Children’s Geographies

There has been sufficient research, publication, and teaching activity in the field of children's geographies since Alison James' seminal piece in the journal Area in 1990 that a distinct subdiscipline has emerged, complete with its own journal (Children's Geographies, founded in 2003) and a specialty research group of the RGS IBG (Children, Youth and Family Working Group, formed in 2006). As the name of this group suggests, the focus within the subdiscipline has begun to broaden from childhood to include youth and family. This demonstrates a growing willingness within geography to engage with geographies of age more broadly. Also since 1990, there have been claims of an 'emergent paradigm' forming within the social sciences which recognizes children and childhood as a legitimate locus of concern and introduces new epistemological and methodological perspectives.

Children's Geographies

The new social studies of childhood have thus emerged as an interdisciplinary, social, and cultural paradigm within which children's geographies play a significant role. The interdisciplinary nature of this work is important as it has supported the development of epistemological and methodological critiques and approaches which have helped propel children's geographies since at least 1990. Sharing insights from, among others, history, sociology, anthropology, geography, education, childhood studies, psychology, legal studies, and policy studies has allowed the formation of a series of ethical, epistemological, and methodological approaches which now inform both children's geographies and the wider new social studies of childhood of which it forms part. Several insights stem from an ontological interrogation of terms such as child and childhood, highlighting the extent to which these terms are socially, culturally, and politically constructed:

  1. Such apparently natural concepts vary considerably over time and space. This insight helps to locate the ideas and practices surrounding childhood temporally and spatially. Furthermore, it highlights the extent to which such concepts and customs are malleable. This means that geographers are able to contribute to understandings not only of how adultism, for example, operates, but also how it may be overcome in favor of greater equality and empowerment.
  2. Work in this area has begun to unpick oppressive ways in which disciplines have theorized children and childhood, from structural sociology's view of children as passive subjects of socialization, as illustrated in the work of Talcot Parsons, to the uncritical ways in which Jean Piaget's developmental models have been used to produce a linear, predictable view of child development. Critiques such as these have paved the way for new theoretical approaches to childhood and supported attempts to address adultist forms of exclusion and oppression wherever they occur.
  3. Theoretical and empirical work has demonstrated that there is no singular, universal childhood. Rather, childhood is produced and experienced in innumerable ways and geographers have been highly active in this regard, exploring, for example, the diverse ways in which childhood is experienced between and within Minority and Majority World contexts.
  4. Stemming from all the above, children are not passive 'adults in the making' but competent social actors who, from birth, exercise their own agency to actively shape the world. This agency, however, is not fixed or given, but is as fluid and diverse as the experiences of younger people themselves.

A commitment to equality and addressing adultism, therefore, lies at the heart of children's geographies and the new social studies of childhood. Geographical work has highlighted several key issues impacting younger people including poverty, education, violence, health and nutrition, and participation. While these issues often relate to both Majority and Minority World contexts, to date there has been disproportionately more work on Minority World contexts. In the Minority World, for example, geographical research has shown how adultist practices and discourses have contributed to the erosion of children's independent mobility, through transport policies favoring the motor car, the growth of privatized civic space such as shopping centers and moral panics surrounding stranger danger and 'uncontrolled youth'. Increasingly, however, work in this field has begun to broaden its analysis both spatially and conceptually, so that age is studied across Minority and Majority World contexts and in a fuller, more relational sense.

Broadening the spatial analysis of children's geographies has in part been promoted by the United Nation's Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) (agreed 1989). The most widely ratified UN human right's instrument, this convention has been signed by all nations except the US and Somalia. It sets out specific nation state responsibilities and regular detailed reporting and accountability to the UN, thus creating an agreed global framework to raise the status of children. Over time this has had significant implications for children's geographies as each nation state where the UNCRC is in force adopts a rolling program to improve the rights and experiences of people under 18 years of age. While the UNCRC has been criticized for its Western, or Minority World bias and repeating outdated universalized understandings of childhood, it has helped place children on the global political agenda and paved the way for more recent work on older age.

The second, conceptual, broadening of approaches to children involves a relational turn in which the focus has shifted from addressing children as a discrete group to looking at younger people and the way their geographies intersect with others wherever they are placed on the age continuum. Rather than closing off childhood and essentializing 'the child', more recent work has begun to look at younger people in their specificity and brings to this analysis an awareness that age intersects with other identities and forms of oppression, including those based on gender, ethnicity, race, class, sexuality, and dis/ability. Using the term 'younger people' rather than 'children' draws upon work on older people where relationality is at least implicitly embedded in the very label used. Whereas the label 'children' may be used to carry the implication that the subjects are discrete and bounded, the term 'younger people' highlights the relationality of age and allows greater scope for broadening analysis to all actors, regardless of their position on the age spectrum. Younger people as a term, therefore, may be applied not only to children and youth, but also to locate younger adults vis a` vis older ones.

As this discussion suggests, there are several commonalities between emerging subdisciplines of younger and older people, with both contributing to understandings of geographies of age and ageism. It is necessary, therefore, to look at geographies of older people in their own right in order to further explore how geographies of age and ageism are understood and where their future contributions and developments may lie.