Getting our kids outdoors
25/09/2019 By Hyahno Moser

A new ‘neighbourhood play story’ is unfolding in neighbourhoods

How were we to know

How were we to know that we were taking for granted that the neighbourhood would always be there and accessible for children? Or how important the neighbourhood is for children? A critical resource in supporting children’s overall development, shaping positive identities in children, as community members, caring, empathetic, doers, active, connectors, friends, social beings, adventurers, connected to the natural world. How were we to know that in one generation this no longer be part of childhood?

What we do know now, from our Neighbourhood Play Project study, is that most children are banned from exploring their neighbourhood and the opportunities for physical activity, for social activity, for freedom, fun, friends, challenge and mastery, within childhood, in-real-life, for the most part have not been replaced, they have been reduced. They have largely dissipated. Especially the opportunities for children to do child-stuff locally on their own terms.

The 12 month exploration of the recent ‘Neighbourhood Play Project’ unpacked what is and is not happening in neighbourhoods for modern children and families.

Neighbourhood Play Makes Children Happy

What we do know now is that securing neighbourhoods for children to connect and play will increase children’s physical and social activity and improve their trajectory and overall quality of life. Furthermore, for all who live in the local area, increasing neighbourhood play will enhance social cohesion and reduce the risks associated with social isolation.

However, our explorations found that a significant number of Queensland children are completely impeded or highly challenged in their ability to connect and play with local friends. Therefore, a significant number of Queensland children’s physical and social activity is reduced, increasing their risk of being or becoming physically and/or mentally unhealthy.

Neighbourhood Play Builds Independence

The current neighbourhood story points towards a complete erosion of many children’s independent mobility in and around their neighbourhoods. Upon reflection, for the children in this study, neighbourhood play has seemingly disapeared from childhood. In other words, children don’t even want to go out into their community and have no interest in the immediate world outside their door, no desire to connect with local children for play, and no internal value for the neighbourhood as a play resource.

This lack of intrinsic motivation for neighbourhood play could negatively impact on children’s long-term intrinsic motivation for outdoor play and activities in general, along with their overall interest in physical activity and the world beyond their front door.

Perhaps this has come about due to modern children not having seen neighbourhood play in action, with no other children out playing, children no longer have other kids to look up to and to aspire to be.

Neighbourhood Play Builds Physical Literacy and Good Health

Children in this study never brought up physical activity as a motivator for neighbourhood play however while playing out in the neighbourhood, the children were constantly moving and engaged in highly physical forms of activity, such as running, jumping, climbing, chasing etc. The children were predominantly at the edge of their skills and abilities or seeking out the next opportunity for this type of engagement within their physically active play. Climbing higher, riding faster, setting more challenges for themselves, pushing each other, and exploring and mastering new skills. This suggests that if children are given the space for outdoor play, and able to connect with other children, they will be significantly more physically active.

Interestingly, if local neighbourhood play opportunities are not created, children will not seek them out.

Neighbourhood Play Builds Good Friends

Our explorations found that parental concerns for their children’s wellbeing and health, surrounding neighbourhood play, mostly related to their child’s opportunity for socio-emotional development and securing good mental health. Parents were most excited about their children having local friends for play.

Parental concerns were centered largely around their child’s loneliness and social isolation. Concern for children’s physical health was noted however the immediate lack, as expressed by parents, was more focused on children’s ability to just be happy and smiley. When probed parents attributed this happiness would come from their children’s social skill development, their child’s capacity to make and sustain friends, as well as create opportunities for their children to practice, test and master relationship skills. Parents viewed neighbourhood play as a regular and accessible avenue for their child’s social skill development.

Correlating with this parental motivation was the high degree of parental concern that their children do not have neighbourhoods, or neighbourhood friends, and therefore are lacking in opportunities to practice and master social skills.

Neighbourhood Play Grows Out of Backyard Play

Parental concern for the growing trend of backyards shrinking was noted. Parents expressed concern that backyards were lacking the capacity to cater for their child’s social outdoor play (not enough space for multiple children to play in for extended periods of time) or satisfy the desired level of developmentally appropriate challenge and mastery levels of middle to older children. In this vein, the neighbourhood becomes increasingly important as a resource to sustain a child’s level of challenge, social engagement, motivation and interest in outdoor play and physical activity.

Neighbourhoods for Play Needs to be Prioritised

The difficulty of having ‘time’ for neighbourhood play was regularly mentioned by parents who felt that there are multiple activities competing for attention in family life. Parents also mentioned that neighbourhood play needed to become a priority, and a local collaboration of parents could schedule in unscheduled time for their children to connect and play.

Fear and Distrust Erode Neighbourhoods for Play

Overall our community investigation discovered most children are banned from the neighbourhood by fearful and distrusting parents who just want to keep their children safe. Parents are fearful that their child will be abducted or hurt if permitted to play out in the neighbourhood. Parents perceived all people who they don’t know are potential threats to their children.

Other adults are not viewed as friends, valuable community members, supervisors of neighbourhood children, or protectors of all local children.

This parental fear was noted as widely adopted across the community and the deciding factor for banning children from the neighbourhood.

This parental fear is also projected onto children who don’t seem to perceive a reduction of their lives. Across this project no child was noted as unsatisfied or protesting their parent’s decision to reduce their space for play and opportunity to connect with local friends. Nor were children noted as asking for or demanding neighbourhood play. Children seemed to accept that locally they are not permitted beyond their home unless supervised by adults. Children seemingly accept this permanent grounding as their parents keeping them safe and secure.

A comment consistently repeated over the project was “you just don’t know who is out there”. Several children interviewed indicated they were fearful and distrusting of the outside world and were prepared with extreme strategies to ward off predators, ready to be implemented at any time. Children are seemingly being raised with the message that they are in constant danger all the time, and that everyone they don’t know is a threat to their safety.

This suggests a prevalence of children who live with the fear of constant danger and are scared of their neighbourhoods. This builds a negative narrative inside the child and acts as a strong internal barrier to neighbourhood play.

This fear that is obvious in children’s minds suggests that grown-ups’ need to be careful in how children are educated about their community. Taking children out into their neighbourhoods, talking with them about constructive strategies for staying safe and being mindful of dangers, but also reinforcing the realities of these anomalies occurring to ensure our children have an accurate perception of the world. Perhaps this will protect children’s developing worldview and paint a positive picture for children of the community they will want to grow with, be part of and contribute to.