The Spatial Construction of Childhood

One of the most important ways in which human geography can enhance our understanding of childhood is to highlight the importance of space and place to children’s lives. Geographers question essentialist notions of a universal child by illustrating through diverse empirical studies the ways in which children’s experiences vary in different places and in different contexts. The notion of what constitutes a normal childhood in the global North, embodied by ideals of innocence, playfulness, and happiness, is not only challenged by a number of studies in the global South but also by research highlighting childhood as a time of work, responsibility, and hardship in the North.

At a broad international scale there are large variations in economic wealth that have an impact on the lives of children. There are also political, cultural, and ideological differences between the ways in which children are treated and catered for in different national settings. There are also distinctions between urban and rural environments that pattern childhoods at a more local level, as well as innumerable fine grained differences between places. However, not only does spatiality shape children’s lives directly, but discourses of childhood are spatially constructed in relation to notions of, for example, the rural or of national identity, in turn contributing to the cultural constructs that give meaning to place. The following sections examine some of the structural and discursive processes that operate to differentiate between childhoods at the local scale and globally.


The economic resources available, at household level, within wider communities, and at national level, have a great impact on the lives of children. In any society, children are usually disproportionately represented among the poor. They are also generally more adversely affected by poverty: undernutrition in childhood can have effects lasting into adulthood, and famine exacts its highest toll among the very young. Poverty has implications for children’s access to healthcare and education, as well as leisure activities. It is also the main reason why so many children worldwide participate in the workforce from a young age. It is also poverty that drives some young people to live on the streets or to engage in commercial sex work.

Economic Change and ‘Development’

Children are affected not only by economic conditions but also by economic change. Historical studies have shown how the emergence of spaces specifically for children (particularly schools) in Western Europe was associated with the requirements of the Industrial Revolution for disciplined labor, as well as the wish to exclude children from workplaces. In the twentieth century, various sets of strategies were implemented in an attempt to improve the living conditions in the poorer parts of the world. These were generally undertaken without children specifically in mind, but nonetheless impacted on children’s lives. ‘Structural adjustment’ policies, imposed by international financial institutions on governments in the global South as a condition of debt rescheduling, were notorious for their negative impacts on the children of the poor, particularly through the introduction of fees for use of health and education facilities.

International Child Rights, NGOs, and Cultural Change

Although children have seldom been a major focus of national politics, at the international level there is a long history of action in support of children and their rights. Save the Children was established in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I in Europe, and was involved in drafting the Declaration on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the League of Nations in 1924. The discourse of rights associated with children that is promulgated internationally has changed over the past eight decades, but remains firmly rooted in Western expectations of what is appropriate for children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, agreed in 1989, was the most rapidly ratified international treaty ever. The convention inscribes rights to protection, provision, and participation, which inform many of the activities of international child focused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as governments. Both policies and discourse are contributing to changing cultural expectations concerning children.


Globalization is a term that encompasses a number of related processes, all of which impinge on children’s lives. Economic globalization has drawn some children into export oriented production. More notably, the fact that firms are very mobile means that they have little incentive to invest in social reproduction in particular settings: it is easier to move on and find a new workforce elsewhere. In cultural terms, children worldwide have (to varying degrees) access to similar commodities: music, films, clothing, food, drink. The fact that similar commodities are consumed does not, however, imply that their meanings remain constant: children in different local settings attach different meanings to particular items, and consume them in different ways.