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Children's Geographies
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Rethinking conceptualisations of adult-


imposed restriction and children's
experiences of autonomy in outdoor
space
a
Matthew C. Benwell
a
Department of Geography, School of Environmental Sciences ,
University of Liverpool , Liverpool , UK
Published online: 15 Jan 2013.

To cite this article: Matthew C. Benwell (2013) Rethinking conceptualisations of adult-imposed


restriction and children's experiences of autonomy in outdoor space, Children's Geographies, 11:1,
28-43, DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2013.743279

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14733285.2013.743279

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Childrens Geographies, 2013
Vol. 11, No. 1, 28 43, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14733285.2013.743279

Rethinking conceptualisations of adult-imposed restriction and childrens


experiences of autonomy in outdoor space
Matthew C. Benwell

Department of Geography, School of Environmental Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK

This paper calls for more sensitive understandings of childrens experiences of autonomy and
Downloaded by [Australian National University] at 11:36 13 January 2015

restriction in outdoor space. The study with children and adults living in a suburban area of
Cape Town, South Africa, suggests that the imposition of adult structure and surveillance on
childhood should not be automatically perceived as negative. The childrens experiences
were more nuanced and must be contextualised with reference to the predominant concern
with (in)security in these suburban geographies. The notion of accompanied mobility is then
considered to suggest how childrens outdoor mobility might be framed as a collective or
community responsibility, as opposed to an individualistic concern of parents.
Keywords: childhood autonomy; adult surveillance; accompanied mobility; South Africa

Introduction
This paper is about childrens experiences of autonomy and largely adult-imposed restriction in
various outdoor environments in a suburban area of Cape Town, South Africa. The empirical nd-
ings have wider relevance, which speak to recent debates about how childhood and child adult
relations are conceptualised by geographers and sociologists subscribing to the social studies of
childhood (King 2007; Vanderbeck 2008). This is then, in part, representative of the growing
reaction to the overwhelming dominance of the notion of children as social agents and associated
framings of adult authority as negative. Informed by research participants perspectives, it avoids
automatically framing adult accompaniment and surveillance in outdoor space as problematic. To
this end, it recognises that childrens experiences of restriction and autonomy were nuanced and
complex, a sensitivity which has been absent in many accounts about childrens independent
mobility (see also Sharpe and Tranter 2010).
This paper begins by drawing on recent critiques which have been penned regarding the lack
of theoretical debate in the subeld of Childrens Geographies. It uses these interventions to think
about how researchers have previously considered childrens situation in outdoor space, informed
by and subscribing to the dominant theory associated with the social studies of childhood. It uses
these critiques to suggest how concepts such as adult restriction and control enacted in outdoor
environments might be otherwise conceptualised, in ways which might differ from the predomi-
nant focus on the hegemonic agenda of adults. A brief summary relating to the methodology,
location and participants involved in the study follows before the empirical material is presented
in the subsequent sections. First, the way in which parents re-created public parks within enclosed
(garden) spaces is discussed, informed by the perspectives of children and adult research
participants. It suggests that childrens sense of autonomy and/or restriction in these spaces


Email: m.c.benwell@liv.ac.uk

# 2013 Taylor & Francis


Childrens Geographies 29

was extremely variable, as they reected on moments when adult surveillance provided reassur-
ance alongside their attempted subversion of such spatial control. Second, childrens and adults
perspectives on accompanied outdoor mobility are presented and used to consider how childhood
engagements with outdoor environments might be enabled by taking a collective community
approach.

Enough oppression already


Childrens Geographies has unquestionably developed rapidly as an exciting subeld of research
ever since James (1990) asked whether there was a place for children in Geography (Holloway
and Valentine 2000; Holt 2011). Huge progress has been made: childrens understandings are
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increasingly being acknowledged as informed and reliable; children are more regularly con-
sidered within decision-making systems (although there is undoubtedly room for improvement
on both counts, see Freeman 2007) and there is now a concerted effort to investigate the role
that children themselves play in society (James 1990, 279). When James penned her article in
1990, the latter point was by no means as trivial as it appears today, given that much of the
research on children focused on issues faced by people (read adults) with children and childrens
adjustments to an adult-dominated world (279). It is interesting to note that as the subeld has
grown, it has never strayed far from investigating childrens experiences of this adult-orientated
world (Holloway and Valentine 2000) and has more recently undertaken research with adults and
families (i.e. people with children) alongside children (see edited collection by Holt 2011). Whilst
it would be disingenuous to suggest that Childrens Geographies has made no important theoreti-
cal and empirical interventions in the interim, inuential voices in the eld have sounded their
discontent at the lack of vibrant debate and theoretical development (Holloway and Pimlott-
Wilson 2011; Holt 2011; Vanderbeck 2008).
This unease can, in part, be traced to the overwhelming dominance of (or reliance on) the child
as agent model and the notion of children as autonomous, self-determining subjects (Kjrholt
2007, 34). Conceptualisations of children as social beings in their own right have been rehearsed
ad innitum, leading some to posit that their uncritical application tends to constrain and frame con-
ceptual and theoretical debates within the subeld (Holt 2011, 2; Vanderbeck 2008). Indeed,
authors are beginning to ask important and necessary questions about the extent to which this theor-
etical notion of the child as a competent social agent is challenged/unsettled within different
environments and situations (see Cook 2011 and her discussion of school eldwork risk assess-
ments as well as questions posed by Vanderbeck 2008). There is then something of a disconnect
which has been identied between childhood as constructed within and outside of the academy:

. . . outside these self-referring sociological communications there is little in other forms of communi-
cation about children that is congruent with this perception of them as capable of taking an active
agency role in bringing about or resisting social change. (King 2007, 207)

This quotation, directed at the child as agent conceptualisation espoused by many childrens
geographers, perhaps, says other things about the relevance of the subeld and its (in)ability to
make meaningful interventions outside of its sub-disciplinary boundaries given its theoretical pre-
disposition (Vanderbeck 2008). Kjrholt (2007, 29) makes similar observations with reference to
debates about childrens rights:

. . . the emphasis on children as claimers to rights to participation, as set out in the UN Convention, is
different from the idea of and forms of participation relating to children as social actors in everyday
life, as unfolded in families, kindergartens, schools, local communities and society per se.
30 M.C. Benwell

Thus, authors have increasingly highlighted the tension that exists between the active, auton-
omous child social agent with an unadulterated right to participate and the various institutional,
familial and public settings where children nd themselves on a daily basis. It is clear that con-
ceptualising childhood in ways which bear little resemblance to the realities that they face in their
environments leaves the notion of children as social agents open to considerable criticism. It is
salient to question, for example, for what reasons parental/adult responsibility and authority
are infrequently given theoretical consideration to the same extent as those of childrens social
agency (Vanderbeck 2008, 397).
Yet research in the social studies of childhood has arguably been adept at sensitively illus-
trating the ways in which children throughout the world have agency, in spite of the many struc-
tural constraints that exist in their everyday environments (e.g. Beazley 2000; Gallagher 2006;
Punch 2000a, 2002a, 2004; Rudd and Evans 1998; Skelton and Hamed 2011; Swart-Kruger
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2002). Giddens (1984) structuration theory and more recent contributions from James and
James (2004, 38 39) on childhood structure and childrens agency have shown how social
action or agency and social structure presuppose one another in the same moment. Punchs
(2004, 104) research in rural Bolivia illustrates that even when restrictions on childrens lives
are manifest at a community, household and individual level, children negotiate ways to
make the most of opportunities. They make choices within the limited range of possibilities
available to them. This and other sophisticated analyses of childhoods situated within their
specic social, cultural, economic and political contexts show that children can and do have
an active agency role which can bring about social change, broadly construed. These studies
move away from rigid conceptualisations of structure agency, instead framing the actions of chil-
dren as simultaneously enabled and constrained, approved of and rejected (Dyck and Kearns
2010; James and James 2004).
King (2007, 200) appears to overlook this body of research by claiming that previous studies
have positioned adults as people who subject children to frustration and oppression by failing to
recognise and denying them their agency and autonomy. The argument is problematic in one
sense as it seems to disregard some of the intricate understandings of structure agency inherent
to work from childrens geographers. However, the point is more salient when considering
debates about childrens mobility in outdoor space, where the inuence of adults has often
been negatively perceived. Adults tend to be critiqued for their role in restricting children by
creating child-unfriendly outdoor environments, for being overly anxious about stranger
danger or for placing children under increasing levels of surveillance. There has been an associ-
ated tendency to frame childrens independent mobility as more enriching and benecial than
when they are accompanied by adults (Sharpe and Tranter 2010). There are, of course, benets
to children engaging independently with their surroundings (see Hart 1979; Moss and Petrie
2002), but Sharpe and Tranter (2010) argue that children may not be able, or indeed want, to
encounter these environments alone. The authors call for a rethink of the much-vaunted
concept of independence, since . . . it might not be as high as other values on the list of childrens
priorities (Sharpe and Tranter 2010, 285). Instead, the collective concerns and needs of both
adults and children should be considered in ways which avoid setting them up in opposition to
one another. This would result in a more comprehensive understanding of the decisions that
adults and children take when determining the extent of their mobility, in ways which take
account of the realities of the surrounding environment.
Researchers have rarely asked questions as to when adult accompaniment might actually be
positively perceived or experienced (from the perspectives of both children and adults) in certain
spaces and times of childhood (Vanderbeck 2008, 394). Furthermore, there has been very little
research charting childrens attitudes towards adult control and restriction in their lives. How
might children appreciate structure or organised activities in certain ways? Are children always
Childrens Geographies 31

necessarily seeking ways to resist adult controls over their use of outdoor space? Very often,
research into the use of outdoor space by children and young people stresses their capacities to
subvert dominant social and spatial orders but has very little to say about their compliance or
appreciation of adult-imposed structure. Skar and Kroghs (2009, 351) call for more research
related to adult-organised and adult-supervised activities in natural settings is pertinent at this
juncture:

Further research involving participant observation and conversations with children are necessary to
develop and rene our understanding of the negative effects as well as the potential benets
of these newer forms of nature experiences among children. (my emphasis)

The empirical research described in this paper with children growing up in a suburban part
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of Cape Town illustrates how they often spoke positively about the presence of adults and
about feeling more secure in spaces where they were placed under the surveillance of
adults. Important here are the wider societal constraints generated by concerns with crime
in post-apartheid urban and suburban spaces in South Africa. Research from the minority
world has referred to perceptions of crime and insecurity and their diverse inuences on child-
hood (e.g. Mitchell, Kearns, and Collins 2007; OBrien, Jones, and Sloan 2000; Valentine
2004); however, the specics of the case of South Africa with its relatively recent transition
to democracy and extremely high rates of violent and property crime make direct comparisons
difcult.
Despite these concerns with the lack of interest in the nuances of adult-imposed structure,
there is cause for optimism given the recent emergence of research exploring the geographies
of children, youth and families (Holt 2011). Researchers have looked to more fully incorporate
the voices of children alongside those of adults in their exploration of family dynamics (Hollo-
way and Pimlott-Wilson 2011, 11), which has moved studies away from dominant, modernist
concepts of [childrens] agency, as self-cohesive and independent (Holt 2011, 3; Kjrholt
2007). This has also informed understandings of childrens independent mobility and play with
increased attention being paid to the family and interactions which take place between adults
and children when negotiating the extent of their spatial freedom (see Besten 2011; Pinkster
and Fortuijn 2009; Skelton and Hamed 2011; Valentine 1997a, 2004). As stated previously,
this research would benet from the inclusion of childrens perspectives regarding such inter-
actions, rather than prioritising the accounts of parents who make the decisions about the
extent of freedom that their children have in neighbourhood space (e.g. Besten 2011; Pinkster
and Fortuijn 2009). Considering the perspectives of parents (or adult carers, teachers and so
on) and children would encourage more nuanced theorisations in the academy of the temporal
and spatial structures shaping modern-day childhood (Holloway and Pimlott-Wilson 2011).
This line of argument may well be considered nave by some who caution that the uncritical
acceptance of protection by adults conceals larger issues of the social and spatial marginalisa-
tion of [children and] young people through processes of territoriality (Skelton and Hamed 2011,
211). We must remain open to the possibility that adult anxieties can be a cover for more sinister
geographies of exclusion (Sibley 1995), but by the same token we must not uncritically accept
that these protections will be automatically experienced negatively by all children in different
contexts. Making such assumptions fails to acknowledge the plurality of childhood as well as
the diverse social, political and cultural contexts in which it is constructed (in ways similar to
how the concept of children as active participants is taken for granted across different contexts,
see Kjrholt 2007, 38). Before turning to the empirical material, I now contextualise my research
in a socio-cultural and political sense, with some background information about the study area and
methodology.
32 M.C. Benwell

Study details
The study area and methodology
The research for this study was undertaken with children (aged from 6 to 12) in a suburban area of
Cape Town known as the Cape Peninsula (see Figure 1). The study was interested in how these
children were able to use and move around outdoor space, as well as the factors inuencing their
outdoor engagements (Benwell 2009). The research took place in three formerly whites-only
schools in the suburban town of Fish Hoek, approximately 30 km south of metropolitan Cape
Town, although children lived in residential areas throughout the Cape Peninsula. To further
understand childrens attitudes towards adult-imposed control in this part of suburban Cape
Town, some contextualisation of the research environment is critical. Suburban areas of South
Africa, especially those previously categorised as white during the apartheid era, constitute
extremely security-aware communities (Beall, Crankshaw, and Parnell 2002) and children
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often imbibe this awareness. There are familiar structural constraints on childhood observed else-
where (e.g. Karsten 1998), generated by concerns about road trafc safety, the deterioration and
inaccessibility of public space for children and stranger danger. However, the prevailing percep-
tion of insecurity, especially in areas beyond the private space of the home, must be borne in mind
when considering childrens responses to questions about childhood autonomy and adult control.
This level of anxiety cannot be considered without reference to the dramatic societal shifts that
South Africa has witnessed in the last 25 years. This exceptional socio-political context has
left enduring legacies of inequality (manifest along race and increasingly class lines) which con-
tinue to characterise South African post-apartheid geographies.
In all, 39 girls and 26 boys participated in the research along with 20 parents, ve teachers and
four carers working in the after-school care centres. Parents were informally interviewed during
visits to family homes, typically with children present, and more formal interviews were under-
taken with teachers and carers who worked in the schools. The majority of the schools children
were white (although all of the schools in the area are now racially mixed to some extent), partly
because of the demographics of this part of the Cape Peninsula and the legacies of apartheid edu-
cational legislation (e.g. the Bantu Education Act, 1953) which previously excluded black African
and coloured children from these institutions (coloured is a term still widely used in South Africa
to refer to people of mixed race, although not unproblematically, see Erasmus 2001). The study
consisted of 9% black, 12% coloured and 79% white children in ways which broadly mirrored the
wider proportions of the schools intake. The majority of children involved in the study were from
middle- and upper-class backgrounds and there was no notable gender imbalance evident in the
sample.
The research was conducted in a range of spaces which generated diverse research dynamics
and required considerable methodological exibility. Hence, a pool of appropriate methods was
designed (some of which are referred to within this paper) and regularly adapted to cater for the
differing circumstances. An after-school care centre situated within the grounds of one primary
school in Fish Hoek provided access to children outside of the structured timetable of the
school day. The centre was open from 1300 to 1800 and children arrived directly after lessons
and left when they were collected by their parent or guardian. Their time at the centre was rela-
tively unstructured, which made it possible to spend extensive periods with individual and small
groups of children.
For logistical reasons, research in the other two institutional settings had to take place during
school hours. In one school, research sessions were organised as part of the formal timetable and
were located in school classrooms with groups of 15 children. In the other school, research was
arranged with small groups of two to ve children during study sessions and was situated in
various vacant spaces of the school, including classrooms, ofces and the playground. Finally,
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Figure 1. Cape Town and the Cape Peninsula.


Childrens Geographies
33
34 M.C. Benwell

home visits were arranged with 12 children from the after-school care centre, principally because
it was possible to build closer relationships with these participants and their parents. These
research environment variations had implications for the depth of my understanding of the
lives of respective children involved in the study. For these not unproblematic reasons, children
from the after-school care centre and the methods used with them are overrepresented in this
paper.
A range of qualitative methods were designed with the research environments in mind and
which allowed children to express themselves verbally, artistically and diagrammatically. The
research with larger groups of children incorporated brainstorming diagrams (Baker, Panter-
Brick, and Todd 1996; Punch 2002b) and focus groups (Ansell 2001; Driskell 2002), as well
as spatial mapping (Beazley 1999; Boyden and Ennew 1997). For research sessions with
smaller numbers of children, drawing and painting exercises (Chambers 2002; Driskell 2002),
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collage (Benwell 2003) and photography exercises were employed (see Langevang 2007;
Punch 2000b, which reect on the use of multiple methods in research with children). Neighbour-
hood walkabouts were conducted with children where home visits were possible, which involved
them directing a tour around their outdoor environment. A detailed eld diary, extracts from
which appear in this paper, was maintained throughout the period of research, which reected
heavily on my observations and interactions in and outside of the various research environments.

Childhood play: spaces of safety and subversion


The condition of many public parks in this part of suburban Cape Town was extremely poor,
characterised by broken equipment, which was often impossible for children to move or play
on. The uninviting nature of these environments, allied with concerns about childrens outdoor
safety when unaccompanied by an adult or elder sibling (due to concerns with crime, dangerously
perceived wildlife, strangers, trafc and so on, see Benwell 2009), meant that many children were
unable to visit parks independently. Consequently, a number of children spent a large proportion
of their time outdoors within private enclosed gardens, in spaces which in a physical sense seemed
to replicate public parks. These children talked about gardens as signicant outdoor spaces where
they spent a substantial amount of time. Whilst these may not provide the spontaneous play
opportunities of publicly accessible play areas outlined elsewhere (see Hart 1979; Skar and
Krogh 2009), it was necessary to listen to childrens perspectives to avoid making externally
imposed judgements about how restrictive or enabling these spaces might be. Of course, some
children had little else to compare their outdoor environments with, so this listening should not
preclude consideration of what might be missing in these geographies (e.g. the importance of
contact with the local community or the provision of effectively maintained public play areas).
For some children, the public park was reproduced in physical form within the bounds of their
garden. The most explicit example of this re-creation was found in Ellas1 front garden. Ella, aged
6, lived on the outskirts of Fish Hoek and was restricted to the connes of her reasonably large
garden, primarily because of the busy road that was at the front of the property. She was occasion-
ally able to go to the playing elds nearby, but only when accompanied by her mother or father in
order to negotiate the road safely (see Percy-Smith 2002; Tranter 2010 for discussions of the
hazards caused by urban transport and strategies to reduce the speed and volume of motorised
trafc). During a walkabout tour, Ella showed me her jungle gym (a wooden climbing frame
with ladders, slides and swings), which was the most prominent feature in the front garden
(Figure 2).
She invited me to climb up alongside her on the tower as she proudly told me that the wooden
frame had been constructed by her parents for them to play on (Ella also had a younger brother).
As well as the jungle gym, Ella had a trampoline, and on warmer summer days, the temporary
Childrens Geographies 35
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Figure 2. Ella and her jungle gym.


Source: Photograph taken by the author.

swimming pool was assembled. My eld diary reected on what Ellas mother told me about the
jungle gym and their rationale for building it for the children:

She said that many families were now building jungle gyms as they were cheap to construct, apart
from the slide which was quite expensive. It also meant that the children were safer and you knew
where they were. She did not think that it was sensible to let children of this age out and about on
their own, so it was better to bring the typical outdoor space into the front garden. (Field diary
extract, 11 June 2005)

Instead of having to worry about the risks and dangers associated with public parks, Ellas
mother considered it far safer to bring that environment into their front garden. Although this
was not referred to as a direct response to the public parks being in a state of disrepair, I
would argue more generally that this factor is related to the increasing re-creation of these
spaces within private gardens. Ellas mother talked far more about the risks posed by strangers
and trafc, which were heightened because of the parks location.
Ella clearly liked her garden and the extensive range of play options it offered, but during the
neighbourhood walkabout (which involved Ella showing me her front and back gardens), she
admitted that she sometimes found it quite restrictive. She said that she got bored quite easily
as she did not have friends over as often as she would like. She typically played in the garden
by herself or with her brother and other family members when they came to visit. Ella attended
an after-school care centre on a daily basis, which provided opportunities to play with other chil-
dren, but still found her own individual, enclosed space slightly isolating. The public park could
be (re)constructed within the garden in a physical sense, but it was impossible to (re)create the
social interactions which might have occurred there. There was no opportunity for spontaneous
contact with the wider community as Ella only had sporadic visits from other children when
arranged by her parents.
36 M.C. Benwell
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Figure 3. Edwins jungle gym (image cropped to focus on Edwins contribution to a group poster).

Edwin, aged 9, had access to a similar kind of play space, but in a slightly different setting. He
drew a intricate drawing of the jungle gym near his house, which was one of his favourite outdoor
places (Figure 3).
Edwin told me that the jungle gym was situated within the gated complex where he lived,
which was about 10 15 km north of Fish Hoek. The gym was in the centre of this part of the
complex, surrounded by properties (including Edwins) which all faced the play area. Edwin
played here frequently and talked to me about how much he appreciated the sanctuary of this con-
tained play space:

He told me that there was a big wall with an electric wire at the top and concrete walls underneath the
ground so that no intruders could dig underneath. Edwin said that it was quite safe within the complex.
Edwin plays here often and especially when the weather is good. His parents are ne with him playing
here alone and some of the other boys in the group told me that they sometimes visit Edwin. (Field
diary extract, 19 July 2005)

In this case, the enclosed, privatised play area was not in the garden but in a shared space
within the gated complex. The park was only used by residents and invited guests, and this
opened up far more opportunities for Edwin to meet and play with other children, in contrast
to Ellas experiences. Although Edwin talked about the complex in these candid ways, recognis-
ing its bounded geography, the ability to play unaccompanied gave him a sense of autonomy.
Researchers in the UK and the USA have often construed the design and location of park
environments as part of an adult agenda to corral and constrain children (e.g. Cloke and Jones
2005; Hart 2002; Valentine 2004). Hart (2002, 137) states that

Children wish to explore and experience a wider range of settings than public playgrounds can offer.
Rather than assuming they need specic places and specic activities designed for them, the goal
should be to establish the conditions within which they can nd and create their own play. Children
should be able to expand their competence gradually by exploring, playing and experimenting within
a diverse physical world.
Childrens Geographies 37

One can only agree with many of Harts sentiments in his discussion of playground provision
in New York City, particularly his emphasis on the need for children to encounter varied play
environments. Whilst it is important to retain high aspirations for the quality of childrens
outdoor play environments, some of his thoughts seem to be rather idealistic in a context
where, in ways similar to Cape Town, children and parents were highly concerned about issues
of security. Perhaps it would be more useful to focus our attention on achievable targets in
urban and suburban settings which are clearly hostile to children (Sharpe and Tranter 2010,
285). This might include developing safe, stimulating and well-maintained play areas in consul-
tation with children and parents, which enable adult-accompanied/supervised play. Such thinking
might pose wider questions about societal surveillance, thinking through how supervision in such
spaces could be framed as a collective responsibility, shared amongst parents looking out for other
children as well as their own.
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Edwins play area, located within the gated complex, was a safe environment that provided
him with the chance to interact with friends and other children. This childhood space represents
somewhere that at rst glance might appear to be incredibly restrictive, ordered and structured,
denying children autonomy and the chance to play freely (Hart 2002, 136, discusses what he con-
siders to be free and therefore true play). However, Edwins feelings about the park make it
hard to view this as a space that was inherently restrictive. It was an environment where he
and his parents felt comfortable because they were condent in the safety of the complex. It
almost seemed too convenient for an adult researcher or outsider to make judgements about
this space and criticise its shortfalls, especially as my research aimed to listen to childrens
interpretations and perspectives. Edwin encouraged me to think about this space from his perspec-
tive. It was a viewpoint that allowed me to see the space for its more liberating characteristics, set
up against my prejudices of gated communities as claustrophobic and restrictive environments.
One could argue that this sense of security is the reason why many adults choose to live
within gated communities as well (see Beall, Crankshaw, and Parnell 2002; Hook and Vrdolijak
2002; Lemanski 2006). The experiences of children growing up in gated communities have
received very little attention from geographers, and research conducted in these environments
would further stimulate debates about childhood restriction/autonomy and safety.
Edwin was the only research participant in the study who lived within a gated community, but
other children used play areas which were similarly located in amongst houses. Oriel, aged 10,
who lived in the more isolated suburban community of Noordhoek (Figure 1), took a photograph
of what she described as her dam and explained the signicance of this environment (Figure 4).
Although she originally suggested that this was her dam, Oriel later told me that it was not solely
for her use as other children in the neighbourhood played there as well. In the summer months, she
was allowed to swim and boat in the water.
The photograph shows reections of the houses that surrounded the dam and looked on to the
area where Oriel played, both on her own and with friends. Her own house also looked out on to
this space, although she had devised ways of hiding from view. From the perspective of her house,
part of the dam was behind a large grassy bank, and she told me that when she was in line with
this, her parents could not see her. She did say that people in the other houses could still watch her
and that nowhere was completely out of view. Oriels parents alluded to this notion of collective
responsibility for childhood safety, stating that supervision of children was informally shared
amongst families in the community. Oriel was clearly conscious of this adult surveillance and
occasionally tried to subvert it but did not express any substantial concerns with being
watched. Once again, this adult supervision seemed to be reassuring and something which
made Oriel feel safer when outdoors.
The layout of play areas such as Oriels might helpfully inform the future planning, location
and improvement of outdoor play spaces for children in the Cape Peninsula and elsewhere. Whilst
38 M.C. Benwell
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Figure 4. Oriels dam.


Source: Photograph taken by Oriel.

the inhospitality of urban and suburban areas is especially pronounced in the Cape Peninsula,
anxieties regarding stranger danger and road safety with their implications for childrens mobility
in outdoor space are not specic to childhood in South Africa. The situation of Oriels play space
nestled in amongst these suburban homes, where children could be seen and heard, was some-
thing which provided reassurance for both children and adults. It again poses questions about sur-
veillance and how it might be positively construed, especially if it leads to children having greater
engagement with outdoor space. Perhaps pertinent questions might be asked about how adults
undertake surveillance of children when they are outdoors alone or with friends (e.g. existing
neighbourhood watch schemes might provide a model for encouraging collective community
responsibility for the supervision of children in outdoor play areas). Whilst adult surveillance
in this example was not necessarily overt and undertaken from inside the home, the proximity
of adults seemed to provide children with a sense of security which they appreciated but at the
same time revelled in trying to resist.

Perspectives on accompanied mobility


Researcher Are the parks good for 10 year olds?
Nicole Yeah but somebody has to go with (Mary Yeah) because if youre alone there and you play
alone then you can get robbed
Katie . . . or attacked. (Extract from a focus group with six girls aged 10 11)

Primary school teacher 30, 40 years ago I dont think parents were worried about their kids getting
kidnapped on the way home from school, whereas some parents get worried if they live three houses
away, they come and pick their kids up as they dont want them to walk which is a pity. (interview with
a primary school teacher in Fish Hoek)

Although individual childrens mobility in outdoor space was variable and inuenced by a
number of factors (see Benwell 2009), a common theme discussed in research sessions was the
necessity of having adult accompaniment when outdoors. This accompanied mobility was
Childrens Geographies 39

reassuring for children and was perceived to provide protection against potential dangers. The
focus-group extract given above is representative of how children growing up in the Cape Penin-
sula associated outdoor environments, such as parks, with places where one might be robbed or
assaulted if visiting alone or with friends. Children learnt about these dangers from an array of
sources (of varying reliability) including images in newspaper articles and television news
reports, as well as stories recounted by parents, teachers and friends. Interestingly, children
read the media in sophisticated ways, identifying their capacity to sensationalise and misrepresent
certain issues in the local area, yet stories/rumours about incidences of violence and crime were
extremely inuential in promulgating a sense of fear.
In this way, then, being accompanied by adults was not referred to negatively or seen as inhi-
biting, rather for some children, it was a prerequisite to venturing outside and thus enabled their
outdoor engagements. Indeed, many children referred to how much they enjoyed spending time
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with their family outdoors, as the presence of brothers, sisters and the extended family made these
occasions more exciting. Clearly, views about the presence of adults might have varied if the
study participants had been slightly older and if the societal anxieties with security were not as
pronounced as they were in the Cape Peninsula.
Once again, children were unable to make comparisons with alternative scenarios regarding the
nature and extent of their outdoor mobility. The accounts of adults were more revealing in this sense
and often exposed frustration at the limited opportunities that children had to independently engage
with outdoor space, especially when compared with those in the previous eras (similar childhood
romanticism by adults has been documented by Valentine 2004). The quotation given above, drawn
from an interview with a primary school teacher in Fish Hoek, illustrates the ways in which some
adults bemoaned the spatial restrictions that children now faced. The specic socio-political history
of South Africa also requires consideration in this instance, given that the interviewee was a white
male and had grown up in Fish Hoek. He makes reference to a period 30 40 years ago when, under
the apartheid regime, Fish Hoek was situated in an area reserved for the white population which
came with particular privileges and protections provided by the state (i.e. security measures
enforced through policing and by the South African Defence Force to ensure the security of the
white population). References to relative levels of childhood freedom must take into consideration
these racial and spatial cleavages which have marked South African geographies.
The requirement for adult accompaniment when children went outdoors placed a burden on
parents in terms of the planning and time commitment involved. This became clear during a
neighbourhood walkabout in Fish Hoek with Sarah, aged 10:

Sarah told me that she was not able to come outside to play with friends without the presence of an
adult. Her mother was almost always the one that came with her to the park or the eld when she
wanted to go; her father was usually too busy or tired to come with her. She said that her mother
usually laid a blanket down on the ground and watched them (Sarah and a friend) play on the eld
next to the middle school. Sarah said she felt safe when her mum was nearby in case any strangers
approached. (Field diary extract, 8 August 2005)

The restriction on Sarahs independent mobility stemmed from her mothers anxiety with stran-
gers walking through the neighbourhood and her daughters perceived inability to negotiate the
Peninsulas busy roads. Sarahs mother did concede that the extent of their protection denied her
daughter the opportunity to independently learn about how to deal with the surrounding environ-
ment, compounding their collective anxiety (see Sharpe and Tranter 2010). In the above extract,
Sarah refers to her accompanied trips to the public park in Fish Hoek located a few hundred
metres from their home. The adult accompanying Sarah was almost always her or her friends
mother, reecting the gendered nature of this supervision (Aitkin 2000; Valentine 1997b). There
40 M.C. Benwell

was some limited evidence that mothers shared responsibilities to accompany their children in
outdoor space, although this was not very widespread. Far more common were instances of children
being transported to friends homes or local attractions to play in private, enclosed outdoor environ-
ments. Parents in more remote parts of the Cape Peninsula, in particular, tended to ferry their chil-
dren to outdoor play spaces (e.g. the childrens playground at Fish Hoek beach) in the car because of
the lack of safe and suitable play areas in the immediate vicinity.

Conclusion
The nal point here prompts consideration of what these accounts from individual children and
adults say about the broader context of childrens geographies. There were clearly exceptional
levels of sensitivity to perceived insecurity in this part of the Cape Peninsula (when compared
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with childrens geographies in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and so on), yet some of the obser-
vations reect wider societal changes which are shaping childhoods elsewhere. For example,
environments increasingly dominated by the car and the privatisation/commodication of play
space have been inuential in promoting an individualistic ethos in parts of the minority
world, with its concomitant effects on childhood and childrens mobility (Hart 2002; Valentine
2004). This individualism is reected in strategies used by adults when taking their children out-
doors in the Cape Peninsula. There was generally a heavy reliance on the car to transport children
to other places, due in part to the lack of outdoor opportunities in their immediate neighbourhood
or to avoid the dangers that children might have encountered there. The challenges that parents
faced in terms of time commitments and organisation are not insubstantial in enabling these
kinds of outdoor mobilities, yet changing dominant ideas and habits regarding the communitys
use of outdoor space could alleviate such difculties.
It may be benecial to think through the ways in which childrens mobility in suburban neigh-
bourhoods could be seen as a collective responsibility, in ways similar to Oriels circumstances
outlined above. Suburban areas of South Africa effectively promote vigilance in the community
through neighbourhood watch schemes, but these typically prioritise the protection of private
property. Such community togetherness might be harnessed for arguably more positive ends,
by encouraging the collective and organised supervision of children in suburban environments.
Of course, to facilitate greater community engagement with outdoor space, more complex
issues would also need addressing such as the poor state of public play areas and the inhospitable
physical design of properties in suburban areas of South Africa. These often do not facilitate inter-
action between families living in the neighbourhood and are further evidence of the individualism
which impedes childrens mobility.
These suggestions do not serve to downplay the signicance of the skills that children learn
when they are not directly under the adult gaze (see Jones 2000). It is critical not to lose sight of
how essential these autonomous experiences are for children and we should strive to create geo-
graphies which enable some amount of independent engagement with outdoor space. However,
there is a need to think about what is realistic in the short to medium term given the intractable
societal obstacles which impinge on childhood mobility, especially in the South African suburban
context. In their work on childrens active transport, Sharpe and Tranter (2010) suggest that adults
should be encouraged to engage with their surroundings by cycling or walking with children. This
may not promote childrens independent mobility, but it does provide benets for children and the
wider community in terms of increasing physical activity and direct engagement with the neigh-
bourhood, as well as reducing pollution and congestion. Therefore, debates about childhood
and childrens use of outdoor space could be made more practically applicable by thinking
about solutions which implicate and change the behaviour of adults and children, instead
of focusing exclusively on childrens independent mobility (Sharpe and Tranter 2010). This
Childrens Geographies 41

means undertaking research with adults and children, considering their voices collectively in
research in order to more fully comprehend concepts such as authority, autonomy, restriction
and structure.
The research presented in this paper illustrates how signicant it was to avoid making assump-
tions about childrens varied experiences of autonomy and restriction. The children participating
in this study were not always seeking to resist adult authority; nor were they necessarily entirely
comfortable with being watched by adults and some made explicit reference to their resistance
strategies. Studies exploring childrens use of outdoor space could be more sensitive to adult-
imposed structure rather than essentialising it, almost ideologically, as the hegemonic expropria-
tion of public space as adult space (Skelton and Hamed 2011). Such theorisations need to avoid
routinely reinforcing the adults versus children narrative that has so often prevailed in the social
studies of childhood literature. The behaviour of adults does not always and everywhere impinge
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upon the lives of children in negative ways, and when it does, childrens geographers should con-
tinue to suggest realistic alternative geographies that are more permeable, heterogeneous and
tolerant of otherness (Jones 2000, 44). Thus, this paper is a call for researchers to interrogate
the intricacies and complexities of their participants experiences in outdoor environments and,
perhaps, to be more prepared to contradict or unsettle the established arguments that have pre-
vailed in the subeld of Childrens Geographies.

Acknowledgements
I am indebted to the ESRC for funding my doctoral research. I thank Professor Klaus Dodds and Professor
Katie Willis and three anonymous reviewers who provided thorough and constructive criticism. Finally, I
thank my research participants without whom this paper would not have been possible.

Note
1. All names replaced with pseudonyms.

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