As an academic and practitioner with a passion for creating and promoting vibrant places, I believe everyone has the capacity to design, develop and retrofit cities and neighbourhoods to support children’s healthy development. I am writing this manifesto to emphasis two points. The first point is for you to consider the whole experience of children’s outdoor engagements and the second being that to do so; you must seek and acknowledge children’s views of their own lives.
Fulfilling curiosity and the experience of autonomy
With the advent of each school year, there is promise in promoting walkable and bikeable routes to and from school. This promise is generally left unfulfilled as researchers, practitioners, school officials and parents have primarily focused on what makes children’s walks easy and safe without simply considering the joy and wonder of the walk. I think there needs to be a focus on discovering or rediscovering the ability of natural and built environments to encourage such innate curiosity among children which ultimately can enhance their general well-being. I say rediscovering in the fact that 70s and 80s urban geography research (like Kevin Lynch, Robin Hart, and Colin Ward) has showcased children’s interactions with the world around them. Such research suggests that the character of the places of which children are exposed to can have a profound effect on the way they grow and develop.
Fast forward today, slow but surely, there are projects that are getting down and dirty at the community level to promote children’s interactions with their outdoor surroundings. You have Australian organisations like Victoria Walks Inc. which champions such tangible interactions. There are local councils like the city of Brimbank funded by VicHealth and the TAC commenced a project called Footloose Foothpaths. This project proposes that more than just a trip to and from school, this neighbourhood walk is an experiential adventure where environmental, historical and cultural knowledge can be shared during this journey. When spaces are made inviting, children can engage in explorative and self-testing play. Incrementally, if they are allowed, they can begin to develop their autonomy. So the walk becomes more than just a mode of travel or even leisure but of development. Therefore, I am asking you to take a comprehensive view of a child’s walk.
Acknowledging and supporting children’s views of their worlds
My research and outlook has been based on the ’emergent paradigm of childhood’ which emphasises children as social agents who shape their lives and are worthy of study in their own right. Understanding children’s views of their neighbourhood experiences is not new. Back in the 70s, Kevin Lynch funded by UNESCO conducted studies across Argentina, Australia, Mexican and Poland. Collectively called Growing up in Cities, Lynch, with a team of researchers, asked children “how they used, conceived of and felt about their surroundings”. The project was revived in the mid 90s to revisit these sites along with 4 additional countries. These projects demonstrate how various and creative mediums provide ample opportunities for children to share their thoughts and provide a foundation to develop urban policies. Australian policies such as the City of Melbourne’s Children’s Plan recognise the importance of children’s voices to create healthy environments. The Children’s Plan specifically is united by the vision that a liveable city for children is a city liveable for all. The acquisition of children’s views about liveability then becomes pertinent and necessary.
As active users of their environment, children know what they like and don’t like about their surroundings. If we can elicit their knowledge about how they use and move through their environments, maybe we can plan and design environments that are conducive to their mental, social, physical and emotional health.
Although not normally a walking texter, the photo above celebrates the simple act of a family walk in our neighbourhood.