Parenting: How to reclaim the streets, safely
Published 02/08/2010 | 05:00
Summer is still in full swing and children are out playing on the road until dark. But between speeding cars and unsuitable company, how do we keep them safe?
With school holidays still in full swing, children are being encouraged to get out of the house and play before term time comes round again. Nothing beats skipping, football or hopscotch with your friends in the open air, but even at this carefree time parents worry.
Unfortunately there are many potential dangers on the streets for our children, be it speeding cars or unsuitable company.
The Road Safety Authority is endeavouring to reassure parents. They've published a series of books called 'Simon and Friends' to raise road awareness among pre-schoolers. The books contain four stories with the characters exploring themes like holding hands, stopping, looking and listening.
Road Safety Authority CEO Noel Brett has some advice for both children and road users. "It's important for all of us who use the roads to be extra cautious. During the summer months, children will be spending more time outdoors. We don't want what should be a time of fun and games to be a time for grieving the loss of a child.
"We would ask all road-users to be aware of children cycling or walking on the road, or playing near the road, particularly when driving through residential areas," he says.
Noel also stresses the importance of teaching children road safety. "They are our most vulnerable road-users. Your child will learn from what you do, so make sure you always demonstrate good road-safety behaviour."
Mum-of-one Clare Taylor believes children become street aware very quickly.
"Children get street sense really quickly because they love rules. My daughter Francesca loves pressing the button for the little green man and woe betide if I press it first or cross the road without waiting," she explains.
Clare moved to Manor Street in Dublin's Stoneybatter when she was pregnant with Francesca (five).
"I've been living here now for the past five-and-a-half years. There is only a small yard at the back of the house so you have to make friends with the street.
"You really need to meet people when you have a small child. If you are out sitting on your step with a small child it is an invitation to people to talk to you. It is brilliant to take ownership of public spaces," she said.
Clare finds that the more people are out on the street, the safer it is. "It is positive policing really. The more eyes there are the better."
The local window-box competition in her area provided an opportunity for people to be out and about with a purpose.
"We all made window boxes and were busy planting and messing about with seeds. You have to go outside the front door, so you get to meet and talk to people when you are out there."
Having a baby meant rediscovering the fun of playing on the street for Clare. "It is really fun with a baby. I totally get the whole thing of seeing ordinary things through a child's eyes."
Bubble mixture is always a big success and a packet of chalk is a chance to draw whenever the opportunity presents.
"We always have a packet in our pocket. It is only a euro and is great entertainment, whether we are outside the front door or in Stephen's Green."
During the summer there is an increase in activity on the roads in the area.
"People throw paddling pools outside the front door in the summer and sit out on kitchen chairs. We have tea parties and teddy-bear picnics," Clare explains.
On the issue of 'stranger danger', Clare thinks people can go too far.
"You can teach your children to live in fear. The paedophile is the ultimate nightmare of our time. Creating fear can have a very negative effect on children; a confident child is less likely to be targeted.
"Francesca came back from school one day with a message about strangers. I think if all strangers represent danger then we are in trouble. Everyone we meet was a stranger once. All Francesca's friends were strangers to her at some stage," Clare says.
Clare and Francesca have been enthusiastic participants in the local street party on Sitric Road for the past number of years. The event, called the Sitric Picnic, is organised by local residents in Dublin's Stoneybatter twice a year. The street is shut off to traffic on the day of the party. The festivities consist of anything and everything from music and worm juice to a very popular toy-swapping table.
Kaethe Burt-O'Dea has been at the heart and soul of the Sitric Picnic for the past five years. "We take up more and more of the street each time. We have had a street party for the past five years with no complaints. It's a gradual reclaiming of the street."
She believes that the mixed use of space for cars and people is the way forward.
"Research has shown that if people are out walking and occupying streets cars slow down and are more cautious. It's more effective than street signs."
While Kaethe has lived on Sitric Road for over 20 years, she was born in New York, where street play is encouraged during the summer months.
"In New York they have neighbourhood play streets. In the summer the streets are shut down to traffic and young adults are hired to supervise and provide activities."
The streets are shut down from 8am and activities are set up such as basketball, crafts and checkerboard.
Around 75 of the camps are run by the Police Athletic League and often provide activity for children who can't afford summer camps in areas with little open space.
Kaethe's enthusiasm for making public spaces accessible came to fruition in October with a temporary playground on the street. "We started thinking about creating a park. The city architect became interested and installed a playground for two days last October as part of the innovation week project."
Sadhbh Burt-Fitzgerald (16) is Kaethe's daughter and has grown up on the street. "I was born on Sitric Road. When I was very young cars weren't predominant.
"It was all minimalist toys then. My mum tells the story of sitting me outside the house with a pot full of water and all the children coming around to play with it."
Sadhbh remembers parents keeping a close watch on children playing on the street. "Parents always kept an eye out and most of us had to be in by a certain time.
"We would go around to other people's houses a lot and we were really lucky to have the Phoenix Park close by to play in."
When it came to rules of the road they all adhered to them.
"Most people stuck to the rules, like not running out on the road, and stuck to the pavement. I always felt safe."
The residents of Sitric Road installed a bench a few years ago in an area that was attracting anti-social behaviour.
"The bench is a really popular spot now. There is a little shop around the corner that sells really good coffee and sandwiches. I always meet someone on the bench on the way back," says Sadhbh.
Her band Traz has played at the street party for the past couple of years.
"The street party is brilliant. Everyone brings food and you get to meet everyone.
"It is something really nice to do during the summer. It feels really safe and lovely to feel a sense of community."
Sabhbh has some good advice about taking care when you're out and about.
"Always watch out for dodgy people. The most important thing is to be confident. Don't seem frightened or intimidated or they will pester you."
RSA advice for parents and motorists
Small children should not cross roads alone. They cannot decide how far away a car is or how fast it is going.
Children walking on country roads should wear reflective armbands and bright clothing.
If there's no footpath, walk on the right-hand side of the road facing oncoming traffic, keeping as close as possible to the side.
Show your child how to cross the road by example. Choose safe places to cross and take time to explain why, ie, footbridges or zebra crossings.
Make sure they're highly visible by wearing a reflective belt and bright clothes and wear a bicycle safety helmet.
Check that the brakes, lights, reflector and bell are in good working order.