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Clare Cooper Marcus wrote an essay on ” The Needs of Children in Contemporary Cities” in the book What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, which was reviewed on village-connections. I think the essay is well worth reading, if only to remind ourselves about how crucially important are the needs of children.

Marcus introduces her topic by describing an exercise she gives to her students – which I think useful for us all to ponder.

She asks students to  “draw and describe their most fondly remembered childhood places.”

Marcus reports that “from among hundreds of students completing this assignment, almost no one remembered a place specifically designed for children.”

She noted that her students recalled special places which “offered qualities supportive of children’s self-directed play… They were relatively close to home, sometimes frequented by a small group of close friends, not particularly valued or visible to adults, and they incorporated an abundance of manipulable  loose parts.”

Marcus makes a comprehensive case for the importance of children’s needs, for their sake and the sake of our society and  concludes her essay with what she considers would support children’s needs in an ideal neighborhood. I have summarised the requirements:

A natural or quasi-natural area away from traffic and within sight and calling distance of homes surrounding the space occupied by families with children. This space needs to provide opportunities for as many different kinds of play as possible: places where digging in dirt or sand is encouraged; semi-wild areas where dens might flourish; trees for climbing; grassy areas for ball games and running; planting beds for gardening; paths for wheeled toys; and equipment for climbing, swinging, sliding, etc…

Access from homes needs to be safe, not requiring a street crossing wherever possible…

The shared green space needs to be well maintained, but without removing those “loose parts” (leaves, twigs, cones, seeds etc) valuable for children’s creative play…

[She concludes] Above all, we need to protect and enhance children’s access to nature, whether to a large, semi-wild space or something as simple as a single tree growing in an “island” in the middle of a cul-de-sac. Research indicates that today’s environmental activists all had access as children to wild or semi-wild nature and at least one caring adult who encouraged that access. It is critical that we promote such access for children in contemporary cities in order to educate and inspire the next generation of earth stewards.

When looking for an image to accompany this Blog I decided on a photo of children playing in Packe Street Park – a neighbourhood park in Christchurch. The Park is run by The Friends of the Park and it has as part of its constitution “To secure a safe place for children to meet and play”. The photo was taken a decade or so ago.  I understood that children  still very much enjoyed playing in their local park and decided to check it out for myself. I heard children well before I saw them. They’d built a hut with wooden slates taken from the compost heap. There were around 7 children, all boys. 6 were in the hut and one was picking up small apples from under the tree and throwing them at the hut – bombing they called it.

I went up to the hut (checking first I wasn’t going to come under fire from the apple bomber) and heard that they liked the fruit trees, building huts, bombing the hut and running.  They told me about their gang: “We have a gang – other kids can belong, but we have to check them out first. We need to check out that they don’t betray us, that they protect the place and look after our things.”

It reminded me of how much I enjoyed such play when I was a kid and how useful Clare Cooper Marcus’ reminder about the real needs of children. What do you think?

Hear Child Friendly Cities on Radio New Zealand – The Invercargill City Council set itself the target of becoming New Zealand’s most child friendly city. See Council’s Report and link to UNICEF Child Friendly Cities

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