A century of rethinking childhood

I’m devoting my 100th blog post to a look back over the previous 99, and over the 20 months or so since my first post. It is a chance for me to think about the process of blogging – and an invitation to you to check out some material that you may have missed.

I’ll start with some numbers. Here are my top five posts, by number of page views:

The sorry state of neighbourhood design in America: a mother writes 14,571
Playgrounds that rip up the safety rules 10,287
German children enjoy far more everyday freedom than their English peers 7,653
Taking a balanced approach to risk in childhood: Why and how 5,862
Two stories about why kids are not outdoors so much these days 4,173

Curiously, my most popular post was not even written by me. Its popularity is partly, I suspect, because it is such a simple, clear account of a common, yet under-recognised problem: the impact of sprawling neighbourhood design on children and families. Its chart-topping status also shows the power of social media. It was quickly picked up by influential urbanist Richard Florida via his twitter feed, and then hotly debated on an American tech website.

Road near Bailey School, Minnesota.

Road near Bailey School, Minnesota. Source: Strongtowns.org

Second on the list is a kind of manifesto statement about playground safety: a topic that has been a focus of my work for at least 13 years. It makes greater use of images than many of my posts. Perhaps this is reflected in its staying power (it still gets 3-400 views a month, a year after it was first posted).

Valbyparken Nature Park 2

The bronze medal post is on children’s independent mobility (to use the research term). As I said in that post, my thinking on childhood has been hugely influenced by the work of researcher, policy analyst and environmental campaigner Mayer Hillman. I like to think that its reach is in part in recognition of the significance of Mayer’s work.

My fourth most popular post is also a manifesto of sorts, this time on risk: a theme that (according to my tag list) is my most popular topic. It is another post with staying power, getting over 400 views a month.

Fifth on the list is my takedown of parent-blaming. It is one of the few posts where I have experimented with form, using a couple of handwritten diagrams to show my argument.

over-protective parents lead kids to be kept indoors

Lots of physical, social and economic factors lead kids to be kept indoors

The post also made a point of being based on hard evidence. I have a bee in my bonnet about the importance of sound evidence. It’s so easy to slip into armchair nostalgia, lazy generalizations and dodgy assumptions when thinking about childhood and how it has changed. But if the debate about children’s everyday lives is to step outside the bar-room – as it must – then it has to square up to the facts.

I have had a website for nearly a decade. For much of that time, the content was largely static – a kind of online business card and CV. Here are a couple of warts-and-all screengrabs, from 2004 and 2010:

Rethinking Childhood website 2004

Rethinking Childhood website 2010Two reasons for starting to blog were to reach a wider audience with my writing, and to have more conversations with those interested in my work. I’ve no real idea about what the page view figures mean in terms of audience – though I do know that my book No Fear has sold around 5,000 copies, so my most popular posts are reaching significantly more people than are likely to have read it. (I also know that a tumblr post by my teenage daughter – an anecdote about a star from the cult TV show Supernatural – attracted 40,000 views in 24 hours!) As the chart below shows, monthly trends for viewing figures seem to be upward, though with some peaks and troughs. Monthly page views chart

As for conversations, on average my posts get around ten comments (not counting my own). My sense is that this is a high level of audience engagement (are there benchmarks for ‘comments per page view’, I wonder?) Some posts have gotten a lot of comments – here are my ‘top 5’ by number of comments:

Playgrounds that rip up the safety rules 68
Two stories about why kids are not outdoors so much these days 62
It’s health and safety gone sane! 47
Schoolchildren banned from playing hide-and-seek – and that’s just for starters 47
Seven principles of playground design 41

Thanks to all who have taken the time to comment… and hat-tips to the most frequent contributors, Arthur Battram (aka plexity), Peter Clinch, Bernard Poulin (oldnp), Robin Sutcliffe (grumpysutcliffe) and Juliet Robertson.

Sometimes I worry about singing to the choir – most of those commenting are offering support or endorsement – but I suspect that a degree of preaching to the converted is hard to avoid. Having said this, there have been some lively exchanges (for instance on my twin posts on playground design and children’s participation). Moreover, I am grateful that my website has seen none of the aggressive attacks and exchanges that can make online activity an unpleasant experience.

Finally, a word on how people arrive. Aside from Google, Facebook tops the list of referrers with nearly 25,000 referrals (over 10 per cent of the total page views). Twitter is next, but with only around 5,000.  I must confess I was a reluctant joiner of Facebook, and still have mixed feelings about it (in my personal life I pretty much lurk). But it is clearly central to the way that many of us get information these days.

I thought carefully before starting this blog. I knew it was unlikely to generate much direct income (it generates none, in fact – though it has lead to some paid work such as speaking engagements and commissions – and as a freelancer, this is of course important). I also knew it would take time and effort. My guess is it takes about a day a week all told, including time on Facebook and Twitter and following other blogs and news feeds. And it took a while to get the hang of WordPress (with some help in the early days from Guerilla Geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison – thanks Dan!)

Has it been worth it? Perhaps the best answer I can give is that I can hardly imagine working without blogging now. It is simply the most effective way of sharing my work and engaging with others in the connected, digital world that so many of us now live in.

7 responses to “A century of rethinking childhood

  1. Tim Gill, you are an inspiration to me and many others. If you are ever in Australia again I would love to invite you to my families preschools in northern NSW. My parents use natural resources to create fantastic adventure playgrounds and ‘children’s gardens’.
    Your blogs are fantastic. You question whether they are worth it and what their value is. I tell you they are. They are what some people want to hear and they give people strength to stand up and do what they know feels right. You are leading the way into a brave new world.
    I have just started my own blog counting down the final ten weeks of my wife’s pregnancy and covering some of my experiences and highlights of ten years in Childcare. I have referenced your work several times (hopefully appropriately).
    Keep up the great work.

  2. Hi Tim
    i found your review very interesting, not least because i’ve just done something similar and will post this review tomorrow (Tuesday), Though for me it’s a sort of early stock take on what i’ve done with my blog and the sort of direction to take in future (It’s still early days for me- 3 months into blogging). Your stats are certainly impressive, and though I’m familar with your work, i’ll take a look at the older articles you mention. I’ve enjoyed reading your posts and found them useful in informing my own developing thoughts on play. Thanks for the blog so far…

  3. Hi Tim, congrats on your century. I think your blog is a great resource for considered, research based information on play. It’s wonderful to be able to draw on such experience.

    Though not evidence-based, my observation is that in the short three years that I have been focused on the discovery of playgrounds and play there appears to be more interest, attention being paid in mainstream media and popular culture. It is unscientific perhaps but my unsophisticated google searches return more articles and blog posts on playgrounds and play..

    Your blog and those of other play professionals in tandem with those of us who are more engaged from a ‘lay’ perspective are helping to further and broaden the discussion on the value and importance of play.

    I don’t know if you’re familiar with the Canadian band, The Tragically Hip but they have a wonderful tune entitled, Ahead by a Century – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE2joQsWXJg and I’m thinking we’re ahead by a century with your blog. Thanks for sharing and cheers from Canada’s Far East.


  4. Tony, Nigel, Alex – thanks for the generous feedback. Tony – I am planning to return to Australia in July and August, though not sure if my itinerary allows a visit to Northern NSW. I’ll drop you an email.

  5. Preaching to the choir? Well, let’s say as a worst case you are… but the choir may well still be picking up plenty of good information based on actual evidence, passing it on and acting on it in their own communities. I for one am very glad of the harder information your work provides compared to the usual vague hearsay that tends to pass for reasoning in this field.

    • Thanks Peter. I realise that my comment could be read as fishing for compliments. I can only say that I genuinely want my work to reach – and hopefully change the views of – those who disagree with me, as well as supporting the views of those who do. But I appreciate your praise for the way I make my points.

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