Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Kids need safe space to explore

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Are you a kid planning on going out for Halloween on Wednesday? If you are and want to get as much candy as possible, urban planners have some advice: Get Mom or Dad to take you to one of the city's older neighbourhoods such as River Heights or St. Boniface. While the houses in these areas are not necessarily small, they are likely on modestly sized lots, with front doors relatively close to the street. Compare this to many newer suburban developments where lots are larger, driveways are longer and may require traversing dark areas. Here, you'll have to walk farther to get house to house, meaning your treat-to-effort ratio will go way down.

If Mom and Dad need convincing, remind them older communities are also more likely to have sidewalks and less traffic, so you'll be safer.

When choosing where to live, it is probably not often that parents employ the trick-or-treat-test -- asking whether the neighbourhood is best for youngsters seeking candy -- but maybe they should. As it turns out, the characteristics that make a community ideal for a kid on Halloween night also make it better-suited to meeting his or her needs the other 364 days of the year.

North American children increasingly fill their time with organized sports and other activities. Yet, it turns out traditional informal play remains an important part of childhood development. Research shows it allows kids to figure out how to use and navigate their environment in creative ways. Opportunities to explore surroundings, to invent, to make decisions, to screw up and to solve conflicts, are crucial to their emotional health.

Nobody is saying children should be left completely unattended or scheduled activities shunned, but the ability to have unstructured interactions with their peers while only lightly supervised by an adult (watching from the kitchen window, for example) helps them develop personal identity, self-sufficiency and social skills.

Unfortunately, far too many North American communities have designed away the potential for unstructured play. Citizens now accept streets are meant primarily for cars, not people, meaning there are fewer outdoor places available to play, and parents are unwilling to let their kids venture much further than the backyard.

As neighbourhoods become less safe for kids, and as parents perceive them as less safe, young citizens are denied a chance to independently build relationships outside of school, practice, or play dates. A growing body of evidence reveals this lack of spontaneous social interaction limits their emotional development, leaves them poorly prepared to deal with stress, leads them to attempt to "resolve" problems through violence, and increases their sense of narcissism -- and these effects stay with them into adulthood.

The Atlantic magazine reported last year university deans have come up with a term for students who have had their lives scripted and scheduled and have never had to deal with unexpected challenges themselves. The staff call these students "teacups" -- they are so fragile, they go to pieces any time things don't go their way.

Admittedly, there are a number of factors at play in raising a "teacup kid," but it is increasingly clear in order to foster the resiliency and problem-solving skills crucial to surviving and thriving as adults, young people need safe spaces in which to grapple with and connect to the world around them without their parents, coaches or teachers constantly by their side.

As Canada's cities evolve, it is worth striving to ensure they are places where kids can get the range of socialization they need. This means building communities where children can move freely (to a point, of course) because outdoor areas have been made secure for them -- not just by providing playgrounds and parks, but incorporating large sidewalks, short and navigable blocks, and traffic-calming measures so it is possible for them to walk safely to the park or a friend's house without having to wait for a ride.

It also means working to create enough density and community cohesion that children can feel they live somewhere the people around them know and look out for them. Because unless it's Halloween night, a child's neighbourhood should not be a scary place for them to explore.

Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate from the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 30, 2012 A11

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