Sunday, 10 May 2009

Places Children Love 1/3

If you’re observant you can spot the places children love. Look for a dirt path disappearing into the bushes. The remains of a rope swing. My seven year old daughter and her friends love a particular tangle of laurels that borders a tennis court in our south Bristol park, and they vanish among them most days on the way home from school, ignoring parental pleas to come out. Threats that ‘there won’t be time to go to the playground’ fall on deaf ears.

As parents we forget the places we loved as children. Tim Gill, for many years director of the Children’s Play Council and now a consultant, encourages adults to remember their childhood haunts and finds that most people recollect with great pleasure a nest in long grass or a perch in a tree or a den in the bushes. These places, Gill notes, tend to offer adventure and possibility. They are social places, where friendships can blossom. And they are out of sight of adults.

There’s a feeling these days that something isn’t quite right in the world of childhood. Obesity is constantly in the news. Kids seem to be spending too much time in front of the TV. Depression, of all things, appears to be rife among primary school children. At the same time it seems that children’s scope for adventurous, independent play has diminished. Might there be a connection?

In the mid 1970s American geographer and psychologist Roger Hart spent two years in a small Vermont town, interviewing at length every child aged between four and twelve. By cultivating the children’s trust, listening carefully and walking with them, he gained access to their secret haunts. He visited their hideouts and dens and documented the building of mud-and-stick airports and forts, and allowed adults – including a documentary team from the BBC – a glimpse into the secret outdoor world of children.

Thirty years later he went back to the same town. Three quarters of his original interviewees still lived locally and he launched a new research project, due to be finished next year. This time he has been talking with his now grown-up kids about their experience as parents, and conducting interviews with the children now living in the town. The experience so far has been revealing. For one thing, twenty-first century parents want to come along when he walks and talks with the children. And the children themselves are much less certain about their place in the outdoors, and less independent. One child, when asked where his secret places were, had to ask his mother for help.

It isn’t surprising to find that children have lost a degree of independence, but there is growing disquiet in official circles – even government circles – about the effects of this loss.

Roger Hart believes that, "Changes in the degree of children's freedom, in space and in time, to direct their own activities must surely have important implications for their development and for society."

Tim Gill agrees. “It is absolutely crucial to remember,” he says, “That children need some time and space away from the adult gaze. In their secret places, all kind of imaginative processes come into play. At the same time they are experiencing their first taste of independence – trying out autonomy for size.”

So we find ourselves with a dilemma. Children need time away from us, but we don’t want them to be in danger. What should we do?


Originally published in Junior Magazine

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Places Children Love 2/3

A remarkable research project carried out in Freiburg, Germany, some years ago, addressed some of the ills of modern childhood in a novel way. Instead of examining social changes that might be affecting children sociologist Baldo Blinkert looked at the spaces children inhabited. In particular, he questioned several thousand children about their neighbourhood and asked them how they spent their free time, and made some interesting discoveries.

He found, for example, that there was a direct correlation between the amount and quality of play space in the area and the amount of TV children watched in the afternoon. Put simply, children with a good park nearby didn’t stay at home watching telly. This seems rather obvious, but what made the research have a dramatic effect in Freiburg was the fact that people could show the results to local politicians and demand action.

But what constitutes a good park? Blinkert has some fairly strong opinions about traditional playgrounds, with their climbing frames and swings. He writes, “It is very common to observe no children at all on playgrounds of this type... If there are children, what are they doing? They use the equipment for a very short time and generally only in the pre-established manner... I have the impression that the producers of equipment for playgrounds and the planners of such places have monkeys in mind rather than children.”

His aim was to, “Establish an entirely new type of place—a place that does not look like a playground but rather like an empty site which is somewhat neglected and a little bit unkempt.

“First, all of the devices would have to be removed. Then an excavator—under the supervision of four or five children—should shape an interesting surface—a ground with little hills and dips which can collect rainwater and change to mud. The vegetation should not be too complex … willow bushes, blackberries, or bushes of elder or raspberries. If possible, such a place should have a supply point for water. It is also necessary to equip such places with materials which would be useful for construction, such as stones, bricks, boards and beams of different sizes.”

And this is exactly what has happened. Across Freiburg, a city of 200,000 people, forty parks have now been renovated in this way, and the model has spread around northern Europe. Older people might think that these playgrounds sound like wartime bombsites; certainly they suggest the vacant lots that have traditionally been unofficial playgrounds, and this is no accident. When you think about it, one of the reasons why children’s access to semi-wild places has been reduced is that, since the end of the war, cities have filled up and the odd little spaces close to home have been gradually filled in, a process that continues today.

A crucial component in Blinkert’s model is the idea that a playground should allow children to exercise not only their muscles but also their imagination. Children learn about storytelling partly by doing things to their environment, building structures and knocking them down, digging holes and so on.

Tim Gill visited Freiburg recently and was astonished by what he saw. “These places don’t look anything like what passes for playgrounds in the UK,” he says. “They look like the places where many of us spent the most enjoyable, the most profound times of our childhood.”

Across Europe now a new breed of landscape designer is at work, among them the fabulous Danish architect Helle Nebelong, creating safe but interesting places to replace the semi-wild spaces we have lost. Here in Britain things are beginning to change, as the government responds to concerns about obesity.

Learning Through Landscapes (LTL), a charity set up to help children make the most of their school grounds, works with corporate sponsors like the Royal Bank of Scotland and Unilever to improve playgrounds and promote outdoor play. An example of this kind of work can be seen at Eveline Lowe Primary in the London Borough of Southwark, where a derelict site was converted into a garden with a grassy amphitheatre, a pond, winding brick paths and, around the edges, wilder, bushier areas for those all-important explorations.

The results of such reforms can be startling. According to LTL’s own 2003 survey of 700 schools the organisation had worked with, children don’t just play more. Of the schools concerned three quarters had seen improved pupil behaviour, while two thirds had found bullying reduced and attitudes to learning improved. An amazing 84% responded that better school grounds improved children’s social interaction.

One thing that has changed dramatically in the last ten years is the role children themselves are allowed in creating their own play spaces. The work done by people like Roger Hart demonstrated that children know what they want when it comes to play, and it is gradually becoming more common for children to be consulted.


Friday, 8 May 2009

Places Children Love 3/3

Researcher Alison Clark, of the Institute of Education, works with three to five year olds, learning how to listen. Clark has adopted the Mosaic Approach to communication with pre-schoolers, a Danish method based on the premise that children are experts in their own lives but communicate differently from adults. In her work Clark combines conversation and observation with photography, map-making and child-led tours, and at a preschool in Kent she and her colleague Peter Moss used all of these techniques to find out what children thought of their surroundings. The school had a grant from Learning Through Landscapes to improve its outdoor space, so the research had immediate practical importance.

Photography turned out to be particularly significant. Asked to take pictures ‘of what is important here’ the children produced some unexpected results. One child, working on a book of important outdoor spaces, included a picture of the school’s indoor sandpit, which suggested a need for a place for digging outside. In another instance, pictures and maps emphasised how intrusive the security fence was, but it also emerged that the children loved looking through gaps in the fence at people going by, so any improvement to the fence needed to retain its porous quality.

An outdoor playhouse was known to be popular, and this was confirmed by the research, but further discussion revealed that it was also a source of conflict because there wasn’t room for everyone inside. So the idea was mooted to introduce materials for children to build temporary structures and so alleviate the pressure on the existing house.

Clark believes we need to listen to children more. “We have put a lot of money into play equipment,” she says. “But that isn’t necessarily where children gravitate to. They love the scrubby bits round the back of the playground.

“We need to remember that outdoor play for children isn’t about adult goals like keeping fit or learning to climb. It’s about freedom, exploration, creating imaginative space.”

How did we lose sight of this? For one thing, playgrounds were not invented solely with children’s development in mind. After all, the playground fence keeps children safe, but it also keeps them out of trouble. When we talk about the factors that prevent us letting kids out on their own – fear of traffic, concern about ‘stranger danger’ – we tend to forget that many adults are happier not to have children running wild.

The efforts being made by organisations like Learning Through Landscapes represent an attempt to reconcile our need for order and our children’s need for disorder. And it is a need. When the kids pilfer blankets to make a den behind the couch they’re not doing it to annoy us. Kids do this everywhere, in all cultures. Tim Gill wonders if there isn’t some primitive urge to create shelter, a survival instinct so strong it exists now as play. Or is it that children need, now and again, to transform their environment, to feel they have some control over a world they are not generally allowed to alter?

Then again, the den itself is only the beginning, a private place where the imagination rules. Whether it’s behind the sofa or up a tree it’s a place where fantasies can be indulged and a sense of independent being discovered. When my daughter and her friends disappear into the bushes on the way home from school I imagine that the bushes are like the brush at the edge of a clearing, with the forest stretching away behind them. The forest is gone, but the brush is still there, and the children can still experience that feeling of being just outside their known world.

When talking about his own daughter, Tim Gill says that he is “Very conscious that children have an elastic line attached to us. They want to extend it, but they don’t want it to be completely cut.”

I asked my daughter what it was children love about those laurel bushes. She shrugged. But what do they do in there?

“I don’t know,” she says. “Clamber about. Hide. From their parents.”

The Man Who Wouldn't Fly

As concern grows over global warming plenty of people are deciding not to fly these days, but only the brave undertake the kind of journey completed recently by a UWE postgraduate student. When Joshua Hart, a native of San Francisco, decided to travel the five thousand miles to Bristol without leaving terra firma, he set himself a considerable challenge. But to this dedicated climate change campaigner it was both an adventure and an important experiment.

“We’re addicted to flying,” he told Venue. “We’re like cigarette addicts in the way we travel. Planning more flights and more road traffic while scientists are sounding the alarm about climate chaos is simply suicidal.”

A student of transport planning at UWE’s increasingly prestigious Centre for Transport and Society, Hart took the decision to quit flying after a soul-destroying trip from Luton to Venice, which left him with ‘a feeling of emptiness’.

“On an airplane you travel from one generic airport located in ugly suburban sprawl to another airport located in even uglier suburban sprawl,” he explains. “The only exchange with the places and people in between are a fleeting glimpse from 30,000 feet, a roar in the sky heard from below, and the ugly legacy of an abruptly warming planet.”

He continues, “It wasn’t too long ago that all long distance travel took time, and people just didn’t do it that often. I don’t think my pledge not to fly will have a limiting effect on my experience of travel.”

As if to prove the point, Hart turned a nine-hour flight into an extraordinary fourteen-day journey, which began with a four-day train ride to Montreal that featured valuable training in blues guitar courtesy of some Chicago musicians. He broke his journey in the Canadian city to spend a week working for Velogik, an organisation that teaches young children about climate change and bike repair. Part of Hart’s personal transport revolution has involved swapping his car for a bike, which he considers – climate change notwithstanding – the most efficient and practical way to travel around town.

You can’t ride a bike across the Atlantic, however, so from Montreal Hart travelled on a container ship, the MSC Malaga, which was bound for Antwerp. This leg of the journey took nine days and gave the traveller a sense of distance and space absent from air travel.

“There were some memorable experiences,” he says, “ Like watching dolphins swim alongside the ship, getting to know the Filipino crew and experiencing the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean despite 5 metre swells and initial sea sickness.”

In the process the student of transport got an inside view of the international shipping trade – from the preferred sport of crew members (table tennis) to the amount of oil it takes to transport a container load of goods across the Atlantic (about 135 gallons).

From Antwerp Hart travelled by Eurostar, completing a fourteen-day journey when he arrived in Bristol for the start of term. Though he is aware that it will be a while before he heads home again, he is adamant that the old-fashioned modes of travel are the best, for all kinds of reasons.

“We can travel to the south of France for £20,” he says, “But we’ve lost the whole experience of getting there. Travel itself should be an adventure.”

First published in Venue magazine. Image from t-cycle t-shirts