miércoles, 27 de julio de 2016

The declining space for free-ranging we left to children

I kept the photo below for years, just in case one day I could find a good reason to use it as an illustration of what is going on with children. My first child is almost 4 and a new baby will be welcome to this world in a couple of weeks (take it as a disclaimer for my sensitivity on the topic of this post). I stumbled upon it in the article How children lost the right to roam in four generations, which presents the conclusions of a report on the spatial limits of parental supervision to which children were subjected to in the last few generations. The report (pdf), directed by William Bird, health and nature expert, analyzed the impact on physical and mental health in the short and long term exposure of people to open spaces and, especially, to nature.

The report highlighted things that sound familiar on a current childhood and a society panicking to leave them alone in the urban jungle and the reigning traffic that has colonized cities and urbanized spaces that have eaten natural areas:
"Spontaneous unregulated play in neighbourhood spaces, particularly in affluent areas of cities, is becoming an activity of the past. Children have lost access to traditional play areas including streets and wild spaces. This is due in part to: 1. Parental fear of: traffic, bullying and stranger danger, 2. Loss of natural spaces for play, 3. Perceptions of what is best for children. As a result, children are encouraged to participate in regulated play environments in homes or commercial “play and recreation.
Blame the silly over-regulated playgrounds with their fancy designs complying every little crazy regulation about risks,  legal responsibilities, personal damages and insurance somebody thought they were a good idea to make families and public officials feel everything is under control. As a result, children are encouraged to express themselves and play in regulated environments:
"What’s lost amid all this protection? In the mid-1990s, Norway passed a law that required playgrounds to meet certain safety standards. Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, had just had her first child, and she watched as one by one the playgrounds in her neighborhood were transformed into sterile, boring places". 
Blame the car culture that makes children learn from the very first days of their lives moving around in cities is a constant struggle against cars invading places that should be open to everyone, even children without their driving license, their right to vote or their tax-playing duties. Blame the transformation of physical space to make it a controlled environment in any circumstance or potential use you can think of has domesticated our lives in our highly regulated societies. In the end, it is all the grownups´fault.

Behind all of this there is a society, adults imposing children our own fears (hard to say this in the troubling times we are living nowadays, I know). We fear the unexpected happens, our planning mind and our planning drive hates thing gone wrong (and wrong can, sometimes,  mean harm, disappointment, hazards,…). Over-protective parents and inflated expectations go together in this fear we are transmitting to children.

I loved the article, The Case for Free-Range Parenting, as an inspiring reflection from the experience of a father who moved to live with his family to the United States from Berlin, and how he felt the obsession with control, limitations and overprotecting children:
"On her first morning in America, last summer, my daughter went out to explore her new neighborhood — alone, without even telling my wife or me. Of course we were worried; we had just moved from Berlin, and she was just 8. But when she came home, we realized we had no reason to panic. Beaming with pride, she told us and her older sister how she had discovered the little park around the corner, and had made friends with a few local dog owners. She had taken possession of her new environment, and was keen to teach us things we didn’t know. When this story comes up in conversations with American friends, we are usually met with polite disbelief. "
Perhaps the US is an extreme example (I think of those parents arrested for letting their children, aged 10 and 6 years, go to the park alone to their children), with the extended social obsession with security, the loneliness that it produces, the extension of suburban lifestyle, cities without children,... but the article remarks an inevitable trend in the near future. Urban physical conditions and the way we are tending to build defensive urban designs are just part of a sibilant and quiet complex aggregation of social ideas and conventions that continually invite us, as adults, to over protect, to avoid any problem, to evade our children from any risk. It is not easy to resist: the risk society has inoculated us an overprotective thinking that subtracts freedom from the younger generations.
What worry me most are the examples of overparenting that have the potential to ruin a child's confidence and undermine an education in independence. According to the authors, parents guilty of this kind of overparenting "take their child's perception as truth, regardless of the facts," and are "quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature."
Children are growing with a narrow perspective of the space they are allowed to freely explore without supervision, negated the ability to expose themselves to their own fears and challenges as a way of learning and improvement. We spent thousand of pages discussing if the world was flat or spiky, but it is becoming mentally smaller for the children we are raising up. Surely, the "do not take candies from strangers" had different versions throughout history, but it is perhaps now that the underlying message is more systematic: streets became forbidden places for them (or are they impossible just because we have given up making the claim of cities for people, not for cars?), education systems still do not embrace freedom and self-learning as pedagogic principles, we keep fabricating social fear messages that encourage exaggerated perception of risk, we built consumerism to replace the experience of enjoying what is not (yet) price tagged, we were so good at building a system of safety standards or rules of decorum that make us their slaves, we live in cities increasingly anonymous where "eyes on the street" are absent,…

As the author says, it is not easy to establish the right balance, but I guess the image above reflects a spatial simulation of the mental limitations to which we subjected present life we are now inoculating to those that are beginning to discover the world and the marvels of freedom, also the freedom to take risks, to harm and get harmed, to discover, to err, exposure or overcome. And we must resist. The overprotected kid will find out that we failed them if we are discouraging them to take risks and explore the world for themselves as the human beings they are from the very beginning.

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