How to build cities fit for children

After decades on the margins, child-friendly urban planning and design is emerging into the mainstream. What does this mean for children, for cities, and crucially for the decision-makers and professionals who will shape the futures of both?

My new report Building Cities Fit for Children gives perhaps the first overview of the decisions and programs of those cities that are at the forefront of the movement to reshape their neighbourhoods with children and families in mind. Based on my Churchill Fellowship travels in Europe and Canada, the report takes as its starting point not what I think cities should be doing, nor what agencies like UNICEF are promoting, but what leading cities have actually done. Continue reading

Risk, fear and freedom: a plea to parents

Children hunger for a taste of freedom. They are strongly driven to get to grips with the people, places and things around them. To figure stuff out for themselves, to learn new skills, and to build their self-confidence and their sense of what they are capable of.

Much of this figuring out, this learning, this confidence-building, happens when children are playing, exploring, experimenting, and testing themselves.

Toddler walking on a fountain wall next to her mother

This ‘effort after mastery’ is an incredibly powerful, natural learning impulse. What is more, it kicks in right from birth, and can be seen throughout childhood. Just watch any toddler learning to walk, trying over and over to master the art of putting one foot in front of the other.

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An interview with… Tim Gill

A few months ago I was asked to do an email interview by Maya, a senior high school student from California, as part of her project. (She has asked me not to use her last name.)

The questions were smart, she knew her stuff, and she had read some of my writings. (Top tip to other students who ask for help with their projects: always do this.) So I agreed.

When I was finished I thought: Maya’s questions were so astute that maybe I should share the interview more widely. So I asked her. And she agreed.

Here is the interview, published just in time for the Child in the City conference in Vienna (where my keynote speech will give a sneak preview of the key findings of my study tour on child-friendly urban planning). As always, feedback and comments are welcome!

What would you say are the biggest health problems/hazards facing children living in large cities? Are there particular issues for children living in low income areas?

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Leading NGO calls for new thinking on play safety around the world

Playgrounds have for decades been shaped by a zero risk mindset, with, any injury seen as a sign of failure. But things are changing, in what the New York Times recently called a “movement for freer, riskier play.”

Playing it Safe? report coverI am proud to be a part of this movement. And this article introduces a new report [pdf link] on play and risk that I have written for the Bernard van Leer Foundation, the influential early childhood NGO, as part of its agenda-setting Urban95 initiative.

Entitled Playing it Safe? A global white paper on risk, liability and children’s play in public space, the report makes the case for a new approach, and calls for action by the key agencies involved in creating and maintaining play spaces, including city governments, NGOs, research institutions and safety and public health agencies.

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How a focus on child-friendliness revived one city’s fortunes

I have been aware of Rotterdam’s child-friendly cities initiatives for at least ten years. It is the most ambitious I know, with the biggest budgets and the clearest focus. I have visited projects in 2014 and 2017, and have been impressed by what I saw.

Rotterdam child-friendly city report cover

So I was excited to be back in the city last month as part of my Churchill Fellowship travels, and eager hear more of the city’s story. And I quickly learnt one thing: Rotterdam’s push to become more child-friendly is deeply linked to its history, economy, demographics and built form.

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What is more dangerous, an adventure playground or a conventional playground?

In the cultural conversation about play and risk, adventure playgrounds – proper ones I mean, with timber structures, tools, junk materials and skilled workers – are very much on the radical side of the argument. But how dangerous are they, really?

One American school has conducted a natural experiment that helps to answer this question. And the results – set out in a report from the leading playwork group Pop-Up Adventure Play – cast doubt on standard approaches and thinking.

Parish school in Houston, Texas is a private school for children with a range of disabilities and conditions. It is highly unusual in that it has, on one site, two very different types of play space.

Parish School adventure playground. Photo: Alex Cote

Parish School adventure playground. Photo: Alex Cote

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Last kindergarten in the woods?

[Note: I have added updates at the end of this post] Last month, as part of my Churchill Fellowship travels, I met Viola Zürcher, the leader of a German forest kindergarten (strictly speaking a waldkindergrippe or forest crèche, which takes children aged under three). Her setting runs five days a week in a wooded area on the edge of the city of Freiburg. Like other similar settings, it has a small, temporary hut building as an indoor base.

The visit was meant to be a brief social call, arranged by Freiburg residents and play advocates Peter Höfflin and Ellen Weaver (my tour-guides-cum-translators for the day). But the conversation took an unexpected turn.

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