Giving the City back to the Child, giving the child back to the City

Giving the City back to the Child, giving the child back to the City

Laurent Ott

Not all children are able to get around in their environment by themselves. Laurent Ott explains how families’ different socio-cultural situations affect their knowledge of this.

Children from disadvantaged neighbourhoods in big cities often have parents who are relatively excluded from economic, social and cultural life. They often share a certain family isolation: uprooted parents who are separated from their extended family and so on.

This isolation, which affects both parents and children, prevents many children from becoming fully integrated into their environment. Wealthier areas develop alternatives to this decline in social life, by mobilizing their knowledge networks or by calling on replacement services that are often expensive.

Community and classic leisure structures fail to adapt

Professional leisure structures or cultural, charitable practices, as well as those relating to community responsibility, have multiplied in number.

Coordinated by trained professionals, they have enabled specific child-based practices to develop. While child support has become more professional, and has benefited from extraordinary progress in terms of quality, safety, and so on, this progress has however been considered a priority to meet the needs of middle class children, whose parents both work.

In principle, all children in cities benefit from this wealth of activities, in particular thanks to means-based policies for the poorest homes, but children from all backgrounds are far from benefiting in the same way.

Indeed, the need for child minders is not the same for children whose parents do not work or who have retired or when there is always someone at home: even with adapted fees, the idea of regularly participating in leisure or cultural activities seems a frivolous luxury.

Furthermore, education for children who frequent these structures and activities, but who benefit from real social and cultural integration within their families, does not suit children who do not have the same possibilities: the latter seek support that that is less dependant on the framework, less focused on the activity, and which will thoroughly meet their need for personal relationships with available, integrated adults. With this, they also expect greater freedom, particularly in terms of ways of getting around, which bear more resemblance to their daily life.

Giving the Child back to the City

What is borne out by the outreach educational activity that takes place in a framework that is more flexible and less focused around activity than the classic structures are, is the availability and expectations of a significant part of the child population for different forms of accompaniment: these children expect and hope for a welcome and accompaniment in their own environment, in urban surroundings, in the city.

A limited experience of the City

Children from more disadvantaged backgrounds often find themselves confined in restricted urban areas, (such as their stairwell at the front of the building, their neighbourhood,) and they don’t understand the background framework or the overall layout.

Suddenly, the discovery of the environment open to young people often leads to bewilderment, like a kind of adventure in unknown territory, with movement in packs, risk-taking and a feeling of impunity when they are no longer in their own area. This all stems from said feeling of strangeness.

These children’s knowledge of their environment is heterogeneous: they know some central points of their city as they have been there often with school (swimming pools, gyms, libraries), but often the areas between these places are not well-known at all; similarly, they are rarely able to move about outside their neighbourhood.

And if these children do have a good knowledge of places that are sometimes very far from their own area, (residential centres, towns in their country of origin), said knowledge is often sketchy. Children find it very difficult to get an idea of the distances or the space between these points.

A lack of education on getting and independence

Families’ lack of mobility due to their exclusion from social and economic life means that the space that children perceive and live in is considerably reduced. Other factors exacerbate this trend; children do not often know how to get around by public transport and if they do move around, for example by bus as they approach their teenage years especially, they most often do so sporadically, on isolated journeys which they have already made with another person. It is much rarer that children acquire a sense of overall orientation within their surrounding urban fabric.

In fact these more specific skills require real learning which in reality does not come from either the surroundings, school or childhood structures.

On the contrary, in recent years, given the strict enforcement of regulations on supporting and accompanying children, education on transport has deteriorated.

Previously, schools in outlying areas of Paris would travel into the city centre using trains or the RER; this was cheap, practical and really helped to educate the children about their environment. The enhanced Vigie Pirates schemes have also borne definitive fruit over their ten years of existence. Educational approaches for children based on education about independence and responsibility have become rarer. For example the practices of the Scouts have been harshly called into question because of over-publicized accidents which often obliged the organizers to revise the risks to children and young adults in various situations from the bottom up.

Likewise, with risk prevention and contravention of increasingly draconian rules, education itself is at risk, as it has found itself banned from the field of educational practices and leisure. Parents of children from disadvantaged areas are often more fearful about their movements. In more isolated families, we see greater refusal to allow the child to go out, even when the whole class goes somewhere, and children are not even allowed to take part in professional leisure structures because “We don’t know the people running it”. These families, who are the most attached to the residence, absorb the fears sparked by different events without being able to put them in context, such as children in accidents or victims of abuse outside the family. This anxiety affects the capacity of disadvantaged families to take on responsibility for their children and is in fact a double form of violence. They serve to exclude children from socializing educational activities on the one hand, but above all they lead both the children and the parents astray: accidents in the home or children left to themselves in a small space constitutes an extremely significant risk which concerns the media. Likewise abuse of all forms is a greater threat to children in restricted spaces, especially as they don’t know many adults and have developed few relationships of trust outside their immediate surroundings.

In addition to this poor education on transport and knowledge of the environment, the whole system of education on the child’s autonomy is now in peril. Indeed, outside circles which make a special effort, both paid and voluntary, (sending children abroad, in families, etc), many children experience the incredible limits on independence and movement within the institutions which host them. Many schools therefore increasingly limit their children’s movements, even in the corridors or going to the toilet – the reasons given for this are often based onthe publication of judicial decisions on rare accidents. They also relate to the negative points noted regarding the capacity of children from disadvantaged backgrounds to shoulder such responsibilities. We often also hear from the teachers, “I don’t let them go around on their own, they’re too disruptive.” The issue of education on independence and getting around is not dealt with in a comprehensive manner. If the school does not do it, who will put in place such education in a collective and socialized way?

We should note that the educational methods which propose leading such education on responsibility and gradual and reasonable independence (both Freinet and institutional educational methods,) are today in great difficulty in the face of the school system’s increasing rigidity and the mentality of many teachers.

Educating in the street and in life

The elements described above unfortunately combine to form a kind of labelling in the here and now, which is mainly experienced by children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The regulations which aimed to protect children and those which on the contrary, aimed to prevent them from moving around or hanging around in public places, or from travelling without tickets, interact today to confine children to limited areas, to a space that they no longer understand and which doesn’t understand them either.

The criminal or moral pressure which parents are under adds another layer to this isolation, by perceiving the social and urban environment as a source of danger for the child but also for the parents themselves, through the child. To escape this, parents tend to take their children out of institutions which could cause problems and thereby increase their isolation and lead to their receiving less education.

All these children dream of is how to escape this boredom, but without any prior education across the country, their excursions when they are older merely serve to confirm the initial fears and signs which weighed on them.

An overall pattern is then drawn between a country-wide, or even international social and educational policy and isolation in a small family, a neighbourhood and possibly a remand centre and later prison. This is true for an increasing proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This then raises the issue of new educational policies and practices which will finally take into account this education, which must be given to the City and to social life, for all children.

For this, other forms of support must urgently be developed across the board, such as support on the ground, educational services in the neighbourhood that are open in evenings and at the weekends, lasting support for children from stable and worthy teams, and a culture of social work with initiatives that are better directed at children.

Laurent Ott, Educator and teacher, doctor in Philosophy, Founder of the INTERMEDES association, Author of “Travailler avec les familles”, Ed Eres 2004.

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