I look back on my own childhood with many fond memories, particularly of playing outside: making dens with friends in the garden, skimming stones on the nearby canal and exploring the wood next to my best friend’s house. And yes, occasionally we did get lost and have accidents which needed hospital treatment, but we got over these predicaments.
Ever since our son was born, I’ve tried to foster in him a love of the outdoors. He has his own patch of garden, where he can dig in the dirt to his heart’s content. As a child there was nothing more exciting to me than being a small person in a big, big world. But despite now living in a very small village, some neighboring parents don’t share my enthusiasm. This mother is typical; she won’t allow the boys to play together unsupervised outside “because there might be some strange people out there”. Yet we know that autonomy is a key human need. Developing coping mechanisms and self-efficacy, and exercising responsibility and choice are an important part of learning by experience. Can children develop self-reliance if they are constantly kept under close supervision, and not allowed to manage risks through occasionally encountering adverse situations on their own?
Various research points to the importance of natural spaces for human development and physical and mental well-being, for example reducing mental fatigue, blood pressure and stress (Hartig et al, 2003), and specifically helping hospital patients use fewer painkillers and recover from surgery more quickly (Ulrich, 1984). We also know that people whose environment lacks natural spaces have higher levels of aggression and violence than those whose environment is greener. Green spaces are good for us!
So when I came across Tim Gill’s paper, which makes a case for a space-oriented approach to improving children’s well-being, it was literally a breath of fresh air. Referring to the 2007 UNICEF report on child well-being in developed countries, Gill argues that those which score highest on well-being, relationships, behaviors and risks (Scandinavia and the Netherlands) are the same countries which have a space-oriented approach. That is, their children enjoy “comparatively high levels of everyday freedom prior to adolescence” (p138). Unfortunately the UK and the USA rank lowest on these same dimensions.
So what does Gill mean by a space-oriented approach to well-being? Put simply, such things as creating child-friendly communities (where adults and children of different age ranges can mix freely), accessible parks, playgrounds and public spaces, and encouraging child-friendly modes of transport such as walking, cycling and public transport. Significantly he also suggests that the responsibility for children’s well-being is a communal one, not just that of parents or teachers. This drives to the very core of a positive psychology approach.
The level of cohesiveness in the community must play a vital role in the success of a space-oriented approach. The World Values Survey provides in-depth information about the cohesiveness of different country-level communities, based on questions such as “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful in dealing with people?” It won’t surprise you to learn that Denmark tops the table; 66% of Danes say that people can be trusted. In fact the majority of European countries show a dramatic increase in the level of trust between 1981 and 1999, with the exception of the UK, where the percentage has fallen from 42.5% to 28.5% in the same time. Unfortunately, the level of trust has also dropped in the US, from 39.2% in 1982 to 35.5% in 1999.
In order for a community to take on a shared responsibility for child well-being effectively, the level of trust in that community must increase. But it’s a virtual cycle – someone has to take the first step. This might be where positive psychology, with its emphasis on positive emotion, positive traits and positive institutions (in the broadest possible sense) can make a real and lasting difference.
Gill, T. (2008) Space-oriented children’s policy: Creating child-friendly communities to improve children’s well-being. Children & Society 22 (2) , 136–142.
Hartig, T., Evans, G.W., Jamner, L.D., Davis, D.S. & Gärling, T. (2003). Tracking restoration in natural and urban field settings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23, 109-123.
Ulrich, R.S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420-421
UNICEF (2007). Child poverty in perspective: an overview of child well-being in rich countries. UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre: Florence.
World Values Survey: http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/
Photos: Macieklew and blondie478, Flickr.com