Origins of Work on Children by Human Geographers

Children remained absent from most geographical work until William Bunge’s detailed empirical studies of Detroit and Toronto in the early 1970s, in which he focused on the spatial oppression of children in the built environment. At a time when geography was heavily dominated by the quantitative revolution, Bunge used a variety of methods including observation of children at play to highlight the inequalities faced by children living in high rise environments and in poverty. At around the same time a fellow geographer, Jim Blaut, began conducting some empirical work on the mapping abilities of children, establishing an agenda for research into children’s geographical knowledge which led to a focus in geography on child development, spatial cognition, and mental maps. Geographers like Hugh Matthews followed Blaut and successfully critiqued the work of developmental psychologists who conceptualized children as psychologically immature, in need of guidance to develop into normal adults, by demonstrating the mapping abilities of very young children. Others such as Roger Hart were more influenced by Bunge and produced detailed ethnographic studies of children’s experience of place and began highlighting the relationship between the environment and socialization. Cindi Katz further developed this notion by exploring the role of the physical environment in rural Sudan and New York in relation to social and cultural reproduction, as well as the local consequences of global economic restructuring. Drawing on a number of the research methods used by Bunge and Hart, she produced an innovative account of the ways in which global processes have severe consequences for children living in very different local environments.

Despite these seminal studies, it was not until the publication of an article in the Journal ‘Area’ in 1990 by Sara James entitled ‘Is there a ‘place’ for children in geography?’ that there was a public debate on the state of research on children in human geography. This debate marked the beginning of the growth in interest in children from geographers which has led to the development of the current subdiscipline of children’s geographies. However, it is important to note that geographers have not remained isolated from other social scientists in this development. Children’s geographers have both drawn upon and now contribute to the interdisciplinary new social studies of childhood. Such studies challenge the relative absence of children in social science research, highlighting that childhood is socially constructed, varying across time and space, and according to the way it interacts with other aspects of social identity. It is this assertion that different childhoods are socially constructed and contested in different ways which forms the basis of analysis. Thus children’s geographers explore the ways in which children’s identities are classed, racialized, and gendered in different places in different ways. Moreover, the new social studies of childhood have influenced human geographers by conceptualizing children as competent social actors. It is also important to note that the increasing focus on children in geography also reflects the broader growth in interest in sociospatial inequality and previously hidden and neglected geographies influenced by a feminist and post structuralist perspective.