A friend came to visit me in the ‘country’ (or peri-urban development if you prefer) last weekend with her two kids (aged 8 and 10). Knowing that there are certain things that kids cannot do in a small inner-city flat, I took the opportunity to get them involved in a small project… the construction of a go kart, billy cart – whatever you want to call it. While I had to dissuade them initially from the swish, polished car-kit kind, it did not take long. They are smart kids and realised that I was on to something when I noted that our mutual inexperience meant we should start off small and simple. So this is what we did:
– We found a simple design on the internet:
– Made a list of the tools and materials required;
– Did the conversions from imperial to metric measurements; and
– Went to the hardware store (the old kind without all the packaging), had a chat with the salesperson, and bought our things.
The kids decided they wanted to paint the kart at one point, so we did a list, and off they went about 1km down the road to the hardware shop a second time.
The kids did most of the work – I was only there to guide them. They measured, marked, learned to handsaw, drill, tighten, and sand. They discovered the difference between regular nuts and safety nuts. The kids painted, did stencilling (‘Aussie Go Kart’ and ‘Made by G and B’), and washed up with mineral turps and then soap and water. Importantly, they discovered very quickly that when it came to ensuring that they used the tools consciously, consciensciously and safely, I was worse than an army sargeant!
We had such a good time! When it came to playing… They got cut and scraped, and they fell off. They loved it.
I started to wonder: Do familiies have a better chance of keeping sane if kids can be sent out on their own for a while? Do kids themselves need to be sent out on their own for a while? Is constantly sharing the same space too intense? Does it impact on the ability to relax, calm down during or after an altercation, give enough ‘space’ to dream or reflect? My observations suggested that we as adults have some time to switch off and do our own thing, while sending the kids out over the weekend resulted in a subtle shift in maturity, independence and competence as they learned something about their own abilities – observations that are likely to be old hat for parents and guardians.
My reflections of the weekend took my thoughts to issues of urban design, higher density living, and planning as they relate to child-rearing. Combined with the residue of a couple of conversations with friends who had recently returned from Israel and Japan, I asked myself: while we’ve come up with the notion of suburbs and built many towns/cities (or parts of them) around this notion, have we fooled ourself that there is a ‘middle’ ground between towns and denser urban centres?
Where I live, places are walkable, parks are nearby, many would consider the area to be socially ‘safe’ – I suspect more kids go places and do things without adults – safety might come with familiarity, greater social trust, etc. In places like Israel, Japan, Sri Lanka there is medium-high or very high density (in Israel and Sri Lanka, at least, high public use of streets for socialising) – I suspect more kids go places and do things without adults, and safety might come in numbers e.g. more kids in one place, more adults able to observe kids. Research seems to support these observations.
So where does this leave suburban-type development in multicutultural Australia?
While some families might go a bit mad, or live very intense lives (or perhaps distant lives if they have to ‘shut-off’ due to the intensity), some may have other release valves, or some may be unaffected. A friend of mine noted that for some cultures, the inside of the home is the most important place, and the external world outside the home has very little significance. So where does it leave the sanity of different types of families living in the suburbs?
I have brought up far too many things for consideration, but I welcome any thoughts on the issues.
I know there are academic papers about these issues out there, but I am not sure if these issues have been studied in relation to regional, urban, and social planning. When I have time I will trawl through the research search engines (I am happy for help!), and will provide references for those who are interested.