed to darting in and out from behind parked cars without a care for approaching traffic. There isn't supposed to be any traffic! But how about building up careless pedestrian habits which will prevail when the child is not on the play street-or even when he is playing on a street that isn't a play street, because it doesn't happen to be the right day?
Statistics show that most of the motor accidents from which children suffer occur from their running out from behind parked. cars into the path of an approaching vehicle. Certainly it is unwise to encourage a city child in such rank (Continued on page 107)
Courtesy Luther Gulick Camps, South Casco, Maine
HERE WAS a familiar sound to recreation workers in much that was said at the fourteenth annual Convention of the American Camping Association, at Detroit, February 4, 5 and 6, 1937. The emphasis on skilled leadership, the question of motivation in activities, the distinction between guidance and bossing, the problems of safety, and the details of such program material as dramatics, music and nature study, contained much material to keep all in mind of the fact that camping is a great field of recreation. The story of the National Park Service in its development of camps was told to the convention by Julian Salomon. Howard W. Oxley told of the CCC Camps, and Munroe Smith of the Youth Hostels.
One note of public recreation gatherings was absent-references to finances. For this convention represented very largely the private boys' and girls' camps supported by fees, with a generous number of camp authorities and workers from Y. M. C. A.'s and Y. W. C. A.'s, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls. There may have been some connection between the small number of representatives of public recreation departments and their total absence from any place on the program or among the officials of the conven
tion. Although the theme of the convention was, "New Horizons for Camping," municipal camps did not appear on the horizon. They did appear in some of the addresses. Mr. Salomon of course was referring to public camps and particularly interesting was his description of the functioning of Camp Councils in Pittsburgh and Washington with their study of the needs of their cities.
Dr. H. S. Dimock, speaking on the subject, "Studies of Standards in Camping," insisted the camps must take themselves seriously as educational enterprises, and said that in spite of lack of standards, in too many cases, and of a general individualistic trend, they possessed an essential unity that made possible the formulation of desirable practices, and that they had much to learn from the fields of education and recreation as well as other professions and sciences. He told of well attended three-day institutes in Chicago at which camp leaders, in the appraisal frame of mind and emphasizing educational methods and procedures, discussed all phases of camping from staff qualifications to safety measures.
Along the same general lines was the description, by W. Thomas McCullough, of the Cleveland Camp Council, which forms a center for the
NEW HORIZONS FOR CAMPING
exchange of information, a focus for interpretation and has an advisory function. Membership in the Council requires minimum standards and through mutual helpfulness, much advance has been made.
There was a charm and a reality about what Fay Welch had to say on the "Values of Living in the Wilderness," that made this listener long to visit his New England camp. Naming such objectives as the enrichment of the inner life, the socializing values, and the understanding of such basic natural phenomena as droughts, floods, forest fires, drainage and vegetation effects, Mr. Welch illustrated, not only in his talk but with most attractive moving pictures, the camp activities that develop this understanding. Trips formal and informal, museums with ever-changing contents, photography, a weather station, nature games and nature stories were some of the activities described.
A reasonable and easily comprehended treatment of the relation of camping to mental health
was given by Dr. E. Lee Vincent of the MerrillPalmer School. Defining what she meant by literacy in the physical and emotional as well as the intellectual sense, Dr. Vincent gave most of her attention to the emotional values in camping, its opportunities for helping the "skill hungry," for teaching naturally and for inculcating appreciation of simple things. Above all she emphasized its values in developing social skills, real friendships, ability to face success and failure, and the opportunity for campers to find resources in themselves the ability to be alone. Emotions, she said, were to be controlled, but not to be feared; were necessary and sources of pride.
In two inspiring addresses Eduard C. Lindeman brought to the camp leaders a broad philosophy of their relation to social changes and a series of challenging questions as to their part in national cultural development. Relating camping to the leisure time field, Mr. Lindeman said the Federal government had definitely entered that field. (Continued on page 107)