Unsupervised, risky play in dangerous communities may pose hazards to children

Janik, A. . (2022). Outdoor (anti-)play spaces and places: a qualitative study of Polish large city backyards seen from children’s perspective. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1080/14729679.2022.2127111

The aim of this study was to reveal children’s perception and understanding of their everyday, unsupervised outdoor play. Specifically, the study considered children’s perspectives of their backyards in an impoverished urban community where play experiences were located in degraded environments characterized by crime and deprivation.

Backyards with designated disadvantaged status were selected as research sites in a city in Poland. Backyards were semi-public small square areas which were littered, lacking vegetation and covered by compacted soil. Researchers observed children, ages 3-10, during their outdoor play. Seventy-three children were observed as they gave exploratory tours of their backyards—they led the walks, told stories, expressed opinions, and replied to researchers' questions. Twenty-three children also attended meetings in their backyards in which they identified feelings about specific play spaces.

Analysis of research materials led to the identification of five main themes: Nature of play; Places liked and tamed; Spaces disliked and ambivalent attitudes to backyards; Appropriation of space; and Awareness of the social context of backyards. Children were commonly observed engaged in risky play, including climbing, jumping from heights, throwing rocks, and, most frequently, exploring the environment without parental supervision. Children associated various emotions with backyards and preferred specific spaces through feelings they experienced. Children sympathized with spaces used for playing and “transformed unknown and unrecognized space into well-known places” through their “experiences, senses, meanings, ideas and fantasies.” Other spaces evoked feelings of anxiety, fear and sadness. In one instance, a six-year-old shared his experience of being physically attacked by teenagers and adults at a playground, which he now avoids. All children older than five were critical of their backyards and emphasized their “disarray and disorder.” Children understood space appropriation and stayed away from places occupied by adults, sometimes due to fear and avoidance of dangerous situations. For example, children avoided a place where adults drink alcohol, are verbally offensive and appear hostile. Spaces perceived as unwanted by adults, such as roofs of garages, were appropriated by children. In general children used backyards spontaneously, taking advantage of places that were accessible. Children demonstrated awareness of the social context of their backyards, depicting them as less desirable than those of their peers with ‘nicer’ or ‘normal’ play spaces.

The research contributes to an understanding of the socio-cultural contexts of children's outdoor play. While the children in the study were adept at navigating unsafe spaces, the study illuminates the hazards of risky, unsupervised play in degraded environments and dangerous neighborhoods. Consideration of children’s living environments in regard to free, outdoor play is crucial. The study also demonstrates the “role of children as experts on matters close and important to them.”

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