How child-friendly is Moscow?

Mum and child on bridgeOn my visit to Moscow last week, I witnessed an intriguing sight as I was crossing a bridge near the city centre. A little girl and her mother were walking towards me. As they went past, the girl stooped down to make a snowball, and then she threw it playfully towards her mother. Not very noteworthy, you may think – except that it was minus 6 degrees Centigrade, with a biting wind and eight lanes of Moscow traffic roaring by just metres away from us. You could not have asked for a clearer example of children’s appetite for play, regardless of their circumstances. So how well does Russia’s capital satisfy that appetite – how child-friendly is it?

Having spent just four days in the city – two of them at the Moscow Urban Forum – it would be foolish of me to give a definitive answer. But I saw and heard enough to share some thoughts. A good place to start is with the Forum itself. Now in its second year, the event had all the hallmarks of a high-profile, heavyweight occasion, including a mayoral keynote and a star turn by Tim Campbell, British former Apprentice, and now London’s own ambassador for training and enterprise. So the fact that it devoted one session to the topic of ‘children in the city space’ points to a real interest in children’s experiences of living in Moscow.

That session revealed further positive signs. Yulia Grimalskaya, a senior official from Moscow’s department for family and youth policy, said that in 2011-2 alone, the Mayor had improved or created 50 city parks, 123 artificial skating rinks, 46 workout areas, and no fewer than 1,100 playgrounds. All clear evidence that, as she put it, “Moscow is trying to turn its face to children”.

In another session, Andrey Nesterenko from developers Red Rose set out his company’s plans for a new Moscow district, V Lesu. His sales pitch for this “big and magnanimous” family-oriented development highlighted “education and development for children” and “playgrounds for children of different ages” alongside the promotion of walking and cycling and public transport improvements.

Outside the conference bubble, I came across another encouraging sign: an initiative called the White City Project, which aims to make a central area of the city more liveable and child-friendly. This video gives a flavour of the project’s aims and approach.

So does all this add up to making Moscow a great place to grow up? Not at all. At the conference, Moscow’s chief architect Sergei Kuznetsov gave a damning assessment of the postwar Soviet microrayons or ‘sleeping districts’ where 90 per cent of Moscow’s families live. “Children are living in such faceless environments,” he said, “that it is leading to psychological deficiencies.”

What is more, the city has a huge and growing problem with car traffic. Out in the microrayons, parked cars litter many public spaces. As the comments on my recent blog post show, parents are fearful of the threat of speeding traffic. In the Forum, the topic of traffic was a constant theme. The Mayor of Moscow’s opening speech laid bare the tensions. After declaring that “cars create a better quality of life” he said that Moscow’s most urgent task was “to tackle transport collapse”.

The most fleeting visit to the city confims that it is being overrun by cars. Whilst trying to walk down one narrow city centre street, I found that parked vehicles had blocked both pavements. On another occasion I saw a car driver all but run over a man, as he aggressively asserted his right to park (illegally) on a pedestrian crossing.

Parking conflict

Even the new playgrounds the mayor’s administration is so proud of may be less of a blessing than they seem. Several mothers I spoke to complained that these were largely sterile, unimaginative and boring for children. The ones I saw at first hand were not overly inspiring.

Moscow playground

Some of the parents I spoke to highlighted another barrier to children’s free play: lack of time. In Russia, as in many other countries, children live in a culture where educational attainment is at a premium, and where they face growing pressure to climb up the ladder of formal learning – from an early age, and whether or not they are ready for it. This can leave children starved of the chance to simply play freely. Indeed one mother told me about a kindergarten she visited, where the programme was highly structured. She was amazed to see that the children were desperate to stay on, even at the end of a long day. Why? Because they knew that their only opportunity for free play was after 6 pm.

In my session at the Moscow Urban Forum, I invited the audience to recall their own memories of childhood, and specifically their favourite places to play as a child. Asked whether these places were out of doors – and out of sight of adults – the vast majority of delegates said yes. Just as in London, Edinburgh, Tokyo, Melbourne, Ottawa, Utrecht, Brussels, Auckland, Cardiff, and every other city where I have posed those questions. It was clear that, once revived, these memories of everyday adventures beyond the anxious gaze of adults were full of significance and value.

Adrian Voce, who succeeded me as director at Play England, also spoke at the session. Introducing his take on the rise and fall of government interest in play, he shared a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic exploration of human spirituality, The Brothers Karamazov, that beautifully captures the power and value of a good childhood: “People talk to you a great deal about your education, but some good, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.”

Everyone I spoke to in Moscow was aware of the contrast between their own childhoods and those on offer to children today. Russians were in effect asking themselves “what sacred memories will this generation of children carry with them into life?” – and were not happy with the answer.

I may have the chance to return to Moscow; to explore how it can bequeath its future citizens rich, resonant memories of growing up. If you have any creative ideas for encouraging the city to raise its aspirations for children, I’d love to hear them.

Update 25 February 2013: My visit generated some interest from websites and the media. Here are some links to interviews and feature articles (all in Russian). Thanks to Nadia Pavlovskaya for sending me these links.

Update 8 May 2013: here is one more interview (in Russian):

14 responses to “How child-friendly is Moscow?

  1. Pingback: What is it like to grow up in Moscow? | Rethinking Childhood

  2. Elspeth denchfield

    Thank you for your wonderful, thought-provoking posts. I have enjoyed them so much since I discovered them some months ago. The question you ask about our own childhood experiences has got me thinking.
    There has been a lot of discussion lately about the lack of freedom to explore and play with peers for our children today, but I also remember reading (admittedly a few years ago) about our lack of parental guidance and knowledge about our young pre-teen and teenage children. The point I took from it was that we allow our older children too much freedom and peer time which leads them to experiences and behaviours that have a negative effect. My wondering leads me to ask whether the detrimental effect of too much freedom during these later years is caused by not enough freedom earlier – freedom to gradually learn suitable risk assessment skills for instance, or whether greater freedom earlier in life within today’s society/culture might lead to even more questionable behaviour? I feel and hope the first suggestion might be more likely, but would very much like to hear your views about this if you have the time.

  3. Elspeth – thanks for your comment. I agree with your basic line of thought. This blog post expands my argument. To quote from its last line, “the defining condition of modern childhood may be not ‘Lord of the Flies’ but cabin fever.”

  4. Thank you for this profound post!
    In 2 days, you saw the whole picture.
    I grew up in a “microrayon” myself, a typical “sleeping” area in the North-West of Moscow. Back then, it was ok for children of school-age – or even smaller – to play outdoors, on a playground, for hours without parents watching them. But, of course, we still were fond of hiding and going to less obvious places – because all playgrounds are more or less the same and garage roofs, basements, hospital gardens, etc seemed far more exciting :)
    I cannot imagine this today. Moscow is not at all child-friendly, I think. Even those, who try to improve the situation, sometimes make it worse. Fears of terrorism boosted the appearance of fences around every school and kindergarten, making walking around / thorugh them more complicated. People come to think that only a place with a fence around it (or, even better, a security guard with a gun) is safe, and they pass this fear to kids.

    P.S. -6, Celsius is a pretty normal temperature in Moscow this time of the year, so no wonder children play. Come and see them doing the same thing when it is minus 20 :) (that’s what forecasts promise for us soon).

  5. Madjara, thank you for the comment. I am very pleased that you think that my post was relevant and fair. Some of the parents I spoke to also mentioned high levels of safety fears, amongst adults and children. In my view it is not uncommon for safety measures to make people more afraid and worsen the situation. I wonder if this is a particularly big problem in Russia. Although here in the UK, the approach to school security is similar, and in my view it has a similar impact on people’s attitudes and beliefs.

  6. Tim I live in Moscow as a British stay at home dad SAHD. See blog.
    Russians love kids and although its a hard dirty city it has many playgrounds and children are adored in Russia.

    • Hi, thanks for stopping by here. I enjoyed scanning your blog – sounds like you have got stuck into Moscow life. Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems that on the whole your impressions of what it might be like to grow up in the city and mine are not so far apart.

  7. I recently brought my family here (wife and 2 kids aged 6 & 10) from a 8Ha lifestyle block in the countryside of New Zealand, to a city apartment in the suburbs of Moscow. As an architect looking around at this city, I think that there are a lot of good ideas and intentions here in Moscow with regard to the design of urban residential environments, however the actual execution has let the whole city down. The concept of lots of green space between buildings, filled with walkways, playgrounds and trees is great, allowing people to get from A to B without having to actually walk down a road. These spaces are often filled with people playing with their kids and often late into the evening, walking their dogs or exercising. Within a 200m radius of our apartment building there would be at least 5 children’s playgrounds, plus at least 2 enclosed ball parks and a fitness station.

    So far my observations of this whole environment in regard to our own children are as follows;
    Firstly there is little relationship between the living environments that these kids are being raised in and the outdoors, ie, there are not even any outdoor decks to sit outside on during a hot summer’s day from the majority of apartments, and to get to the outdoors they generally have to get through a couple of locked doors (and these are doors that need a key to open from both sides) and head down a number of storeys and across a carpark to find the nearest playground, relegating that spontaneous play opportunity to something a bit more planned. So depending on the age of your children and the comfort level you have with letting them venture out alone means that there then has to be an active commitment from a parent to facilitate the play, which can be difficult if you have work that needs doing inside. Also the fact that the way the locking systems on these apartments are designed and everyone’s security neurosis means that it can be a rigmorole for the kids to go outside and play even if you are comfortable sending them on their own due to either having to be locked in or have the door locked in such a way that if something should happen to you inside the house, no one could get in to help you as the interior keyless snib has no exterior key, although I suppose the newly developed third appendage of modern kids (cellphone) does help in this regard somewhat, but being from the country we have tried to hold off our kids dependence on cellphones for as long as we can.

    Secondly, while it is applaudable that there are so many playgrounds around for kids, unfortunately they are all of the proprietary plastic and steel type, which offer little imaginative play opportunities for the kids. They are generally more suited maybe to the toddler / small child age range than anyone over school age. More could have been achieved with less, by even just using some old logs, building the odd fort or such like, where kids can get more imaginative in their play, rather than doing something because it is the only way to play on a piece of equipment.

    Thirdly there is a definite lack of time here, getting anywhere takes so long so parents working aren’t getting home till late, leaving little time to do anything with their kids, some kids are “lucky” in that they have nannies, etc to take care of them in the absence of their parents, but is that a real substitute to having a fun time with your mum or dad, or even better both ? Due to their parent’s busy lives, weekends are then busy being hauled around malls, etc getting the shopping done, and then there are the kids who are dragged around to numerous activities after school, leaving little time to just “be a kid”, although I don’t think this last one is entirely a Moscow problem alone.

    and finally, the Russian education system right from the earliest age is so structured into having children “learn” tasks, rather than developing their creativity and freewill, so they are not presented with the freedom to experience live as much as children in nations such as our own, where we use play as a learning tool, where children develop skills and knowledge from a sense of natural enquiry, thus making their play more imaginative. We have witnessed many occassions where Russian children’s creativity is driven by the parents or teachers instruction and guidance, rather than by a natural process of investigation by the children. i.e there is a tendancy to actually show them what to do or do it for them so that it is “right” rather than let them work it out for themselves and risk it being “wrong”. It seems the result is more important here than the process.

    Sorry that is a long winded post, but this is an area that interests me both from my architectural background and from my ownership of childcare centres in New Zealand, so have observed and thought about this very subject a lot since arriving here 3 months ago.

    • Hi Tony – and don’t apologize, I was really interested to read about your experiences. Your point about the relation between the buildings and the public spaces is a good one. As I am sure you know, it’s something urban designers go on about. Your points about time, and about the Russian education system, fit with what I heard from others. Thanks again, and I hope your move works out.

  8. Notwithstanding any misgivings you may have about Russia, Saint Petersburg is a wonderful place for families with kids. The city presents a great balance of old traditions, cultural, and state-of-the-art attractions that will fascinate your children and you. It is a great opportunity to introduce your children to the beautiful world of art and history in an engaging way that will make them curious for more. At the same time, your children will have a chance to see unique museums with exhibits they will not see anywhere else in the world.

  9. Hi once again Tim, further to my previous post, we are now well into winter here in Moscow, and the city has seemingly magically transformed into a huge winter playground, with kids having a ball everywhere. Our local sports cage has been watered and turned into a free, floodlit, open 24/7 Ice skating rink (something that no sane council in NZ would consider providing for its residents for fear of a revolution), the play mounds around the area are now full of kids sliding down on all manner of sleds, tyres, toboggans, cardboard, etc. Babushkas are still out walking their grand kids and pushing babies in prams, the sports stores are full of families buying skis, skates and other winter toys and older kids are snow boarding in the parks.
    I have noticed the change in my own kids who are chomping at the bit to get outside and go skating or sledding after school rather than being unmotivated to get out in the cold as they were during the spring.

  10. Piracetam, thanks for the comment, and Tony – thanks for coming back, and interested to read your descriptions. They reminds me of the Aldo van Eyck quote I shared in my recent festive post, about children taking over Amsterdam when it snows. As an architect, I guess you’ll appreciate this. Enjoy the skating and sledging!

  11. Pingback: The sorry state of neighbourhood design in America: a mother writes | Rethinking Childhood

  12. I have just added to this post some links to interviews and feature articles on my visit (all in Russian).

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s