A Place for the Child Explorer

Justin Golbabai is a member of Strong Towns and guest writer. Today, he shares an essay originally published on his blog, The New Localization.

This week my wife and I disassembled our six-month-old’s crib in favor of a Montessori bed, which is basically a mattress on the floor in the corner of the room next to a mirror. The idea seems strange at first, but as our son becomes more mobile he will be able to wake up, explore his room and play with his toys, discovering his own independence as he is able to do all of these things without our help.

That’s an independence we want to continue to develop as he gets older. It may be just his room that he is exploring now, but there’s a whole world out there and we want him to discover it for himself. But in a society where you’re more likely to get the cops called on you than win Parent of the Year by letting your child roam, is this dream of ours possible?

When we moved from crib to floor-bed, it took more than simply tossing the furniture and turning our kid loose to explore. It took very careful preparing and baby-proofing of his room. We covered outlets, padded corners, and put nearly everything except some rattles into the closet and safely out of his surprising reach. In short, we looked at the room from his point of view and designed it for him instead of for us. Only after these preparations were complete could we feel good leaving him in his bed, knowing that his environment was a safe place to explore.

The built environment outside the home deserves the same scrutiny. Many people would say that kids should not be out on their own because it isn’t safe. The thing is, they’re right! It’s not safe out there for kids to wander because we haven’t designed our places with the mobility and independence of our kids in mind. So how can we make our places more kid-friendly? Well, here are a four ideas:

1. Make cars second class citizens.

We are so used to thinking that streets are merely for cars that we often forget that kids don’t see it this way. Cars make streets unsafe for biking, hockey games, or sometimes simply crossing over to a friend’s house. The car’s dominance puts real danger right outside the child’s doorstep. Lowering traffic speeds, providing safe pedestrian crossings, and designing trails and other car-free transportation pathways are all good ways to make a place more kid-friendly.

2. Ensure interesting places are within walking or biking distance.

A neighborhood with little traffic is a good start, but a kid on a bike needs someplace to go. From parks and bowling alleys to grocery stores and ice cream shops, places within a child’s reach give him a reason to get out and go.

3. Play up the nature.

Kids love the outdoors and nature offers endless opportunities for adventure. I was once kayaking with my wife in a little bay and came across a boy in a very simple wooden sailboat zipping back and forth while his Dad and brother watched from the shore. Everyone was having fun and we were surprised at how capable the little boy was!

4. Build a community with eyes on the street

In Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of an American City, she describes how people knowing their neighbors and keeping a watchful eye on the street creates a secure place for children to play independently. This is just one of the many reasons to actively develop engaged communities throughout our cities.

For all our technological advancement, it sometimes amazes me how, from a child’s point of view, we have actually regressed. Take the childhood of the famed journalist, Lincoln Steffens. Doris Kearns Goodwin describes his youth in her book The Bully Pulpit this way:

 Both intrepid and inquisitive, eight year old Steffens quickly capitalized on his newfound freedom when his parents gave him a pony. He could explore the countryside so long as he returned home in time for dinner. ‘If I left home promptly after breakfast on a no school day and right after school on the other days,’ Lincoln recalled, ‘I could see a great deal of the world.’

When was the last time you saw a kid doing that? Lincoln Steffens, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the Goonies, the Sandlot, Newsies – all great kids and kid stories have this independent, figuring-it-out-on-their-own quality to them that the place facilitates. What does that look like in our day? My wife and I are still trying to figure that out, but we know that when we find it, it will start with these four key attributes above.

(Top photo from Virginia State Parks)

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