Children’s Experiences of Place

The following section will explore one of the key contributions geographers are making to the study of childhood, by focusing on the empirical work geographers are doing in the everyday spaces of childhood which shape (and are shaped by) their lives.

The Home

The home is an important site for the negotiation of child–adult power relations. The home is a bounded spatial setting in which adults generally determine the rules and regulations governing appropriate ways in which children are expected to behave. It is also a porous site, in many respects open to cultural influences through technologies such as television and the Internet, and the fact that people move in and out carrying ideas from beyond its boundaries. As such, the home provides a key setting in which children’s gender, class, racial, and sexual identities are produced and reproduced. The work of geographers has been important in highlighting the diverse ways in which children experience their home environments. As well as being a space of refuge for children being bullied at school or in public space, the home can also have a darker side as it is also the site of most child abuse. Moreover while most children are cared for by adults within the home, others, including those with disabled parents, or parents suffering alcohol or drug dependency, may find themselves in the position of carer. This role is even more common in parts of the world characterized by higher levels of adult morbidity, and by orphanhood that leaves some homes without adult carers: a situation that is increasingly common in the parts of Africa that are worst affected by the AIDS pandemic.

Ideologically, in Western societies, children are considered to belong within the home. This notion has informed a great deal of child policy in Western countries and has been carried into other societies through instruments such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and through the policies and projects of many development agencies.

Institutional Settings (Childcare and School)

Worldwide, children are spending an increasing amount of time in institutionalized spaces, most notably school and daycare. Children are thus increasingly separated from adults and placed in specialized children’s environments. Contemporary childhood, especially in the global North, can be conceptualized as a period of spatial separateness, in which children are excluded for a significant part of the day from the wider adult world. Moreover, geographic research highlights how such environments structure the ways children use and experience space and organize their time, enabling adults to practice surveillance and regulation of children, processes which children actively contest.

Schools are arguably the single most significant institution in most children’s lives. Historical and geographical work has illustrated how schools were developed to socialize children into appropriately behaved citizens and productive workers. By creating a bounded environment in which groups of generally similarly classed children could be controlled and inculcated with appropriate notions of how to behave according to their class, gender, and ethnicity, schools have played and continue to play a fundamental role in the production and reproduction of children’s individual identities, as well as society more generally.

Schools do not, however, play a uniform role. Different societies have different ideas concerning what children need to learn and the behaviors that are expected of them, as well as different levels of resource (made) available to commit to education. This has resulted in distinct differences in children’s experiences of schooling in different parts of the world. In many parts of Africa and Asia, education systems mimic those of the former colonial rulers, with curricula and teaching methods geared around the need for children to pass public examinations.

The growth in institutionalized childcare environments in the global North is a response to a number of things. First, it reflects both the desire of increasing numbers of women to work outside the home, as well as changing social policy, most notably the growth in neoliberal workfare policy, which makes it harder for women living on welfare benefits to stay at home with their children. Second, it reflects changes to the family, in particular, the increase in lone parent households. Finally, formal childcare is increasing due to spatialized fears for children’s safety in public space. Rather than being allowed to roam freely in what is increasingly considered to be dangerous public space, a growing number of children are placed in what are considered more appropriate adult controlled institutionalized environments in which they can be properly cared for and protected while their parents are in paid work. However, as a number of geographers have highlighted, this is not to say that children passively accept the regulation of such environments, but actively contest the adult centered organization of the space.

In the global South everyday childcare is generally arranged on a more informal basis, although under the influence of the World Bank, in particular, preschools are mushrooming in many countries. As in Western countries, these are intended both to better prepare children for school and to promote the integration of women into neoliberal workforces. Historically, impoverished societies had high rates of full time institutional care for children whose families could not look after them. Institutional residential care is, however, falling out of favor, particularly in light of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Nonetheless, in societies affected by war or by AIDS, the demand for institutional care may increase.

Public Space

Geographers’ main concern with public space has been to explore the ways in which children access and use it and the attachments they form to it. A number of studies have explored the opportunities children have to play in public space, highlighting uneven access to specialist play provision such as playgrounds and parks while also illustrating children’s capacity to create play opportunities regardless of local formal amenities. Such work highlights the ways in which children utilize, experience, and appreciate space differently from adults. Children redefine everyday settings by creating opportunities to play and constructing secret places and dens which has led to the suggestion from some geographers that adults should stop providing formal playgrounds in favor of more open space, where children are enabled to create and recreate their own play environments. Moreover, historical work by geographers has highlighted the fact that the development of formal play provision in the global North has been a common response to the desire to contain children within a controlled and bounded spatial setting, rather than as a way of providing an empowering child-centered environment. Work in the United States, for example, has illustrated how the growth of playgrounds in the early 1900s was a deliberate attempt to ensure immigrant children were socialized as appropriately gendered American citizens. Other research in the United Kingdom exploring the current growth in commercial play spaces also raises important questions about children’s place in public space.

Recently, geographers have highlighted the growing concern for children’s safety in public space in the global North. Children are conceptualized as being vulnerable to the danger inherent in public space from strangers and cars, as well as from other children. However, despite this, the street remains an important space for children, particularly for those from working class backgrounds. Work by geographers has been important in highlighting that while children are significant consumers of street culture and public space more generally, they are generally excluded from participating in the planning processes which impact upon the ways in which it is designed. A number of geographers are striving to combat this, by working in innovative ways with children and local planning authorities. However, there is some debate as to how effective this actually is and whether or not it is more tokenistic than participatory.

Research in the global South has tended to find that rural children have considerable spatial freedom, although their time may be subject to stricter management by adults. For most rural children, attendance at school entails a lengthy walk, in the absence of private and in many cases public transport. Children may also engage in (paid or unpaid) work in public space. In Bolivia and India, for instance, children are expected to undertake chores that take them away from the home for hours at a time: time which they use not only to complete the tasks expected of them, but also to take opportunities to play.

Urban environments are generally considered less suitable for children. In many cities, particularly in less affluent areas, children are at risk of violence when outside the home, and particularly if they stray from their own neighborhoods. Some choose to join gangs (sometimes as a means of self protection), which exposes them to even higher risks. While public space may be seen as unsafe for children, in many cities, substantial numbers of children live on the streets. These children are generally regarded as ‘out of place’, disrupting ideologies that place children indoors and within conventional families. That they are able to survive on the streets indicates their capacities as social actors, carving out niches for themselves within hostile urban environments.

Cyberspace

In the North cyberspace has become an increasingly important place for children to interact with others, both globally and locally. Cyberspace offers children the opportunity to network with peers who may live within their local environment or on the other side of the world, thus enabling children to (re)produce relationships across time and space. It is likely that children will increasingly form social relationships free from the constraints of spatial locality. Given the fears over children in public space discussed earlier, virtual space has become an important alternative to the material spaces of childhood. Indeed, virtual space may offer some children the opportunity to publicly interact in a world in which access to the public sphere is becoming increasingly restricted. Information technology thus offers children important new spaces for the development of children’s online cyber communities. Within these communities, children have the capacity to contest and resist adult notions of acceptable behavior, which has led to a rise in moral panics around children accessing inappropriate material such as pornography or being subject to the predatory gaze of pedophiles. However, as a number of geographers have pointed out, this is not unique to virtual space, but reflects moral panics surrounding childhood more generally in public space. The increasing amount of time spent by some children in cyberspace is also leading to concern from adults over the amount of time children are now spending alone, inside, in front of a computer rather than interacting face to face with other children outside. Anxiety about children who are becoming socially isolated loners spending all their free time in cyberspace has to some extent replaced concern over the amount of time children spend in front of a television. Such concern, however, is interesting to geographers as it reveals something about the way adults conceptualize the appropriate place of childhood, one that is not socially isolated and indoors.

While virtual space shares some characteristics with material space, virtual environments are relatively unique in children’s geographies in that they allow children to (re)establish their own identities free from many constraints. Thus, while identity and individual characteristics are limited by biology and society in the material world, within cyberspace children can choose, if they want, to change their age, gender, ethnicity, class, etc., in terms of the information they give to chat rooms, gaming systems, or individuals by e mail. However, although virtual space offers children the possibility to play with their identity, it is important not to overstate the ability of cyberspace to eradicate the realities of material existence for children.

Cyberspace remains a sphere of relative privilege. Although many children in the global North have access to the Internet, through school if not at home, worldwide its use remains highly uneven. In poor countries it is generally only the elite that can afford to allow their children to go online. There are, however, some innovative projects that allow school children to communicate ideas and compare lifestyles with their contemporaries in very different settings.